The conversations surrounding tattoos are complex and multilayered, and so too are the conversations around whether they should be allowed in the workplace. But how much should your career be a part of your thought process in getting a tattoo, and should you be expected to choose between exposing it or concealing it?
In an ideal world, flaunting your tattoo should have absolutely no impact on someone’s work life, from the hiring process and attractiveness as a candidate to success and salary while in a role. Just like one’s personal choices about hair style and color, piercings, make-up, and clothing, tattoos can be a powerful form of self-expression. They’re also increasingly common, especially among the younger demographic in the workforce. According to a Pew Research Center study, nearly 40% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo.
From a broader perspective, media representation is also shifting to reflect this, with stock imagery becoming (somewhat) more aligned with the popularity and acceptance of body art. Getty, a leading photo agency, Dove, and Girlgaze, the female-focused photography network, collaborated on Project #ShowUs, which features more diverse and varied representation, including age, skin color, body shape, and tattoos.
There’s also promising proof that body art isn’t detrimental to career success. In a 2018 study conducted by the University of Miami and the University of Western Australia Business School, there was “no empirical evidence of employment, wage or earnings discrimination against people with various types of tattoos.” Body art could even, in some cases, be better positioned to nab a gig, per the study, which found “not only are the wages and annual earnings of tattooed employees in the United States statistically indistinguishable from the wages and annual earnings of employees without tattoos, but tattooed individuals are also just as likely, and in some instances even more likely, to gain employment.”
However, unfair discrimination of body art does exist
By contrast, some research has indeed found detrimental impacts of visible body art. A 2018 study about tattoos in the workplace, conducted by Colorado State University professors, found hiring managers would rather not see tattoos on job candidates, and will offer people with tattoos and body piercings lower starting salaries. It found that “applicants with extreme tattoos were less likely to be hired… applicants with mild or severe tattoos were offered lower starting salaries than those without body art,” and applicants with “extreme tattoos” (presumably more extensive, fuller-coverage and/or possibly controversial work) were perceived as “less competent and committed than applicants without body art.”
“I’ve worked in media – a creative industry that can allow for tattoos—for over seven years, but definitely didn’t dare to get anything visible when I was first starting out,” says Zachary Kussin, a reporter at The New York Post, talking about his older tattoos, located on his leg, ribs, and upper arms. The impetus for Kussin to add more body art in more exposed locations for the past year and a half was the traumatic experience of losing his home in a fire last year. “[It was] a whole emotional experience that taught me to live more in the moment and be more outgoing,” he says. “Having visible tattoos – specifically below the elbows – was something I’d always wanted, but figured I should wait until reaching a level of high establishment in the industry. The fire made me think differently about everything in my life, so I pulled the trigger, because you only live once.”
The personal choice to get a tattoo can, in fact, help professionally
Overall, the symbolic, cathartic decision has been met receptively by colleagues, albeit in an office “filled with open-minded, cool folks,” as he puts it. “I started getting more [tattoos], and my co-workers definitely noticed each time, but I would never get any judgment from them. They knew what I was going through, and that all of my arm tattoos have some type of fire-related symbolism, and were very quick to compliment them,” he explains. Beyond being accepted in his workplace, Kussin’s designs have become an unlikely way to connect with others. “They’re a good way of showing personality, and having your colleagues get to know you more intimately,” he adds. “In a way, it’s helped us grow closer together because we can talk openly about that experience and how I’ve used my skin to heal from it.”
Matt Gertz, an actuary in NYC, has over 200 hours of tattoo work done, including solid arm sleeves, and keeps his body art under wraps nearly all the time. For him, “exposing tattoos in the workplace can range from fully appropriate to not appropriate at all, depending on the profession. I align the acceptability levels with the dress code,” Gertz explains. “If you’re in a career that allows for short sleeve shirts at work, then absolutely tattoos should be allowed. If you’re in a career where you need to wear a suit, then no, you should not be showing tattoos.”
To Gertz, the “content and placement” of body art is largely what determines what’s acceptable in a professional environment. “All my content is 100% family friendly and appropriate. I don’t have any macabre or adult themes in my art,” he says. ”If you have nudity, crude language, or gory content, it’s probably not appropriate,” to expose on the job. As for the latter – where your tattoos are situated – Gertz calls the hands, fingers, neck, and face “job killer” placements. He believes the quality of the ink also plays a part. “There is a significant difference between well-done, professional tattoos and poorly done, often home-made tattoos,” with cruder work being significantly less apropos in the office.
As positive as Kussin’s own relationship between body art and his career has been, he also acknowledges it’s not a universal experience. “It may sound hypocritical, especially as someone with a lot of visible tattoos, but folks who work in highly corporate atmospheres – or even people who are teachers – should play it safe and cover them up,” he says. “If it’s the kind of place that has strict expectations, it’s not worth getting into trouble.” Interestingly, Gertz’s wife is also heavily tattooed and is a teacher, so it can depend on a particular workplace’s culture.
When tattoos are a concern, career-wise
Gertz has only shown his arms once in the two years he’s been at his current company. “We had a casually dressed fundraiser day where we could wear jeans. I wore a short sleeved button down,” Gertz recalls. “My boss said that I should put a sweater on, but she can’t tell me what to do. I don’t believe she had an issues with my arms showing, but wanted to look out for me, assuming that some other staff members at my work would not be as receptive.”
Save for a few coworkers, no one knows about Gertz’s body art, and that’s very much by design. “I have been involved in conversations where people have just gotten work done, and say ‘do you have any tattoos?’ so I would simply respond ‘yes’,” he says. “If someone just got a tattoo and is excited about it, for me to bring my experience into the conversation – over 200 hours – really takes away from the significance of theirs. I never want to overshadow,” he says.
While tattoos really ought to be accepted and irrelevant to a person’s ability to succeed in the office, Gertz certainly isn’t an anomaly in thinking it’s wisest or necessary to keep his carefully, laboriously crafted body art under wraps while on the clock. A salary.com survey of nearly 3,000 people, conducted in April 2018, found that just 12% of respondents reported having a visible tattoo on display at work. The majority are weary of how body art could impact career prospects, both in scoring a desired gig and flourishing professionally, with 76% of respondents reporting they feel tattoos (and piercings) negatively affect an applicant’s chances of being hired during a job interview.
Yet the weariness about if or how exposed body art and the workplace can coexist swimmingly found in the survey don’t align with respondents’ own experiences. Although 39% believe employees with tattoos (and piercings) reflect poorly on their employers, and 42% feel visible tattoos are always inappropriate at work, a mere 4% of respondents with tattoos and piercings said they’ve actually faced actual discrimination because of their body art.
Doing homework on an employer’s view on tattoos may help
Sussing out a company’s attitudes about body art in advance of taking a new job is one way to try and understand how tattoos will be received at the office. Just under a quarter of the Salary.com survey’s respondents said they specifically examine a company’s permissiveness regarding tattoos and piercings when deciding whether or not to accept the job offer. Huge companies like Google and Amazon have ink-friendly policies for employees, a stance that, like other policies and company culture approaches, should be adopted by smaller enterprises.
Here’s to hoping consideration about how (or even if) an employer will respect the very personal choices its employees make about indelibly inking their own bodies will one day become a thing of the past. Instead, the conversation ought to play out much more like Kussin’s largely positive experiences with how his tattoos are perceived, and how they’ve furthered his ability to connect with others while on the job.
Ultimately, your career shouldn’t be harmed by your tattoos
Outside of the office, Kussin has never covered up his body art for in-person interviews, meetings, or events. “The tattoo work I have isn’t trashy or offensive. It’s all top-shelf artistry that comes at a cost, and I think I can still represent my company well by having them visible,” he explains, noting his professional reputation rightfully overshadows any potential judgements about his tattoos. “I’m easy to work with and I work very hard, and I think those are stronger attributes that help me represent my company even more, but my tattoos are a part of me.”
He even goes as far to say that sharing his ink helps him do his job. “As a journalist, I want the people I connect with for stories to know me – that helps me get to know them better,” Kussin says. “It shouldn’t be a one-sided deal and I think that showing [your tattoos] can help me build trust with them.”
If you liked our post, “Why Tattoos Should Be Allowed In The Workplace”, check out When Tattoos Become Political Statements