How many times have you been told that getting tattoos are professional suicide? Many millennials were raised with the understanding that tattoos show irresponsibility…
But is that really what employers think about tattoos?
As society shifts toward a more welcoming climate, conservative employers are forced to reevaluate their tattoo policies and decide what’s more important—appearance or values?
Tattoos are no longer a symbol of rebellion, but something along the lines of commonplace. According to a recent Harris Poll, approximately three in 10 Americans have a tattoo. That’s more than twice the percentage recorded in their 2008 survey. Thirty-five percent of the 18 to 24-year-old population in the U.S. claimed to have at least one tattoo, up from nine percent in 2008.
Michael Danes, a former Seattle-based business executive with tattoos of his own, believes that merit reigns over appearance in the workplace. “We tell individuals to express themselves and live authentically, but then when it comes to the hiring process, it’s, ‘Please cover your tattoos, delete your social media accounts, use this photo on your LinkedIn and for heaven’s sake remove your piercings,’” Danes said. “As someone who has managed numerous amounts of people in blue collar positions and a white collar corporate position, I believe that these things are surface level and do not account for what this person may have in skills.” Why, then, are some employers still judging candidates based on outward appearance?
PICKING A SIDE
A number of businesses across the country, from AMC Theaters to Ross to Denny’s to Office Depot, enforce “no visible tattoo” policies. On the other end of the spectrum we have the tattoo-friendly companies, including big players like Google, UPS and Target. Surely nobody buying a discounted Calvin tee at their neighborhood Ross would reconsider their purchase after seeing a cashier with a bicep tat, right? And why is Google, one of the most prominent companies in the world, more understanding than low-end retail stores?
“Companies that are consumer-facing such as Ross and Denny’s must appeal to the consumers they serve on a face-to-face basis every day. Both of [these] companies are family-friendly, so they need to be sensitive…and provide the image and service their customers expect to receive,” Ann Bouchard, president of Bouchard Communications Group, said. “Google is a brand that embraces creativity, change and uniqueness, and by allowing tattoos for their employees, they are extending their brand and embracing their values. And for the most part, Google employees are not consumer-facing.” Essentially, it’s not the company’s prestige that matters, rather their target audience and the level of interaction they have with that audience.
When it comes to creating workplace tattoo policies, companies have to prioritize their values—would they rather eliminate all risk of offending a conservative consumer, or would they rather open the door to more employee candidates (even if it means hiring someone with a clip art unicorn on their clavicle)? “Sometimes someone’s look isn’t tantalizing to you, so it likely won’t be to your customer either,” Danes said. “But what happens when this is the most qualified person to take the position? Would you really turn them away or would you adjust your culture and be an innovator for change?” The final decision often depends on the nature of the company.
DIFFERENT FIELD, DIFFERENT RULES
Bouchard Communications Group leaves room for expression in the company guidelines. “We do not have a policy about tattoos because most of our employees work in the office and don’t have a lot of client contact,” Bouchard said. “We like having the ability to provide a more relaxed work environment for employees…if we were to disallow tattoos completely, we would cut our potential employee pool down by about 75 percent!”
Bouchard believes that the communications field is probably more open to ink than other fields because marketing people are artsy by nature. “Marketing departments are filled with people who embrace creativity and are very accepting of tattoos (if they don’t already have several adorning their bodies),” she said. On the other hand, if you’re a marketing professional that specializes in something like law, clients will seek a level of relatability and professionalism that may not be found in gang-reminiscent calligraphy tats on your knuckles.
Rod McAllister, director of human resources at Lilliput Families, has worked with both Fortune 500 organizations and nonprofits, and noted some differences with the orgs’ attitudes toward tattoos. “Based on my personal experience, I believe the not-for profit world (and perhaps community service-related organizations in general) may be a bit more accepting [than other professional fields],” McAllister said. “It’s all about the culture of the organization.” The high-profile companies frowned upon visible tattoos, he explained, whereas Lilliput Families, a nonprofit agency in California, only asks that “visible tattoos be modest and appropriate.”
If you’re an aspiring Robert Kardashian Sr. or an up-and-coming Johns Hopkins heart surgeon, you may want to stop sketching future tats and start studying more—a tattoo might get in the way of your career.
TO INK, OR NOT TO INK?
Bouchard and McAllister agree that workplace tattoos aren’t as big of an issue as they were, say 10 or 20 years ago, and Danes believes that employee diversity is important for building a better tomorrow. “I believe that this is a non-issue and most likely will fall to the wayside as the new generation takes on the working world,” he said.
In the meantime, college students should use foresight before etching a design into their skin. Research the companies you want to work for and be careful not to ink anything that could be seen as offensive. Also, remember that styles change and in 20 years, a minimalist finger tattoo might look tacky.
“If you’re going to make a major, permanent statement…be realistic,” Bouchard said. “Know that not all employers will be open to it and it could cost you getting a job. I would recommend that you definitely get a tattoo that can be covered up by clothing when needed.” Even if your dream job involves designing socks in a hipster Portland warehouse, it’s important to recognize that plans aren’t static and some regions don’t embrace body art quite like the Pacific Northwest.
McAllister’s advice for college students considering tattoos? “From an HR perspective, the answer would be a big, ‘no’ for any visible tattoo,” he said. “But in all fairness, it may not be as big of a deal depending upon the student’s future career aspirations and potential employers.” Don’t assume your dream company will loosen their body art policy by the time you graduate just because creative expression is in style right now.
So, to ink, or not to ink—that is the question. In the words of Shakespeare himself, “Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush, stumble and fall.”
Read what some graduates have to say about tattoos in the workplace.
Written by Emily Wiegand
Many Americans choose to get tattoos. Some people love them, and some look and stare, wondering why they would put such a thing on their skin. Not caring what other people think can free up some of your mental energy, but unfortunately, you might still have to care what your employer thinks of your tattoos to earn a paycheck.
Some jobs have tattoo policies, while others could care less what you do to your own body. Graduate Devin Brehmer has experienced both ends of the spectrum. “I work at a construction company called Peterson Contractors Incorporated as an equipment operator and they do not have any tattoo policies. I am also in the United States Marine Corps Reserves and they do have a tattoo policy, which doesn’t allow any tattoos above the neck, on your hands and feet, or anywhere else within 2 inches of the bend of your wrists, elbows or knees. Tattoos promoting racism, drug use and more are not tolerated. Tattoos in exposed areas that aren’t specified are to fit within a circle that is within 5 inches in diameter,” said Brehmer.
Not all college students are looking to go into construction or the military, though. For those who plan to work outside construction and the military, the kinds of comments about tattoos come more from customers than employees. “I’ve had people ask me why I would do that to by body, and they say they wouldn’t ever have. But no one really gets offended. A lot of times people as me what they mean or if they hurt. Or tell me how they think they are pretty. People are usually more open minded than you think,” said Verizon employee Miranda Runkle from Spencer, Iowa.
With the fear of not getting a job because of tattoos and piercings, some people choose to hide their tattoos during job interviews. This helps the prospective employees look more professional and give what they think of as a better first impression. Good in theory, but some unforeseen mishaps come along with this because you can’t cover tattoos forever.
Once the interview wraps up and the tattoos can see the light of day, employers feel blindsided. They have no clue about them during the interview, so they come to a shock in the workplace. No clear answer can be given about if hiding them during interviews benefits employees, but it sure does cause some discussion.
Overall, employers generally allow tattoos but their placement and size can be specified by policies. And of course people can’t help and serve their opinions about your choices with your body.
Check out another tattoo story and our generation’s shifted opinion about them.
Written by: Brooks Lockett
You could fill up an entire coffee mug with the amount of tears my mom cried after first seeing the anchor tattoo on my chest. From a mother’s standpoint, I can see where this might dial the overreaction meter up to a screaming ten. In her mind, she faced the horror of seeing the aftermath of her son’s once pure skin become mutilated by a cold, dirty needle wielded by some tatted-up stranger. Permanent ink has ruined her prized possession. I’m definitely not the only one who has faced this exact same situation. We laugh about it now, but she still throws shade at me for it sometimes.
Many parents share these impulsive feelings when they witness their child’s first tattoo.
We know that it’s different showing your new tattoo to your best friend versus your parents. Along with many others, I managed to keep mine a secret for almost a year before accidentally exposing it at the beach. On the bright side, at least the sand absorbed a lot of the tears. Even though I understand why she reacted so emotionally, it opens up the floor for discussion about how parents see tattoos, especially on their kids.
A lot of parents don’t see tattoos the way we see them.
They don’t really understand that tattoos have made their way into the mainstream and are no longer associated with certain groups of people. I grew up watching Miami Ink and LA Ink, fascinated by the beautiful artistry and design of the colors. I became obsessed with thin, colorful geometric space design tattoos. We see tattoos as art, and parents tend to see them as emblems of certain groups like gangs or criminals (which our generation collectively sees as totally wrong).
For example, I see my palm-sized, black and white anchor tattoo on my chest as a way to express myself. It’s simply something that represents me as an individual—not some crazy life lesson or personal insight. I wasn’t drunk or impulsive, and I don’t regret it at all. But my mom saw it as something only for crusty, cantankerous sailors.
To parents, one day their kids want stuffed animals. Then they want a bike. And then they want an iPhone…ok. But then they want a permanent mark on their body that stays there forever? Up goes the wall. They saw you as a baby in a high-chair, then a toddler climbing around on the jungle gym, then annoying teenagers and eventually young adults. It can be hard for them to see you as fully adult (especially if you’re still on their dime), so as the kids, we need to be understanding of this if they overreact because their little sugarplum got a tattoo.
Tess Morgan lamented over her son’s tattoo in an article she wrote for The Guardian, using words like “mutilated” and “tarnished” to describe what her son had done to his skin. She wrote, “I keep thinking of his skin, his precious skin, inked like a pig carcass… It’s the permanence that makes me weep… I know I’m being completely unreasonable. This level of grief is absurd. He’s not dying, he hasn’t killed anyone, he hasn’t volunteered to fight on behalf of a military dictatorship. But I feel as though a knife is twisting in my guts.”
I believe this stems from a generational lack of understanding.
The internet makes following accounts and websites entirely devoted to incredible body art so easy. Tattoos act as a staple of individuality and creativity, which our generation celebrates. A Pew Research Center study said that about 38% of young people ages 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo. But even though we see it as normal, we still can’t ignore the fact that not every generation thinks this way, as frustrating as it may be.
I think it’s so strange that I’ve heard so many parents say, “If I ever saw my kid with tattoos like that, I’d kick him out on the curb.” But I’ve never heard, “If I ever hear my kid use a racial slur or disrespect the environment, I’d toss his crap out to the street.” I’m not saying all parents think this way, but somewhere along the way, values got mixed up. Why do we focus on tattoos, and body art or piercings in general, instead of the real ideological problems? Nobody has to look a certain way to be successful or considered a good person.
Tattoos have crossed over into every age class, background and gender. There’s no need for parents to cry themselves to sleep for days on end and kids suffer the stigma that they won’t be successful if they get one. We need to come to a general understanding of the stigma that surrounds tattoos with our parents’ generation, acknowledge it and move on. That leaves parents to understand that getting tattoos isn’t something we do out of spite for them. To all parents: instead of convincing yourself that our tattoos were an “impulsive mistake” to make yourself feel better, please understand that our body art makes us feel like creative and unique rock stars. We don’t have to apologize for that.
*Updated on May 17, 2018 to include “…what some graduates have to say about tattoos in the workplace” by Emily Wiegand.
**Updated on March 6, 2019 to include “…another tattoo story and our generation’s shifted opinion about them” by Brooks Lockett.