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Tattoos in the Australian Workplace – Policies for Māori Tattoos and Other Body Art

Tattoos in the workplace can be a sensitive subject, with many people believing that they are unacceptable in professional settings. When you recruit for a role, you want to find the best possible applicant. But what if they have Māori tattoos or other highly visible body art? This article tells you more!

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Why do tattoos matter?

As an employer, you want to make sure your staff represent you well and in line with your company expectations, especially those employees in customer-facing roles. On the other hand, you also want to avoid discrimination and potentially tarnishing your employer brand. If your first recruitment step is a phone interview, the applicant’s physical characteristics may, of course, not be immediately obvious. But if you notice distinct body art or a noticeable Māori tattoo once you meet your potential new hire in person, how should you proceed?

Who has tattoos?

According to a 2018 survey conducted by research firm McCrindle, 20% of Australians now have one or more tattoos. That means one in five potential employees today is tattooed. Certainly a large enough number to give the topic thorough consideration! Despite the increasing popularity of tattoos among the general Australian public, stereotypes are still ripe, and many inked individuals are judged negatively purely because of their appearance. Although public perception is slowly changing and people are becoming more accepting of their tattooed peers, body art still attracts a fair amount of stigma even today. And, not surprisingly, this issue extends to the workplace too.

No tattoos at work policy

Employers are usually concerned with their reputation and their public image. They worry that customers might be offended or put off when dealing with a noticeably inked employee. Although times are changing and body modification is becoming increasingly popular, tattoos and other body art are still not always considered appropriate when it comes to projecting a professional image. As part of their dress code, many Australian companies have a policy in place that prohibits any visible tattoos in the workplace. This requires staff to cover up any ink on their body that could be noticed as part of their regular activities on the job. For most workers, this is easily done. But what if you come across an applicant with tattoos in obvious places that cannot be hidden, such as Māori tattoos?

What are Māori tattoos?

Tā moko is the name of the permanent markings or tattoos as traditionally practised by the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Due to the close geographic proximity and close ties between both countries, there were approximately 140,000–170,000 people with Māori ancestry living in Australia in 2013 and, according to New Zealand’s Ministry of Māori Development, 84% of them between the ages of 25 and 54 years were employed in Australia. As tā moko are often found on the face, they are very noticeable. In fact, to a Māori, a moko on the face is the ultimate statement of identity because the head is considered the most sacred part of the body. Typically, the left side of the face depicts the father’s history and the right side the mother’s history. A moko represents ancestral tribal messages specific to the wearer. These messages tell the story of their family and tribal affiliations and indicate their place in the Māori social structures. Māori tattoos are therefore hugely significant and demand cultural respect.

Tattoo best practices in the workplace

Employers are, of course, entitled to choose who represents them and to prescribe uniform standards that may include a ban on tattoos and other body art. Customer-facing and corporate environments are often the least accepting of visible body art, while employers in the creative sector tend to be more likely to accept ink on their staff as a form of self-expression. Australia has no national laws that make it illegal for employers to ban visible body ink in the workplace or to reject applicants because of their tattoos. However, some forms of body art – especially tā moko Māori tattoos – have cultural or religious significance for the wearer, and then the issue requires a more nuanced approach.

Set clear rules and expectations

Make sure your policies and guidelines concerning tattoos in your company are clear to both job applicants and current staff members. Consider the following:

  • Provide a sound business reason for your dress code and inking guidelines. Reasonable dress codes are generally accepted and commonplace in most organisations.
  • Keep your rules sufficiently flexible to accommodate your employees’ religious or cultural commitments. Again, don’t be unreasonable, and exercise sound judgement here.
  • When you decide to update or revise your body art policies, accommodate your current employees who have had tattoos for years. You may even be legally unable to enforce new policies for such employees.
  • Give your staff the option to cover up tattoos if needed rather than outright prohibiting them.
  • Be consistent in your approach. It’s not a good idea to allow some tattoos but not others. Keep things uniform across the board and treat everyone equally.

Avoid discrimination

Although employers are within their rights to prescribe dress codes and ban tattoos in their workplace, it’s important that any rules that affect tattooed individuals don’t amount to discrimination. As an employer, you should be careful in how you draft your company policies and rules so that they cannot be misinterpreted as you dismissing or discriminating against a (potential) worker based on their ethnicity. In general, Australian anti-discrimination legislation does not offer applicants and employees protection for their physical appearance, including tattoos and piercings. What it does state, though, is that ‘it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a number of protected attributes including age, disability, race, sex, intersex status, gender identity and sexual orientation in certain areas of public life, including education and employment.’ So, if someone can prove that their body ink is linked to their race, ethnic or social origin, then they might have a case. This will most definitely be true for individuals with traditional Māori tattoos. For example, if a Māori job applicant with visible tattoos connected to their ethnic origin is not hired because of their tattoos, this could be considered discrimination on the basis of race.

Legal decisions regarding tattoos in the workplace

If you work in human resources or are otherwise responsible for hiring, it’s very likely that you’ll sooner or later be faced with the choice of whether or not to hire a suitable applicant with an obvious tattoo. It’s worth taking a closer look at some public cases and legal rulings that made the headlines in Australia in the past when you find yourself weighing up your options.

  • In a much-publicised case, a young Gold Coast woman was refused a position as a flight attendant with both Emirates and Qantas because of a small tattoo on her ankle. The Fair Work Ombudsman upheld the airlines’ decisions and ruled that they were indeed free to reject applicants because of their tattoos.
  • ABC News reported the story of a young man who was asked to leave a business conference because his extensive tattoos raised fears that he may have criminal connections.
  • The national president of Māori Wardens Australia, a group dedicated to providing a community for Māori people, reported that he was immediately told that a role he applied for was no longer available when the interviewer spotted his facial tattoos.
  • In another case from across the ditch, Air New Zealand refused to consider a suitably qualified woman for a customer service role out of concern a tattoo on her upper back would potentially have been visible if she wore the company uniform. This should have come as no surprise, as just a few years earlier, another job applicant was reportedly dismissed from an interview with the same company because she had a Māori tattoo on her arm.

Remember: The Australian Human Rights Commission specifically states that an employer with a policy to refuse Māori applicants with tattoos for reasons connected to their ethnic origins could be guilty of racial discrimination.

Times are changing – or are they?

Interestingly, a more recent study by the University of Miami and the University of Western Australia found that having a tattoo no longer necessarily leads to a disadvantage when it comes to employment. Although this study may not be representative of all regions and sectors, it gives hope that times are changing and organisations – and the public at large – are becoming more accepting of inked applicants.

Age

Naturally, the younger generations tend to be more open to tattooed workers – not least because they are more likely to be inked themselves! Although some seniors might choose to take their business elsewhere if they are prejudiced against tattoos, the marketplace for younger consumers is just as large, if not larger, than that of the 60+ category. Consider who your target audience is and whether tattoos are even of concern for them.

Industry

In some industries, self-expression in the form of tattoos may actually be an advantage! Creative contractors, for example, are judged less on their appearance than corporate professionals. When, say, the services of a graphic designer or a music promoter are required, a tattoo may suggest artistic talent and creative expression – a clear plus in those areas!

Cultural understanding

In the case of Māori tattoos, in particular, hiring staff members with tā moko may foster acceptance of other cultures in your workplace and create a more inclusive environment. Given the cultural diversity in Australia, expressions of other cultures and ethnic backgrounds should be celebrated and a tolerant attitude promoted wherever possible. Related: How Hiring For ‘Culture Add’ Can Help Your Business Outshine the Rest Finding good employees should be mostly focused on their skills and personality to determine whether they’re a good fit for your workplace and the particular role you’re recruiting for, and not so much on their appearance. Although you’re entitled to enforce dress code policies, refusing an applicant because of a cultural tattoo, such as the Māori tā moko, may be considered discrimination. If in doubt, refer to the Fair Work Ombudsman website for detailed information on discrimination in the Australian workplace.

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