Can my friend be fired because she has tattoos her employer has known about the entire time she’s been working there?

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Can my friend be fired because she has tattoos her employer has known about the entire time she’s been working there?

My friend was hired to work on a privately owned cruise ship and was just told she may be fired because the captain is afraid her tattoos will offend the owners. They knew upon hiring her that she has tattoos and she covers them when working. I told her to request hard copies of any employee handbook/guidelines regarding staff appearance and anything she’d signed in the employment process. She says she’s not under any contract. I’m afraid she won’t be able to seek counsel as she’s aboard a moving ship and can only communicate through the internet. What steps should she take?

Asked on May 3, 2012 under Employment Labor Law, California

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 9 years ago | Contributor

If she does not have an employment contract, there is most likely nothing she can do; without an employment contract, she would be an employee at will, and could be fired at any time, for any reason--including for tatoos that she had when hired. Since the law does not protect body art in employment, her only protection from termination in a sitaution like this would be contract based. You are right to have her review any employee handbook and other documentation she may have received or signed--it is possible that such may form an enforceable contract which, if it limits the grounds or process for termination, could help her. However, it is unlikely this will be the case; any of a number of common disclaims, such as--

"nothing in this handbook creates a contract of employment"

"all employment is employment at will"

"polices may be changed at will"

--will prevent the formation of an enforceable employment contract.


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