Tattoos are far more mainstream than they were 25 years ago, which means more people are placing their tattoos on visible parts of the body. But one area where normalizing tattoos lags behind, is in the workplace. Although there’s no legal basis for a company to discriminate against a job candidate with tattoos—tattooed individuals are not a protected class, unlike someone of a particular race, religion, or sexual orientation—it is frowned upon, particularly in buttoned-up, corporate settings. Rather than eliminating entire groups of people from their candidate pool based on appearance though, companies often use their dress and uniform policies to make their views on tattoos clear.
There is some nuance, however, to the types of workplaces where a job seeker can confidently show off their full sleeve or ankle tattoo. Some hiring managers think tattoo policies should be contingent on whether a role is customer or client facing, while others believe it depends on the industry or the generation in which managers were born.
Then there’s the question of whether a tattoo policy can distinguish what types of tattoos are acceptable. According to Laura Handrick, a career and workplace analyst for FitSmallBusiness.com, low unemployment numbers are to thank for tattoos losing their stigma at work. “Employers are opening their doors to workers who may have had difficulty getting jobs in the past. They’re hiring less experienced workers, much older workers, and even convicted criminals,” she tells Inside Out. “[T]he focus in HR these days is finding someone who can do the job—regardless of what they look like—and that includes piercings, odd fashion choices, and tattoos.”
Echoing Handrick’s opinion is Paul Falcone, human resources executive and author of 101 Tough Conversations to Have With Employees—but with one caveat. “A lot will depend, though, on the industry and the organizational culture. Policies typically provide workers with some flexibility and level of discretion in terms of what’s appropriate and professional attire,” he writes. “While it’s not a career limiting factor in and of itself, job candidates should be mindful not to create artificial barriers for themselves that might dissuade a prospective employer from hiring them for any reason—tattoos included.”
Falcone uses the example of a bank teller. “[H]aving a tattoo on your face can be a real problem. In this environment, [which is] more ‘business-like,’ it’s important to display the impression that you can be trusted with money. So having a tattoo on your face can be perceived as not projecting this image, perhaps even scaring customers,” he says.
But his example begs the question: What about a tattoo tells a person you’re not trustworthy? And can’t you prove otherwise with your actions? While many preconceived notions of face tattoos exist—they’re common in gang members, for example—it is not the only factor to consider when determining a person’s character. To use Falcone’s example, a customer presumably trusts their bank to manage their money responsibly and, by extension, trusts they hire the right people to carry out this task. So, if trust already exists, why would something as small in importance as a face tattoo break that trust?
Eric Mochnacz, an HR Consultant with Red Clover, helps us answer that question with an anecdote from his own experience. “When I was considering getting a forearm tattoo, I asked my manager if his tattoo ever presented professional obstacles [because] we worked in a field that put a high premium on professional appearances,” he says. “He told me to go for it, and challenged me to ask if a company that made me conceal my personal expression was a company I ultimately wanted to work for.”
Part of that self-expression also reflects a person’s religious or political beliefs, which is where tattoo policies can get dicey. In the United States, for example, “some tattoos and body art may be a form of religious and/or cultural expression protected under Title VII and similar state and local laws,” Beth Zoller, an attorney and legal editor of XpertHR, tells Inside Out. “While prejudice over tattoos is not a form of discrimination in and of itself, an employee does have a right to express his or her religion and culture through tattoos and body art.” In these instances, employers must make reasonable accommodations in their dress and uniform policies that does not single out these individuals.
While tattoos may give us a (wrongly) negative impression of someone, they can also be an important tool for recruiters and hiring managers to better understand prospective hires. “[They are] a way of understanding who their employees and prospective new hires are: What are they passionate about? What motivates them? How do they like to express themselves?,” as Melveen Stevenson, an HR adviser with M.S.Elemental, explains it. A manager born during the Baby Boom may not grasp this hiring concept, but Millennial-run businesses will likely embrace this opportunity for engagement in the same way they do with working from home and beer-on-tap policies.
If you liked our post Seriously, Though: Are Tattoos Bad for the Workplace?, make sure to check out Covering Tattoos for Work: The Complete Guide.