If you have visible tattoos or piercings, you may wonder whether your employer can fire you because of your tattoos and piercings, or make you cover up while at work. Whether your employer can or can’t depends on the employer’s dress code and grooming policies.

Employer Dress Code and Grooming Policies

Most companies have a dress code policy, although standards can vary widely depending on the industry. In general, employers can set their dress code and grooming policies to reflect their company culture so long as they don’t discriminate based on a protected class. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees based on sex, race, color, national origin, or national origin. Some states such as California have even strict standards, which also disallows discrimination based on age, religion, marital status, disability, medical conditions, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Some employers have specific policies about employee tattoos and piercings. For instance, an employer may require its employees to cover all visible tattoos and piercings when working directly with customers or clients. The requirement is legal so long as it is not discriminatory. If a policy only requires employees to cover tattoos that include Chinese symbols, it is discriminatory based on national origin.

What if Your Employer Enforces a Dress Code Inconsistently?

An employer who inconsistently enforces the dress code policy relating to tattoos and piercings may be found liable for discrimination. Let’s say a male employee is fired for his piercings and tattoos. Notwithstanding, his female employees with piercings and tattoos do not receive any negative consequences. In that case, the decision to fire the male employee and turn a blind eye to the female employee’s violation of dress code policies can be evidence of discrimination based on gender.

What If Your Piercings or Tattoo are Part of Your Religion?

Under Title VII, it is illegal to discriminate based on one’s religion. If a tattoo or piercing is part of an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against that employee based on his or her piercing/tattoos. In fact, the employer must reasonably accommodate the employee, unless it would cause the employer undue hardship.

Freedom of Speech and Expression

It’s a common misnomer when people argue that someone is infringing on their freedom of speech or expression by not allowing them to speak. While the First Amendment includes a “freedom of speech” clause, the text of the amendment states that Congress can make no law “abridging freedom of speech.” In that regard, the Amendment only regulates governments, not private employers.

For instance, let’s say you work as a government employee and you have a tattoo that says, “Black Lives Matter” on your arm. Because the tattoo is a method of speech, and you are a government worker, it is illegal for your employer (the government) to fire you because of your tattoo. In the alternative, if you were a Starbucks employee, you could be fired for the same tattoo if it violates company dress code.

Do I Need an Attorney?

If you think you’ve been wrongly discriminated against based on your tattoos or piercings, seek out a skilled discrimination lawyers. An attorney can help assess your situation and determine whether you have a valid claim.