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Mullets, tattoos, piercings: how much can bosses dictate workplace appearance?

As physical markers like tattoos and piercings become increasingly common, employees find themselves at odds between self-expression and representing a workplace professionally. After all, they are often considered the ‘face’ of the business.

But does this necessarily mean employers get a say in how employees present themselves? Can an employer tell you to remove your tattoos, shave your beard, or get rid of your mullet?

When a frustrated employee recently asked this question on Reddit, the post received dozens of responses from Australians with similar experiences.

“Dude I worked with back in the day was told off for wearing shorts on a hot day in a hot store. So he started to wear a skirt,” shared one user.

“Yeah, I had a ‘boss’ like this once… Would come in almost daily and point out stuff like shoes not (being) company policy, highlight any slight mistake aloud in front of the entire office like a kindergarten teacher,” lamented another user.

Employers are within their rights to outline a clear dress code or workplace appearance policy to a certain extent. This dress code can extend beyond clothing and uniform to tattoos, hairstyles, facial hair, and piercings, especially for work health and safety, hygiene, or branding reasons. In some industries, such as carpentry or electric work, employers could be deemed negligent for not enforcing a dress code.

While it can differ between organisations and industries, many employers believe a neat and professional appearance reflects a company’s reputation. Many link this to greater client confidence and improved business interactions.

The problem arises when employees feel singled out because of their personal characteristics. According to the Fair Work Act 2009, it is unlawful to discriminate against any employee based on race, gender, colour, marital status, religion, and other areas. Dress codes are expected to be implemented within reason in a way that does not disadvantage certain employees.

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“This can be a complicated, controversial issue for many workplaces,” said Professor Greg Bamber of Monash Business School.*

“Key points/ considerations for bosses to keep in mind when approaching such issues is that any ‘rule’ or requests should be reasonable and fair.”

Professor Bamber highlights two important questions for bosses to consider: what is the type of role? Does the tattoo, beard, or piercing impact the ability of the person to do their job?

“As an example: when an excellent Monash University graduate ‘Fred’ was working for a major Australian bank, his boss told him that he had to shave off his beard or else he would be disciplined and could be dismissed. Fred politely said that this was discrimination and not a reasonable request, that having a neat beard did not interfere with his work as a banker. 

“Nonetheless, the boss persisted with his criticism, which caused Fred stress, so he asked his union representative to assist. The union representative ‘Mary’ showed the boss a picture of the bank’s’ founders in the nineteenth century. These men all had beards, which had not interfered with them founding such a successful bank!” said Professor Bamber.

Non-compliance with dress codes despite reasonable direction from an employer can eventually lead to termination of employment. But, as with all disciplinary proceedings, bosses must account for cultural and religious factors. Physical appearance in specific is not covered in the Fair Work Act (except for Victoria due to the Equal Opportunity Act 2010), but instances like Maori facial tattoos or beards for religious reasons must be considered.

These anti-discrimination rules extend to all employees, including full-time, part-time, casual employees, contractors, probationary employees, apprentices, and trainees.

What can employers do?

The best practice is to clearly outline an acceptable dress and appearance policy in a handbook available to all employees. It should also be made clear to employees during the recruitment process. The policy should apply equally across all genders in a non-discriminatory manner.

*Greg Bamber is a Professor, Monash Business School, Monash University and co-editor of International & Comparative Employment Relations: Global Crises & Institutional Responses.

This article does not constitute legal or financial advice. For questions and inquiries, we strongly recommend you seek advice from your lawyer or employment law service provider.

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Rhea Laxmi Nath

Rhea Laxmi Nath

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