Tattoos at work: to ink or not to ink, is that even a relevant question anymore?


While plenty of people still harbor negative feelings about tattoos at work, this expert suggests it’s not a black and white issue. In some instances, they can actually be helpful.

In the not-so-distant past, having a visible tattoo could be considered a career killer. According to some, getting inked was the domain of the defiant teenager trying their hardest to rebel against their parent’s rules.

However, we’re starting to move beyond that narrative. And with 38 per cent of the global population thought to have at least one tattoo, you’d think the days of workplace discrimination over body art would be over.

However, it’s not as simple as that.

Just this month a hospitality worker in Canada claimed she was fired for getting a small facial tattoo. And in 2020, a teacher, who worked in the UK and France, says he was banned from teaching kindergarten students after one had a nightmare about him (his body is covered in nearly $100,000 worth of tattoos and he recently had his eyeballs blackened).

While the latter example is extreme, it does beg the question: is it fair that the decisions someone makes about their appearance – be that excessive piercings, tattoos or body modifications – hold them back from performing a certain role?

“In respect to tattoos… this is often a proactive way of individuals voicing their own unique identity, not only in the workplace, but in society,” says Andrew F. Timming FCAHR, Professor of HR Management at RMIT, who has spent nearly a decade studying tattoos in the workplace.

Of course, when crafting policies around tattoos, employers need to be sensitive regarding protected qualities, such as tattoos that are relevant to someone’s culture or religion. However, are purely aesthetic tattoos still considered contentious?

See HRM’s audio feature on the story of a man’s discrimination due to his tā moko – a traditional Māori face tattoo.

Do tattoos still impact job prospects?

Recent research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology (2022) found that tattooed job seekers were more likely to experience prejudice in the hiring stages (i.e. they weren’t selected or were offered lower starting salaries) because they were deemed as being less competent and warm than their non-tattooed counterparts.

One of the paper’s three studies focused on causation females with visible tattoos and found they were only able to overcome discrimination in hiring situations if they were considered to be highly qualified, and/or had volunteer experience, therefore regaining a sense of warmth.

The authors point to separate research which suggests that tattooed job applicants can often be perceived as less caring, motivated and generous than others, and that their tattoos make them come across as “deviant and unprofessional”.

When posed the question about whether or not tattoos are still considered taboo in the workplace, Timming says the answer is not so black and white. 

While his own research has previously shown that tattoos can impact someone’s “hireability” – especially those in customer-facing roles – he says employers need to take a broader view.

“The problem with making sweeping, generalising statements is that they disregard the importance of context when it comes to these types of issues,” he says. “Are tattoos stigmatic… yes, in certain circumstances, but no in other circumstances.”

Highly professionalised roles, for instance, could present a tattooed candidate with some challenges, he says. But this is becoming less apparent.

“What I’ve found through my research into tattoos is that the public perceptions or stereotypes have changed dramatically… to the point that in many contexts, they’re invisible or just part of the background – just like someone’s hair colour.”

The relation to pay

Regarding the point about tattooed employees potentially getting paid less, the Journal of Business and Psychology study found that those with tattoos could be offered $2159 less in their initial salary offer compared to those without tattoos. 

They state that while this might not be an ongoing action (i.e. future raises or promotions might not be impacted), it still means tattooed workers, in some instances, are starting off on the back foot.

“This difference will add up over time,” the report states. “In a company that gives 2 per cent annual raises, this visible tattoo could cost its owner over $23,000 over 10 years.”

“There are certain circumstances where having a tattoo can be an asset – particularly in creative industries or other sectors that are trying to target a younger demographic of customers, who might also be tattooed.” – Andrew F. Timming FCAHR, Professor of HR Management at RMIT

While this might be the case in some situations, Timming says, once again, it’s unwise to jump to conclusions, as his own research contradicts this finding.

“We’ve done two or three [research] papers looking at the relationship between whether or not an individual has a tattoo, how many tattoos [they have], the location of the tattoos on the body, and the genre of the tattoos – whether they’re considered offensive or not – and income.

“Across these three studies, we found the exact same result which is that there’s absolutely no statistically significant relationship between having a tattoo and your income.”

When tattoos are an advantage

Interestingly, Timming found that tattoos don’t always work against the job applicant from a hiring perspective either.

“There are certain circumstances where having a tattoo can be an asset – particularly in creative industries or other sectors that are trying to target a younger demographic of customers, who might also be tattooed. 

“In those types of organisations, it’s not unheard of that hiring managers will proactively seek out job applicants who have tattoos because it creates a link or bond between the frontline staff and the customers.”

Timming has put this theory to the test. In a 2017 paper, he studied nearly 200 people who had management experience. The candidates were shown images of job applicants with and without tattoos and asked to rate their likelihood of hiring them for two different roles: one working in a fine dining restaurant and the other in a nightclub.

Having a tattoo increased the chances of being hired for the nightclub job, whereas, as expected, it was not so helpful for candidates in the fine dining group.

Timming then interviewed the business owners, tattooed employees and customers of a pub and a skateboard business. The employers said the tattooed staff “encourage individuality and creativity” for others working in the business. And a customer of the skateboard company remarked that the tattooed employee “must know what he’s talking about”.

In fact, a separate research paper from Timming, which was co-authored by Michael T. French and Karoline Mortensen, concluded that tattooed men were seven per cent more likely to be hired than other men, and that inked up men and women worked more hours in a week.

This suggests that while, historically, the powers that be may have considered tattoos a deterrence – a 2006 study found that 87 per cent of HR professionals viewed tattoos and body piercings negatively in a job interview – times have changed.

This isn’t just occurring in the private sector, says Timming.

“I’ve spoken with prison officers who have told me that their tattoos create a sort of bond with some of the prisoners, and that it’s a basis for having a conversation and connecting with them. Hiring managers are aware of these dynamics, and they will [often] make decisions on the basis of them.”

Outside of appealing to certain clients or stakeholders, some employers might now be more likely to embrace tattoos in the workplace from a diversity and inclusion perspective. If they’re encouraging employees to ‘bring their full selves to work’, that should include the skin they’re in, right?

Plus, if nearly 40 per cent of people have a tattoo (and let’s assume the majority of them are of working age), think about all the potentially great talent that you could be missing out on by taking a stand against tattoos.

What do you think about tattoos in the workplace? Let us know in the comment section.


Embracing tattoos can make for a more inclusive culture. Discuss this and more with your HR peers at AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Conference next week. Registrations close at 5pm today, so don’t miss out!


guest
2 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sharlene
Sharlene
1 month ago

I have a tattoo (and have always contemplated getting another), so obviously I’m ok with them, but I also believe that there is a way to be professional and unprofessional, and times that they are appropriate and inappropriate. Many, many years ago I worked for a manager who had a personal issue with tattoos and believed that they indicated a persons morals and character, and I remember him discounting a candidate because if this and a number of other factors that had little to do with their capabilities, or ability to perform the role they were applying for. I clearly… Read more »

Marie D
Marie D
1 month ago

I am the Head of HR & Compliance for a Technical services company and I happen to have a dozen tattoos, all over my body (wrist, arm, back of the neck, collarbone, hips, spine). First one I got at 30 working at a financial institution, call it a mid life crisis but the most recent ones were only a year ago when I turned 50. I understand that tattoos may in some circumstances be frowned upon and can have a negative connotation. To some extent, as a member of the Board of Management, on a rare occasion, I might feel… Read more »

More on HRM
Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.

Tattoos at work: to ink or not to ink, is that even a relevant question anymore?


While plenty of people still harbor negative feelings about tattoos at work, this expert suggests it’s not a black and white issue. In some instances, they can actually be helpful.

In the not-so-distant past, having a visible tattoo could be considered a career killer. According to some, getting inked was the domain of the defiant teenager trying their hardest to rebel against their parent’s rules.

However, we’re starting to move beyond that narrative. And with 38 per cent of the global population thought to have at least one tattoo, you’d think the days of workplace discrimination over body art would be over.

However, it’s not as simple as that.

Just this month a hospitality worker in Canada claimed she was fired for getting a small facial tattoo. And in 2020, a teacher, who worked in the UK and France, says he was banned from teaching kindergarten students after one had a nightmare about him (his body is covered in nearly $100,000 worth of tattoos and he recently had his eyeballs blackened).

While the latter example is extreme, it does beg the question: is it fair that the decisions someone makes about their appearance – be that excessive piercings, tattoos or body modifications – hold them back from performing a certain role?

“In respect to tattoos… this is often a proactive way of individuals voicing their own unique identity, not only in the workplace, but in society,” says Andrew F. Timming FCAHR, Professor of HR Management at RMIT, who has spent nearly a decade studying tattoos in the workplace.

Of course, when crafting policies around tattoos, employers need to be sensitive regarding protected qualities, such as tattoos that are relevant to someone’s culture or religion. However, are purely aesthetic tattoos still considered contentious?

See HRM’s audio feature on the story of a man’s discrimination due to his tā moko – a traditional Māori face tattoo.

Do tattoos still impact job prospects?

Recent research published in the Journal of Business and Psychology (2022) found that tattooed job seekers were more likely to experience prejudice in the hiring stages (i.e. they weren’t selected or were offered lower starting salaries) because they were deemed as being less competent and warm than their non-tattooed counterparts.

One of the paper’s three studies focused on causation females with visible tattoos and found they were only able to overcome discrimination in hiring situations if they were considered to be highly qualified, and/or had volunteer experience, therefore regaining a sense of warmth.

The authors point to separate research which suggests that tattooed job applicants can often be perceived as less caring, motivated and generous than others, and that their tattoos make them come across as “deviant and unprofessional”.

When posed the question about whether or not tattoos are still considered taboo in the workplace, Timming says the answer is not so black and white. 

While his own research has previously shown that tattoos can impact someone’s “hireability” – especially those in customer-facing roles – he says employers need to take a broader view.

“The problem with making sweeping, generalising statements is that they disregard the importance of context when it comes to these types of issues,” he says. “Are tattoos stigmatic… yes, in certain circumstances, but no in other circumstances.”

Highly professionalised roles, for instance, could present a tattooed candidate with some challenges, he says. But this is becoming less apparent.

“What I’ve found through my research into tattoos is that the public perceptions or stereotypes have changed dramatically… to the point that in many contexts, they’re invisible or just part of the background – just like someone’s hair colour.”

The relation to pay

Regarding the point about tattooed employees potentially getting paid less, the Journal of Business and Psychology study found that those with tattoos could be offered $2159 less in their initial salary offer compared to those without tattoos. 

They state that while this might not be an ongoing action (i.e. future raises or promotions might not be impacted), it still means tattooed workers, in some instances, are starting off on the back foot.

“This difference will add up over time,” the report states. “In a company that gives 2 per cent annual raises, this visible tattoo could cost its owner over $23,000 over 10 years.”

“There are certain circumstances where having a tattoo can be an asset – particularly in creative industries or other sectors that are trying to target a younger demographic of customers, who might also be tattooed.” – Andrew F. Timming FCAHR, Professor of HR Management at RMIT

While this might be the case in some situations, Timming says, once again, it’s unwise to jump to conclusions, as his own research contradicts this finding.

“We’ve done two or three [research] papers looking at the relationship between whether or not an individual has a tattoo, how many tattoos [they have], the location of the tattoos on the body, and the genre of the tattoos – whether they’re considered offensive or not – and income.

“Across these three studies, we found the exact same result which is that there’s absolutely no statistically significant relationship between having a tattoo and your income.”

When tattoos are an advantage

Interestingly, Timming found that tattoos don’t always work against the job applicant from a hiring perspective either.

“There are certain circumstances where having a tattoo can be an asset – particularly in creative industries or other sectors that are trying to target a younger demographic of customers, who might also be tattooed. 

“In those types of organisations, it’s not unheard of that hiring managers will proactively seek out job applicants who have tattoos because it creates a link or bond between the frontline staff and the customers.”

Timming has put this theory to the test. In a 2017 paper, he studied nearly 200 people who had management experience. The candidates were shown images of job applicants with and without tattoos and asked to rate their likelihood of hiring them for two different roles: one working in a fine dining restaurant and the other in a nightclub.

Having a tattoo increased the chances of being hired for the nightclub job, whereas, as expected, it was not so helpful for candidates in the fine dining group.

Timming then interviewed the business owners, tattooed employees and customers of a pub and a skateboard business. The employers said the tattooed staff “encourage individuality and creativity” for others working in the business. And a customer of the skateboard company remarked that the tattooed employee “must know what he’s talking about”.

In fact, a separate research paper from Timming, which was co-authored by Michael T. French and Karoline Mortensen, concluded that tattooed men were seven per cent more likely to be hired than other men, and that inked up men and women worked more hours in a week.

This suggests that while, historically, the powers that be may have considered tattoos a deterrence – a 2006 study found that 87 per cent of HR professionals viewed tattoos and body piercings negatively in a job interview – times have changed.

This isn’t just occurring in the private sector, says Timming.

“I’ve spoken with prison officers who have told me that their tattoos create a sort of bond with some of the prisoners, and that it’s a basis for having a conversation and connecting with them. Hiring managers are aware of these dynamics, and they will [often] make decisions on the basis of them.”

Outside of appealing to certain clients or stakeholders, some employers might now be more likely to embrace tattoos in the workplace from a diversity and inclusion perspective. If they’re encouraging employees to ‘bring their full selves to work’, that should include the skin they’re in, right?

Plus, if nearly 40 per cent of people have a tattoo (and let’s assume the majority of them are of working age), think about all the potentially great talent that you could be missing out on by taking a stand against tattoos.

What do you think about tattoos in the workplace? Let us know in the comment section.


Embracing tattoos can make for a more inclusive culture. Discuss this and more with your HR peers at AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Conference next week. Registrations close at 5pm today, so don’t miss out!


guest
2 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sharlene
Sharlene
1 month ago

I have a tattoo (and have always contemplated getting another), so obviously I’m ok with them, but I also believe that there is a way to be professional and unprofessional, and times that they are appropriate and inappropriate. Many, many years ago I worked for a manager who had a personal issue with tattoos and believed that they indicated a persons morals and character, and I remember him discounting a candidate because if this and a number of other factors that had little to do with their capabilities, or ability to perform the role they were applying for. I clearly… Read more »

Marie D
Marie D
1 month ago

I am the Head of HR & Compliance for a Technical services company and I happen to have a dozen tattoos, all over my body (wrist, arm, back of the neck, collarbone, hips, spine). First one I got at 30 working at a financial institution, call it a mid life crisis but the most recent ones were only a year ago when I turned 50. I understand that tattoos may in some circumstances be frowned upon and can have a negative connotation. To some extent, as a member of the Board of Management, on a rare occasion, I might feel… Read more »

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.
More on HRM