In searching far and wide for decent articles on tattoos in the workplace, I wasn’t satisfied (see Part 1). The main resources used in advice articles were surveys from 2010 and 2011, neither of which really give much insight into how tattoos affect employability.
So I turned to the academic world.
I found several recent research studies and papers examining the topic of tattoos and social climate and tattoos and employability. Unfortunately the majority of free, publicly accessible research is still very thin and disappointing.
To get started, let me explain to you a few things about research.
Things that research does:
- Helps us understand social climate and attitude trends
- Attitudes of employers
- Attitudes of employees
- Attitudes of consumers
- Common company policies
- Shows us correlations
- Allow us to further create educated hypotheses about the impact of tattoos on employment
- Quite tasty with a grain of salt
Things that research does not do:
- Prove anything, ever
- Allow us to show causation using correlations (it’s not a real thing, guys)
- Allow us to wildly apply concepts where they have never been tested and probably do not belong
That Being Said, Here Are a Few Key Takeaways:
- When asked to rate tattooed and non-tattooed front-line staff, consumers showed preference for non-tattooed individuals
- Males and female consumers hold similar gendered views of body art for service people
- 86% of young professionals thought piercings and tattoos do not reduce the chance of getting a job
- 83% of young professionals thought tattoos were not linked to deviant behavior in the workplace
- Grooming and business attire were more important indicators in the hiring decision than tattoos and piercings
- Piercings and tattoos were still negative indicators
- Heavily tattooed professionals:
- Felt pressure from coworkers/superiors 50 years and older, but they felt tattoos made them more accessible to younger coworkers
- Felt that there was a trade-off between being an authentic member of the tattooed community and working a white-collar job
- Experienced unwanted and uninvited touching in the workplace
- Managed their identities by covering up their tattoos upon first impressions to establish their professional identity before allowing their tattoo identity to show
- Visible tattoos had a predominantly negative effect on selection, mitigated by:
- Location of tattoo
- Type of organization
- Proximity to the customer
- Content of tattoo
- These attitudes were driven by the manager’s perception of customer expectations
- Employers were less prejudice when hiring for non customer-facing jobs
What It Means
Really, there is still a lot more room for research on the topic of tattoos and employability. Each of the studies outlined above (and detailed below) covers a different topic that allows us to paint broader conclusions.
As I was first thinking about writing this article, I was going to take the “things are changing” standpoint. Things are changing.
However I am not entirely blind to evidence and recent research shows that there are still visible, measurable prejudices in the workplace.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that:
- There are still negative attitudes about highly visible tattoos in the workplace
- In service jobs this is largely due to the fear of customer perception of tattooed employees
- Most tattooed professionals cover up at least some of the time in the business setting
- In many situations being well-groomed, hygienic, and well-dressed more heavily impacts the appearance of professionalism than tattoos
Does that mean you can’t get a job if you’re tattooed?
There are tons of tattooed professionals out there, ranging from those who have one or two small tattoos, to those who have their arms, hands, legs, and torsos covered.
There are doctors with tattoos, teachers with tattoos, financial advisers with tattoos, and digital marketers (wink wink) with tattoos.
However, being heavily and/or very visibly tattooed might make it slightly harder to get a job, or if you work in a customer-facing field it might make it substantially harder to get a job. It may also mean that you face certain prejudices in the workplace.
Many tattooed professionals and job seekers choose to cover up their tattoos in the work setting, or at a minimum when they meet new connections. Managing a tattoo identity and separate professional identity feels inauthentic to some people, and others prefer to maintain complete separation between identities.
Advice from a heavily tattooed person:
Am I heavily tattooed yet?
I don’t know if there’s a percentage-of-body-covered rule.
In any case, I’ve got a 3/4 sleeve, a 2-foot octopus running from my thigh to my ribs, and three other small tattoos. I have a tattoo on my hand too, which can’t reasonably be covered in everyday situations.
If you’re thinking about getting a very visible tattoo and you have major reservations about whether or not it will negatively affect your career, my advice would be to slow down, do more research, and think on it a little longer.
If you’re thinking about getting a very visible tattoo and after doing your research you are still confident that it is the correct choice for you and your body, go for it.
You might have to work a little harder to succeed in your career. There may be times when you have trouble finding work.
It’s your risk. Go forth. Get tattoos. Be fabulous. Decorate and adorn your temple. Love your body.
Below I will summarize five of the research studies and papers that I looked at, noting a few obvious limitations. Some studies explored multiple hypotheses both related and unrelated to tattoos and employment. I chose not to include major findings unrelated to tattoos.
No, I’m not diving deep into sampling methods, validity, reliability, or methods of statistical analysis, just bigger picture stuff. If you want to do that, go for it, I have better things to do.
I have linked some of the studies mentioned to free, full-text copies, and others will be linked to pages where you can purchase a PDF copy of the study. If you are a college student you may have free access through your university library system (which is what I used to access full copies of all of these studies).
Taboo tattoos? A study of the gendered effects of body art on consumers’ attitudes toward visibly tattooed front line staff
Baumann, Timming, & Gollan, 2015
This study tested the effects of gender and visible (neck) tattoos on consumer preference. 262 participants were recruited through on online crowdsourcing platform.
They were asked to pose as customers, shown a series of images of faces of front-line staff described as either a surgeon or a mechanic, and asked to decide whether or not they would want that person to perform the service.
They used images of both men and women from different races, and in the image the individual had either a tattoo on their neck, or no visible tattoo.
This study found that people preferred both surgeons as well as mechanics without tattoos as opposed to with tattoos.
- It was a survey and surveys suck
- It does not look at the effects of tattoos on job recruitment (not a flaw of the study design, just a caution in applying concepts)
- The sample group could have been more randomly selected to improve external validity
- Female respondents were over-represented in the initial sample group
- There was only one tattoo and one placement used
- Would there be a higher preference for individuals with visible hand tattoos as opposed to neck tattoos?
- Would there be a higher preference for non-abstract tattoos or colored tattoos over abstract black tattoos?
Attitude of Professionals and Students towards Professional Dress Code, Tattoos and Body Piercing in the Corporate World
Mishra & Mishra, 2015
This study examined attitudes and opinions of young professionals and graduate students aged 21-35 towards tattoos and piercings (among other things).
Researchers used snowballing sampling to gather 120 survey responses, approximately half of which were career professionals from private companies, and half of which were in their final year of MBA or engineering educational programs.
They found that the majority of both professionals and students thought tattoos would not reduce the chances of getting a job (86% and 87% respectively), and that they did not think that tattoos were linked to deviant behavior in the workplace (83% and 89%).
- Surveys still suck
- The sample size was relatively small
- Professional participants came only from private companies
- Limited information was provided about demographics
- This study comes from an Indian publication which means we should be cautious generalizing norms to American culture
- It shows us peer attitudes and opinions that may be prevalent in the workplace, but not attitudes of hiring managers
What is professional attire today? A conjoint analysis of personal presentation attributes
Ruetzler, Taylor, Reynolds, Baker, & Killen, 2012
The research performed for this study was conducted in 2010 at a restaurant convention. Researchers recruited hospitality management students, faculty, and industry representatives to participate.
Participants were asked to imagine themselves as a HR representative in hospitality management hiring new entry-level employees. They were presented with 16 laminated photo cards with images of prospective new hires.
The 16 cards showed images of people with with varying levels of:
- Clothing cover
- Conservativeness of clothing
- Level of attire (ranging from more formal or less formal)
It was also noted whether the person had conservative or non-conservative body piercings and tattoos.
Participants were asked to rank the cards from 1-16 from most desirable to least desirable.
A conjoint analysis of different attributes was performed, and they found that:
- Grooming and business dress attire were the most important indicators
- Tattoos were not desirable as indicators of professionalism
- This study is from 2010 so the results may be outdated and inaccurate
- The study was designed with a manipulation check – one card was designed with the lowest level possible for all characteristics – and the manipulation check failed
- It is limited to a single industry
- In the study they did not specify to their participants what department area they were hiring for (food, housekeeping, etc.)
The hidden mark : an ethnographic examination of visibility in heavily tattooed professionals
This paper is a qualitative rather than quantitative research study, but a master’s thesis examining attitudes and beliefs of tattooed professionals. It is a pretty extensive paper at 44 pages long but it is well worth the read, and includes 5 pages of references which offers a wide variety of additional reading material on the topic.
In his research, McLeod reviews past literature relating to tattoos, stigma, and gender implications. He then goes on to discuss interviews he performed with 21 tattooed professionals from the US, UK, and Canada, exploring tactics they use to navigate between tattooed identities and professional identities – and the decision to “cover up” in professional settings, or not.
He found that people felt that tattooed people were stereotyped as less intelligent and less capable, but that these professionals sought to separate themselves from the “rest” of tattooed society through markers of artistic quality and cost.
All of his interviewees discussed managing their identities through covering up upon first impressions because they felt they were able to establish their professional identity before allowing their tattoo identity to show.
Both men and women experienced unwanted and uninvited touching, such as people trying to move clothing out of the way to expose more of a tattoo. Women also talked about assumptions of promiscuity, sexual orientation, and emotional “damage”.
- This is a thesis, (and as far as I can tell) not peer-reviewed, empirical research
- Sample size is very limited
Visible tattoos in the service sector: a new challenge to recruitment and selection
This study involved the interviewing of 15 hiring managers in the service sector and 10 visibly tattooed individuals in 2012 and 2013, all in Scotland.
Hiring managers came from a wide variety of organizational type, size, and a wide variety of industries including retail, higher education, finance, and local council.
All of the recruiters, including the three hiring managers who had non-visible tattoos, harbored negative attitudes towards candidates with visible tattoos.
Interestingly, they admitted to having prejudices and that those prejudices and personal feelings were largely irrelevant, however they feared that customers would see tattooed employees as distasteful.
- These interviews took place in Scotland and may not accurately reflect American culture and attitudes
- Sample size is very limited
The effects of tattoos in the workplace are complex beyond what we can understand from current research, however taking a look at more recent publications gives us more insight into the matter.
We rely heavily on the first results in Google to help us make informed decisions, from what to eat to dinner, to how to change a headlight bulb, to matters like this one.
Statistics, especially when visually presented, are easy to understand and share, however it’s important to make sure those numbers come from reliable and up-to-date sources.