Body Art Seen as Less of a Workplace Barrier

By Megan Thomas
|  Friday, Jul 23, 2010  |  Updated 1:00 PM PDT
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Tattoos Seen as Less of a Workplace Barrier

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Tattoos in the workplace? It's cool.

While more than 14.5 million Americans are out of work, tattoos are becoming less of an obstacle to finding employment, according to a Challenger Gray Christmas report released earlier this week.

From Otzi the Iceman to Angelina Jolie, humans have tattooed themselves for centuries as a form of healing, self-expression, remembrance and even advertising. They’ve also been affiliated with criminals and gang affiliation, making it difficult for those with stamped skin to find jobs in the past.

But today, tattooing has become so common employers are increasingly forced to choose between rejecting inked employees or having a severely limited job candidate pool, said John A. Challenger, CEO of the outplacement firm.

“Today, even in this tight job market, most companies are not going to view tattoos too harshly,” he said. “One reason is that with everyone from soccer moms to MIT computer science graduates sporting tattoos, preconceptions about tattooed individuals are no longer valid. Secondly, and more importantly, companies have a vested interest in hiring the most qualified candidate.”

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, more than 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo. The younger you look, the more ink you’ll find. Only 15 percent of Baby Boomers have tattoos, while 32 percent of Gen X and 38 percent of Millennials have body art, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center study. Half of those tattooed Millennials say they have two to five tattoos.

Human resource workers have been seeing more job applicants with tattoos, including more with prominent art placement such as on the face, said Sue Murphy, association manager for the National Human Resources Association.

Tattoo-friendliness often depends on the position, employer and industry the worker is in, she said. Employees having frequent face time with customers are more likely to be forced to cover up than those working a cubicle desk position, according to Murphy.

Workers with visible smaller, discrete, non-offensive tattoos are more likely to be accepted by businesses, she said. Visible, non-offensive tattoos may become more common in certain industries in the future, she said.

Whether or not a business allows tattoos, equal enforcement of appearance policy is essential.

“If an employer has a policy based in good sound business reasons as to why tattoos can or cannot be visible, and they’re consistent with the application of that policy, then it’s quickly going to become a non- issue,” Murphy said. “You as a company need to decide what is an acceptable or unacceptable image.”

Applicants have to use their judgment in determining if an employer is tattoo-friendly, Challenger said.

“The best way to determine if body art is acceptable is by asking someone, preferably not the person you are to meet. However, if you know someone else at the company or if you have established rapport with a secretary or receptionist, you can ask that person,” he said.

Greater approval of tattoos is just a part of the evolution of society as younger generations come to accept things once seen as shocking, like extreme sexuality and obscenity in modern culture, according to Sailor Bill Johnson, vice president of the National Tattoo Association and owner of the Tattoo Time shop in Orlando, Fla.

Having owned other businesses besides a tattoo shop, Johnson said employers should depend more on the quality of service or product they provide to bring in customers, rather than the appearance of their workers.

“You’re always going to have a small group of people, no matter what, who are going to hate tattooing or hate people in shorts or hate people with blond hair or short hair or long hair. That’s inevitable,” he said. “I don’t think a business should restrict themselves. …The quality of your business is what sells itself.”

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