What Are an Applicant’s Tattoos Telling Potential Employers?

Researchers reach widely different conclusions on what employers think about job candidates’ tattoos

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie September 18, 2018
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​The job candidate sitting in front of you has tattoos covering most of her left arm. Fair or not, you may conclude that the markings paint her as a renegade and, possibly, even as irresponsible or unreliable.

Yet a different manager sitting across from the very same woman might see her tattoos as a sign that she's progressive, creative and able to relate to younger customers.

That is how differently today's employers view body art when they consider how well-equipped candidates are for the jobs they're trying to fill.

In fact, the research findings on how tattoos affect a job candidate's hiring prospects differ widely.

On the one hand, a study published in August by professors at the University of Miami and the University of Western Australia found that tattoos make no difference in terms of getting hired.

Photo of woman with tattoos on her arms."This doesn't mean that there are no individual instances of discrimination against tattooed people, but it does mean that, on balance, tattoos are not a liability in the labor market," said Andrew Timming, associate professor of human resource management at the University of Western Australia Business School and a co-author of the study. "Obviously, all tattoos are not created equal. The genre and quality of a tattoo, as well as its placement, can impact employer decision-making. But the results suggest that, in aggregate, there is no employment discrimination against employees and job applicants with various forms of tattoos."

Yet a study released in July by professors at Colorado State and California State universities found the opposite—that there are hiring and wage biases against people with almost any type of tattoo or body piercing.

"Traditionally, tattoos were associated with marginalized groups such as gang members, prisoners and bikers," said Chris Henle, associate professor at Colorado State University's College of Business and one of the study authors. "Although tattoos are more mainstream and acceptable today, there are still lingering stereotypes associated with them. For example, tattooed individuals may be assumed to be impulsive, rebellious, untrustworthy and unreliable. In a hiring situation, we often have limited information about job applicants, which may prompt us to rely on these stereotypes."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Dress and Appearance]

Tattoos by the Numbers

About 3 in 10 Americans (29 percent) have at least one tattoo, according to a 2016 Harris Poll of 2,225 U.S. adults. Among those with any tattoos, 7 in 10 (69 percent) have two or more.

Tattoos are especially prevalent among younger Americans, with nearly half of Millennials (47 percent) and over a third of those belonging to Generation X (36 percent) saying they have at least one, compared to 13 percent of Baby Boomers. Millennials and members of Generation X (37 percent and 24 percent, respectively) are also far more likely than their elders (6 percent of Baby Boomers) to have multiple tattoos.

The survey also found that:

  • Rural (35 percent) and urban (33 percent) Americans are more likely to have a tattoo than suburbanites (25 percent).
  • Those with kids in the household are much more likely than those without to be sporting at least one tattoo (43 percent compared to 21 percent).
  • Political persuasion doesn't seem to factor into the decision to get a tattoo. There was little difference in the percentages of people with tattoos who identified as Republicans, Democrats or Independents (27 percent, 29 percent and 28 percent, respectively).

Yet the same poll found that 23 percent of people in the U.S. with tattoos regretted them. The top regrets from respondents were that they:

  • Were too young when they got the tattoo.
  • Now have a different personality, and the body art doesn't fit their current lifestyle.
  • Are no longer with the romantic partner whose name is inked on their body.
  • Think the tattoo was poorly done or doesn't look professional.

For those who regret their tattoo, getting rid of it can be expensive: Removing a 3-inch-by-5-inch tattoo costs a minimum of $5,000 (if it takes only eight sessions of laser surgery), the Wall Street Journal reported, and as much as $36,000.

Across Professions, Opinions Vary on Visible Tattoos

Bans on—and bias against—body art depend in large part on the industry.

In the U.S., most people would be comfortable seeing a person with visible tattoos serve in roles across a range of industries and professions, the Harris Poll found. The levels of comfort range from highs of 86 percent for athletes, 81 percent for IT technicians and 78 percent for chefs, to lower majorities of 59 percent each for primary school teachers and judges, and even 58 percent for presidential candidates. 

Photo of woman with tattoos on her arms.An employer can establish a dress code prohibiting visible tattoos if the company believes they aren't consistent with the organization's branding, image, values or mission, according to guidance from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Many companies, including Starbucks, have relaxed or eliminated policies regarding tattoos. Others, including the Walt Disney Co., continue to make employees cover visible tattoos. There are no current laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against people with visible tattoos. 

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