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Physical Appearance In The Workplace

Published February 18, 2021 (last updated on April 26, 2024) | Adam Wyatt - Copywriter and Content Creator


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 purely a reflection of cultural identity and family ties. 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 and encourage a professional appearance.

Employers cannot discriminate with regards to protected attributes, but an employer can specify that prospective employees have certain characteristics necessary to allow the job to be performed to the required standard. On the other hand, employees are human, and also need the freedom to express their own individuality as well as their cultural identity. But what if the freedom to express yourself is 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 and document them in a policy manual or employee handbook. This not only sets the dress standards an employee must meet, but may also indicate whether visible tattoos and piercings are acceptable in the employee’s specific role. If your employee is in a customer-facing role and you feel that visible tattoos and piercings will affect an employee’s performance or ability to perform their job, then it may be reasonable to request that tattoos  be covered or piercings removed unless they have cultural significance.

Not all tattoos in the workplace can be judged by the same standards. Some are religious and/or cultural, and failing to recognise this could still very quickly see you falling foul of anti-discrimination laws on the basis of indirect discrimination, so you need to show awareness and sensitivity and be prepared to offer some exceptions to any rules or policies on a case-by-case basis if it is a matter of cultural or religious significance. Instead of having a blanket rule and explicitly stating tattoos are banned, it’s best if you draft a workplace policy on the importance of your company’s image from the viewpoint of an objective and reasonable customer, and emphasise how appearance and attire can either enhance or diminish that image and offer avenues to resolve any issues.

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

Even though beards are currently in vogue, 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 health and safety  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. Similarly, there may also be reasonable grounds for directing employees to shave or wear a beard cover in the food industry for hygiene purposes.  However, keeping in mind if a beard is of cultural or religious significance, the employer should consider all available alternatives which can accommodate beards safely, such as beard coverings or full face masks.

But if there are no health and safety issues, and you have specified through formal means (i.e. a policy manual or employee handbook), that there’s a physical standard employees are required to meet, 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 should be defined in a policy manual or employee handbook,  and made clear 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.

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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 is in a policy manual or 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.

Employers should still be cautious; you can enforce reasonable appearance and dress policies through a procedurally fair process, so you 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), and steps must be taken to avoid either.

If you would like to discuss dress and appearance safeguards in your workplace, call Employsure today on 0800 568 012. 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 the   dress and appearance policy  in the policy manual or employee handbook that has been clearly outlined to the employee, and this policy is applied in a non-discriminatory and procedurally fair 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.

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 visible tattoos or remove piercings that are of no cultural or religious significance as part of the policy manual or employee handbook. 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.

As long as you have a clear, consistently enforced and reasonable policy enshrined in the policy manual or employee handbook, that is applied equally to all employees, then as an employer you can ask an employee to remove their visible 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 workplace dress and appearance policy in the policy manual or employee handbook, 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 and in the employment agreement.

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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