Do Tattoos Affect Employment?

Looking for a job is tough, and having tattoos can affect employment. Worrying if your tattoos will get in the way of employment is additional stress you don’t need as you navigate through applications and interviews.

Do tattoos affect employment? Times are changing quickly, as are attitudes regarding tattoos. Society is becoming more accommodating as tattoos become more mainstream, but there are lingering biases still in place, making some industries not as friendly to potential tattooed employees.

There is new evidence showing tattoos becoming more normative, and, as a result, many workplaces are loosening their rules regarding visible tattoos, but not all. 

Understanding the reasons for social attitudes and perceptions will help you know which industries are likely to be more accommodating as you further your job search.

Workplace Perceptions

Historically, there was a perception that those with tattoos are bad for business. Hiring managers worried the public would see employees with tattoos, and the negative stereotypes would not only reflect poorly on the employee but also transfer to the employer.

The stereotypes directed at those with tattoos included the idea that, as employees, they would be challenging to manage, have problems with authority, and were less educated. Therefore, these job seekers were undesirable to have in the workplace.

Being those perceptions are difficult to challenge, it led to the widely held belief that tattoos stood in the way of gainful employment, and due to attitudes about tattoos being so challenging to change, visible tattoos did pose a problem when seeking employment.

Negative perceptions regarding those with tattoos may have been the case historically, but as a younger generation enters the workforce, attitudes have changed, and they question old thinking.

Current research shows the stereotypes and stigmas attached to those with tattoos are being redefined. A new generation in the workforce challenges the idea that those with visible tattoos are inherently less capable or desirable as employees.

The idea that body art of any kind somehow diminishes the capabilities of an employee is now known to be a false stereotype, but that does not mean everyone agrees.

Some industries are more forgiving and accepting of visible tattoos. Some companies and industries are openly discussing employee choice and self-expression as they redefine their expectations for dress codes.

Researchers point out the client base often drives how much personal expression a company allows its employees. If the customer base is more liberal, it affords the staff more control over visible tattoos.

Some industries are notably more conservative, and the level of conservative matches the company’s client’s beliefs. In these instances, visible tattoos are restricted even if it is well-established that having a tattoo does not eliminate capabilities. Perceptions are deep-rooted. 

However, to fully understand how the perception of tattooed individuals in the workforce, one must evaluate the generalizations that prop up stereotypes in the first place. This understanding will help guide you as you decide which industries are most likely to allow or tolerate visible tattoos.

What Society Used to Think

Tattooing is an ancient tradition that spans the centuries, and archaeologists have been finding evidence of tattoos throughout time. Despite the art of tattoos longevity throughout the ages, perceptions of those with body art have not always been positive.

It was not that long ago tattoos were looked at negatively across the board. In nearly every industry, tattoos were expected to be covered and hidden while at work, and job seekers were expected to hide their body art well.

In this article, Dr. Timming discusses his 2013 research regarding tattoo perceptions. He discovered the negative view of potential employees by hiring managers included beliefs that job seekers with tattoos were “dirty” and “untidy.”

Social Attitudes

The reaction of hiring managers was to reject applicants with tattoos due to the negative connotation associated with those who have tattoos. Dr. Timming discusses the worries held by hiring managers. It was not so much that the hiring managers had personal concerns about tattoos, but they worried about what the customers would think.

Dr. Timmings noted concerns customers would describe those with tattoos as ‘abhorrent’ and ‘unsavory,’ to name a couple.

First impressions do matter, especially in an industry that relies on face-to-face customer service.

Where Did This Stigma Originate?

Stigma is a widely-accepted set of beliefs, usually a social belief. When that belief is a negative one, this is called a stereotype. From that set of beliefs comes discrimination based on that negative association.

It does not matter if this perception is accurate; the act of believing those with tattoos have less worth than those without gives the perception power.

In North America, tattoos have been, to a degree, popular since the twentieth century. Tattoos were even popular by the upper class in America at one point in time. However, after World War I, the tattoo lost its charm with the upper class, and tattoos began to be associated with negative qualities.

Tattoos Share Information

Since tattoos usually are an expression of personal identity, they serve to share information about the person displaying the ink. Often, the tattoo means to symbolize significant life events and accomplishments. Other times it is an expression of a religious connection.

For whatever the reason for a tattoo, it is a way to communicate. Research done at the University of Hawaii discusses this communication and how it tends to be a two-way conversation allowing the social group to help frame that identity. This leaves room for perceptions by the general public. The more visible a tattoo is, the less control you have on how the public perceives you.

For more details regarding how tattoos are used as a form of communication, check out the University of Hawaii research here.

This relationship matters as it relates to beliefs about those with tattoos. It doesn’t matter so much that the stereotypes are false and unfair. Be it that there is a negative link regarding stereotypes, that perception is difficult to change. Because of this, companies will default to a more conservative stance of workplace expectations regarding tattoos rather than challenge the status quo.

Companies who have face-to-face customer interactions were especially prone to rejecting those with visible body art. The idea was that even though the employee is competent, there was no escaping public perception. If a customer held a negative view of tattoos, that point of view would extend to the company itself.

What We Know Now

Based on research, age can play a role in whether or not a company factors in tattoos into their hiring practices. CBS reported in 2016 that 63 percent of those over the age of 60 felt tattoos are unacceptable compared to 22 percent of those under 25.

The difference in age is essential in this conversation because as we move forward, hiring managers and CEOs are notable younger and bring with them different ideas about tattoos.

CBS points to Petco’s belief that body art, as long as it is not profane, is a rational expression of self. This sentiment is reflected in Dunkin, as well, and these two companies were, in 2016, named most friendly towards ink.

SInce 2016, attitudes have become even more friendly to those with tattoos. 

Those who are younger are more accepting and have abandoned the notion of an employee with tattoos lacks the skills or potential to do their jobs. 

In this article from the Chicago-Tribune, Michael French discusses his research completed in 2019. He uncovered surprising insights with current attitudes about tattooed employees. Researchers expected discrimination to be still prevalent, but what was discovered was the opposite.

A Change of Perception

Mr. French not only discovered tattoos did not stand in the way of employment but instead found a higher level of employment and hours worked compared to non-tattooed counterparts. He believes this is due to a change in perceptions and attitudes. Tattoos are becoming perceived as more of an expression of creativity rather than an expression of rejecting cultural norms or deviant behavior.

The loosening of negative perceptions regarding tattoos does not mean tattoos are now embraced in the workforce. There is still 30 percent of adults who have a negative impression of tattooed individuals. This is, however, down from previous years.

Generational Divide

The Chicago Tribune further discusses the difference in age and the acceptance of body art. 

As older generations exit the job market, the room is made for younger generations who do not perceive having a tattoo as an expression of being less intelligent or prone to deviant behavior.

Millennials, those born after 1981, use tattoos as an expression of their generation. As older generations leave the workforce, the attitudes of Millennials prevail. 

Because this group makes up a significant part of the workforce, a couple of things are happening. Millennials are willing to ask questions and challenge the status quo. They don’t share the attitude that possession of a tattoo, visible or not, defines your characteristics and competency as a person.

This shift gives them a unique power to change public perceptions as they refuse to continue to perpetuate old ways of thinking. Those who make decisions for companies have to adjust dress code expectations to meet the needs and desires of a younger workforce.

Also, millennials are not just part of the workforce. They are also moving into positions of power where they can make decisions that reflect current cultural norms.

Tattoo-Friendly Industries

When discussing tattoos becoming acceptable, this does not extend to tattoos that express offensive language or hate speech.

Specific industries have abandoned the enforcing of dress codes that apply the hiding of visible tattoos. They no longer seek to support the status quo. Some industries even openly challenge long-held beliefs about those with tattoos.

It may not come as a surprise that industries that rely on creativity from their employees are lenient regarding body art. These industries include entertainment and the media. Also, you can expect creative industries such as photography, graphic design, and writing to be in this lenient category.

Also, industries that don’t rely on face-to-face customer interactions tend towards leniency. Back-of-the-house restaurant staff such as chefs cooks generally have more leeway than those in the front interacting with guests.

There is also current research that demonstrates the restaurant industry has the highest rates for tattooed employees, and employees themselves have expressed to their companies how they felt about having to cover up body art. This pressure leads to many companies in the industry to evaluate and change their company dress policies to accommodate. For details on how the restaurant industry evolved to accept employees with visible tattoos, Sage Journals discusses the relationship in this research.

In some cases, the answer to whether or not tattoos impact employment lies in the location, not just the industry, CBS News reports.

Just the Facts

Information about the acceptance of tattoos in the workforce compiled by Skinfo highlights industries and areas of the United States most open to tattooed employees. Skininfo’s graphics and discussion can be found here.

The industries with the most tattooed employees are agriculture and ranching, as well as hospitality, tourism, and recreation. The lowest include government jobs and engineering and construction. 

If you have the luxury of considering employment in a different city, you might evaluate local attitudes regarding tattoos. The most tattoo-friendly cities include:

  • San Francisco, CA
  • Austin, TX
  • Pittsburg, PA
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Detroit, MI
  • Chicago, IL
  • Miami, FL
  • Portland, OR
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Denver, CO
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • San Diego, CA
  • Las Vegas, NV
  • New York, NY

Several companies are well-known to be open to visible tattoos, according to skinfo, and it may be helpful to know where tattoos are accepted when searching for work.

Conservative Industries

Despite the shift in how society views those with tattoos being more open and accommodating to the personal expression of self, some industries stick with more conventional and conservative dress codes.

Working environments that lack a relaxed business climate may require any tattoos to remain hidden.

Due to an older client base still holding onto negative ideas regarding tattoos, some companies worry employees may not be taken seriously. Furthermore, it is a concern that the opinions of the clients, even if they are not based in fact, will transfer from the employee to the employer.

Can I Get Fired for Having a Tattoo?

If you have managed for a while to keep your tattoo under wraps, or you just got a new tattoo, you might be concerned if higher-ups find out and the tattoo jeopardizes your employment status.

In some cases, you may be fired for having a visible tattoo.

Now, many tattoos are easy to hide, and if you find yourself in a position where your ink can be easily covered, there is not much of a concern. If your new tattoo is highly visible, you may want to evaluate the stance your company has on the dress code to determine where you stand.

Sometimes negative judgments lead to discriminatory practices. There are laws in place to protect discrimination in the workplace, but those laws protect members of protected classes and do not extend to those with tattoos. It has been argued that freedom of speech should extend to those with visible tattoos.

The freedom of speech does extend to a person’s choice to have a tattoo, but it does not extend to an employer being obligated to hire those with body art.

Violations of Policy

Fully understanding your company’s policy regarding visible tattoos will help you decide if your job is at risk. If your employer indicates tattoos must be covered, you may run into problems displaying your tattoo.

Because tattooed individuals are not a protected class, it is not discriminatory to require them not to be visible. However, unfair practices have been argued regarding those who have tattoos for sincerely held religious purposes. 

Furthermore, the dress code must be equitable. This means it needs to apply to everyone, not just some people, to be nondiscriminatory.

At-Will State

A state that is defined as an at-will state typically allows employers to terminate employees without an explanation or a justifiable cause. Discovering if you live in an at-will state is important before deciding to add a visible tattoo. Furthermore, verifying if your employer has an established dress code that clarifies their stance on tattoos is a necessary step.

Ideally, these obstacles should be considered before adding body art, thus eliminating any surprises with your employment.