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Germany

Can A Tattoo Get You Fired?

After a prospective police candidate was banned for a tattoo, Germany debates workplace appearance rules as the number of young employees with tattoos is exploding.

Free (and jobless) as a bird?
Free (and jobless) as a bird?
Johanna Bruckner and Lisa Rüffer

BERLINS'il te plaît ... apprivoise-moi! ("Please, tame me!") reads the large tattoo on the woman’s forearm. It’s a French quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. And the woman from Darmstadt, in her late 20s, recently learned that a local court considered her tattoo too prominent for her to be hired as a police officer.

The Darmstadt judge thus rejected the woman’s official complaint to being told she could not be admitted to the admission process for Germany’s federal police academy. The would-be candidate had accused the authority of abusing her rights of free expression and her right of access to a public authority. The judge stated that the police academy’s reaction had been understandable.

The decision opens up a number of questions, such as: What tattoos risk being a career killer, and what can an employer properly forbid?

It's no longer a minor question or a niche demographic. A survey last month revealed that of those in the 25 to 34-year old age group, 22% had tattoos, and in general the trend is on the increase. The study, conducted by Germany’s Society for Consumer Research for dermatologists at the University of Bochum also found that the practice cuts across all social and income demographics. The tattoo has become mainstream.

"There are a lot more people than you think with tattoos that are simply not visible when they’re dressed," says Thomas März of the "Tempel München" tattoo studio. And he warns: "You want to think very carefully about anything that is visible."

In the German working world, employers really do have the right to their say about an employee’s appearance, says Christian Götz, a labor law expert with the large Verdi trade union. "The employer is lord of the work space and can determine what public image of the company or institution they want." Rules are particularly strict for public service employees and functionaries.

"Some tattoos on police officers really can create a certain impression that can’t be reconciled with their role," Götz says.

And what about beards?

In the case of the plaintiff from Darmstadt the court argued that her visible tattoo could be seen as "a sign of the need for enhanced experiences." In this case, the body adornment of the plaintiff expressed "excessive individuality" that could "stretch the tolerance levels of others."

But applicants for jobs representing authority are not the only ones concerned by the aesthetic selection criteria of their potential employer. Any job that calls for the employee to interact with members of the public will limit the employee’s constitutional "personality" rights, says Verdi expert Götz. This applies for example to bank employees, flight personnel, or service personnel in more up-market restaurants: all are obliged to follow a house dress code where the employer decides what outward effects are going to be tolerated. "In a hip clothes boutique it could be that tattoos were seen as a plus," Götz says.

But there are limits. For example, an employer cannot decree that all male employees have to be clean-shaven. "If a beard was not expressly forbidden in the work contract then the employee can have one," says Götz. Christof Kleinmann, a lawyer specialized in labor law, adds: "The employer can only make demands that have an objective justification."

Every receptionist can thus decide if she’s going to dye her hair blonde or brown. "But the company doesn’t have to accept a zebra look," according to Kleinmann. The same goes for earrings for men. "If there is no good reason for forbidding something the employer has to accept it whether he or she likes it personally or not." And that goes for the state as well. "A small tattoo on a shoulder that is covered by clothing during work hours is okay," says Kleinmann.

Thomas März, the owner of the Munich tattoo studio, is familiar with the issue. "Especially young people under 20 want very visible tattoos. They’re careless that way. If a customer is talking about a tattoo on a lower arm, hands, neck or face then we take the initiative and advise them, presenting them with alternatives."

Tattoos are forever "even if there are now studios that sell tattoos and their removal after ten years as a package deal."

The young lady from Darmstadt is toying with the idea of having her tattoo removed by laser. Meanwhile her lawyer is going to appeal in a higher court.

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