Tattoos in the Workplace: Deal or No Deal?

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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.

**Updated on May 17, 2018 to include “…what some graduates have to say about tattoos in the workplace” by Emily Wiegand.

Kyler is a junior communication major at Walla Walla University in Washington state. He enjoys scary movies, afternoon naps and the occasional outdoor adventure.

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