Is It Illegal to Not Hire Someone Because of Tattoos? (as of 2023)

There’s little to no doubt that, as far as the acceptance of tattoos in society goes, we’ve come a long way already. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost four in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo.

However, some studies conducted in the same period reveal that despite the increasing popularity of tattoos, there’s still a lot of discrimination against people with them – especially in the workplace. One of these, a 2021 research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, revealed that there’s a massive gap between the chances of getting hired for a senior position amongst female applicants with visible tattoos and those ink-free.

It’s no wonder then, that there are still many people who believe that having visible tattoos can be detrimental to one’s career prospects.

So, what’s the deal? Is it legal to not hire someone because of tattoos?

The answer, unsurprisingly, isn’t that straightforward.

Note: This article focuses on the laws in the US only. While most countries have a similar approach, it’s best to consult your local regulations.

Is It Illegal to Not Hire Someone Because of Tattoos?

Despite what the mainstream information would lead you to believe, people with visible tattoos often have a smaller chance of scoring a job than those without them – especially if we’re talking about senior positions.

Let’s call a spade a spade – discrimination against people with tattoos is still a thing. Now, while it’s easy to chalk this up to the good ol’ fashioned close-mindedness of some people, the truth is that there’s more to it than that. In many cases, employers are legally allowed to discriminate against tattooed applicants.

As things stand, refusing to hire someone because of their ink is not illegal. This is because tattooed people are not a protected class under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This means that, in most cases, employers are well within their rights to refuse to hire someone because of their ink and they can be open about it.

There are, however, some caveats to this.

Not All Tattoos Can Be Discriminated Against

So you might wonder: are there any instances in which your employer-to-be wouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against your tattoos?

The answer is yes, and it has to do with the content of the tattoo itself.

The aforementioned Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people against discrimination based on certain protected characteristics:

  • race
  • color
  • religion
  • sex
  • national origin

So, while it is technically legal to refuse to hire someone because of their tattoos in most cases, refusing to hire someone because of a large “I Love Jesus” tattoo on their forearm, for example, would be a form of religious discrimination and, as such, would be illegal.

A visible tattoo with your country’s flag on it would be a form of national origin discrimination, and refusing to hire someone because they have a “feminist” tattoo could be sex discrimination.

These are just some examples, but the point is that if an employer refuses to hire you because of your tattoos, you could potentially have a case for discrimination – but only if your tattoo falls under one of the protected characteristic categories mentioned above.

So, whereas in most cases it is perfectly legal for an employer to discriminate against people with tattoos, there are some circumstances in which doing so would be illegal.

Is It Legal to Ask an Employee to Cover Tattoos?

The number of workplaces easing up on their policies regarding visible tattoos is on the rise, but there are still many places of employment that have strict rules about them.

For example, a large chunk of the airline industry (eg. American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Frontier) still requires the tattoos of their employees to be covered while on the job.

Again, is this fully legal?

Although many people will see this as discrimination based on appearance, the answer is yes – in most cases, employers are well within their rights to ask employees to cover their tattoos while at work.

In general, businesses have the right to place limitations on how their workers should dress and present themselves while at work. The legitimacy of employers’ interests in ensuring that their employees portray a professional image is acknowledged by courts.

Businesses may enforce clothing and grooming standards they deem necessary to uphold or further their brand, image, principles, or goal. Employers have a lot of discretion when creating workplace dress requirements, including prohibitions on body art.

Although it is permissible for an employer to implement such rules, the employer nevertheless has to exercise caution. They are required to implement the policies without making any distinctions based on any of the protected classes listed in the Civil Rights Act.

Federal vs State Laws

Employee protection is provided by a variety of laws, not just federal law. Laws are also adopted in this area by state and municipal governments.

As things stand, we’re not aware of any state that has its own specific law on this issue that would override the federal laws we’ve discussed.

The number of states, counties, and municipalities, however, that go above and beyond the federal anti-discrimination employment legislation is steadily increasing.

There are new statutes against job discrimination based on a person’s physical appearance in the District of Columbia, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It is unclear if the new regulations against physical appearance-based discrimination against employees would directly address tattoos.

Do You Have a Tattoo Discrimination Case?

If you believe that you’ve been discriminated against because of your tattoos, the first step is to gather as much evidence as possible. This could include things like email communications, text messages, or even recordings of conversations in which the employer made it clear that they were not interested in hiring you because of your ink.

Once you have this evidence, the next step is to reach out to an experienced discrimination attorney who can help you understand your legal options and determine whether or not you have a case.

Tattoo discrimination is still a real problem in today’s workplace, but it’s important to remember that in most cases, it is perfectly legal. However, there are some circumstances in which refusing to hire someone because of their tattoos could be illegal – so if you believe you’ve been a victim of such discrimination, make sure to reach out to an experienced attorney who can help you protect your rights.

If you’re a tattooed person looking for a job and want to minimize the risk of being discriminated against, companies like Amazon, Home Depot, and Walmart offer a very tattoo-friendly approach.