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Physical Appearance in the Workplace

Published August 20, 2020 (last updated on April 26, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Content Writer


In today’s society, tattoos and piercings seem to be more prevalent than ever before. Long gone are the days when a bit of ink or a body piercing was the domain of the rebel or outcast. These days, you’re just as likely to discuss your taxes or be sold a house by a person with a tattoo or piercing.

As an employer, though, you’re only too aware that first impressions count, especially when it comes to the success of your business. Employees are typically the ‘face’ of your business, so it is natural to want to try and control that image. Likewise, though, they are human, and also need the freedom to express their own individuality. But when does the freedom to express individuality become at odds with the need to represent a workplace professionally?

This is where things can get tricky – but they don’t have to.

Can You Set a Physical Appearance Policy?

In short – yes. It is within your rights as an employer to set a clear, concise dress and appearance policy, and it’s a good idea to present these policies to all prospective employees. This not only sets the dress standards he or she must meet, but will also indicate whether tattoos and piercings are acceptable. If you feel that tattoos and piercings will affect an employee’s performance or ability to perform their job, then you can request that they be covered or removed.

Bear in mind, however, that not all tattoos can be judged by the same standards. Some are religious and/or cultural, and failing to recognise this could very quickly see you falling afoul of anti-discrimination laws, so you need to show awareness and sensitivity and be prepared to offer some exceptions to any rules or policies. Instead of having a blanket rule and explicitly stating tattoos are banned, it’s best if you emphasise the importance of your company’s image, and how appearance and attire can either enhance or diminish that image.

The same is true of hairstyles, hair colours and wardrobe.

Even though ‘Movember’ is great for a worthwhile charity, facial hair can quickly become a headache for employers.

So can you ask your employees to shave? This depends on the industry they are in, and the role they are undertaking. For instance, in construction if you are working around airborne contaminants, you are required to wear a mask for WHS purposes and facial hair may impede the mask’s protection. In this instance, the employer can ask you to shave your beard for health and safety reasons.

But if there are no safety issues, and you have specified through formal means (i.e. your Employee’s Handbook) that there’s a physical standard employees are required to meet, and you are not in Victoria – which has legislation that has physical appearance as a protected characteristic, then you can request a clean shaven face.  However, employers should be careful asking this, as beards often may be associated with religious beliefs/cultural standards and may cause racial/religious discrimination

But what about hairdos? The same holds true. If it’s an extreme cut or colour, then it needs to be defined in your employee handbook and outlined to your employees, ideally from the moment they are offered employment. You should set the standards yourself, as well as always make yourself available for questions in case your employees are unsure of what is and isn’t acceptable. In fact, if they’re unsure then they should always consult their line manager before any extreme changes are made to their physical appearance that may impact their employment.

How Can Physical Appearance Affect an Employee’s Job?

There’s no getting around it: having a neat and professional image benefits both the employee and your company’s reputation and image. Quite aside from any beauty bias or supposed halo effect, a well-kept, professional appearance delivers substantial benefits in all social interactions. This can lead to customers and clients feeling more confident in that employee which, in turn, enhances the confidence they feel in your business. The flow on effect is that the employee – assuming they can carry out the requirements of the role in the first place –  becomes more effective at their job, simply because they look professional.

Of course, what constitutes a ‘well-kept, professional appearance’ will differ, depending on the role and industry. For instance, you would expect a law firm to have a different interpretation of professional appearance than a tattoo parlour. In the end you, as the employer, set the standard and tone.

How Can I Avoid Physical Appearance Discrimination?

The simplest way is to outline acceptable dress and appearance policies in an employee handbook, and ensure every employee has a readily accessible copy. While dress codes and grooming requirements are legally permitted, they must be enforced in a non-discriminatory fashion and equally across all genders.

In Victoria only, legislation forbids you from discriminating against any employee or job applicant based on height, weight, size, shape, facial features, hair or birthmarks. In this instance, when ‘hair’ is mentioned, it is in relation to asking someone to dye their hair because it is going/is grey (which could also lead to accusations of age discrimination). Through case law it has been determined that this extends to tattoos.

However, this does not mean employers in the states where this is allowed should be telling employees to lose weight, cut their hair, etc. whenever they feel like it. They should still be cautious; we recommend enforcing appearance and dress policies through the EE handbook etc. and they should avoid discriminatory policies, eg women should only wear skirts. There is such a thing as direct discrimination (I won’t hire X race) and indirect discrimination (indirect discrimination includes discriminatory policies in the workplace). We also recommend a policy regarding dress and appearance to avoid religious, sex, age discrimination etc that are prohibited in all states.

If you would like to discuss dress and appearance safeguards in your workplace, call Employsure today on 1300 651 415. We can help you implement policies and procedures that will set a professional standard for all your employees’ physical appearance that is appropriate for your business and industry.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is Having Piercings and Tattoos Legal in The Workplace?

Yes. It is legal, but then, it is also legal for an employer to ask for a piercing to be removed or a tattoo to be covered during work time, provided that not doing so contravenes a dress and appearance policy that has been clearly outlined to the employee, and this policy is applied in a non-discriminatory way (e.g. not singling someone out due to cultural tattoos, etc). Piercings and tattoos may also present a health and safety issue in the workplace (e.g. in food preparation or handling) and as such an employer may request them to be removed or covered.

The Fair Work Act 2009 does not protect employees from discrimination based on physical appearance. Religious and/or cultural tattoos and piercings are another matter and asking for the removal or covering of these could be deemed religious or racial discrimination.

Can I Ask an Employee to Remove Their Piercings?

Yes. There are no laws preventing employers from asking employees to cover tattoos or remove piercings. Employers can request employees to remove piercings on health and safety grounds, e.g. they may present a health and safety hazard in food preparation and handling.

The Fair Work Act 2009 does not protect employees from discrimination based on physical appearance, although Victoria does have separate legislation that counts physical appearance as a protected characteristic. As long as you have a clear, consistently enforced and reasonable policy that is applied equally to all genders, then as an employer you can ask an employee to remove their piercings while at work.

What Hair Colours Are Considered Inappropriate/Unprofessional at Work?

This is probably easier to answer by stating what hair colours are generally appropriate, which are the natural colours: blonde, brown, black, natural red and grey. However, it’s very important to note that hair colour really depends on the company culture. What is acceptable for a hip fashion brand store may not be deemed appropriate for an accounting firm. Again, this should be outlined in a dress and appearance policy and applied in a non-discriminatory way

What Is A Professional Appearance?

Professional appearance is the way an employee grooms, dresses and carries themselves while at work or representing your business. An employee’s appearance impacts how clients and customers see your business. To that end, professional appearance could be termed proper grooming and attire appropriate to your workplace, business culture and brand. Each organisation/type of business has its own set of standards, including customer service and professionalism, which varies from industry to industry. As the employer, it is up to you to set the standards you wish to maintain, then ensure all employees maintain those standards.

What Is Considered Appropriate Business Attire?

Business attire is the wardrobe that is appropriate for your workplace. It differs from workplace to workplace, industry to industry and contains many different types of clothing that are appropriate/inappropriate, depending on circumstances. For example, an advertising agency may deem a suit as appropriate for a client presentation but too formal for everyday business.

What is appropriate attire for your workplace should be set out in a written dress and appearance code.

What Are the Most Common Types of Business Attire?

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. How formal your workplace or industry is, as well as the employee’s position, dictates how formal the business attire will be. However, here are a few guidelines:

Business Formal (Men):

  • Formal suit, tie, and business shirt
  • Upscale sports jacket, dress pants, tie, and business shirt
  • Leather dress shoes

Business Formal (Women):

  • Skirt suit
  • Formal business blouse or top
  • Stockings
  • Closed-toe leather shoes

Smart Casual (Men):

  • Sports jacket with a tie
  • Dress pants
  • Button-down or traditional business shirt
  • Dress shoes

Smart Casual (Women):

  • Jacket
  • Dress pants or skirt
  • Blouse or shirt
  • Hose
  • Dress shoes

Business Casual (Men):

  • Khakis or dress pants
  • Shirts with collars or polo shirts
  • Sweaters

Business Casual (Women):

  • Nice pants or skirt
  • Blouse or sweater
  • Attractive leather shoes

Casual (Men):

  • Casual pants
  • Jeans
  • Shirt/t-shirt
  • Casual shoes

Casual (Women):

  • Casual pants/skirt
  • Jeans
  • Blouse or top, or sweater
  • Casual shoes

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