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Survey: Tattoos Can Leave Lasting Impressions

Those with tattoos and those without them have very different impressions of people with body art, finds a Harris Poll released Feb. 23, 2012. Such impressions can lead to stereotyping and other negative consequences in the workplace.

According to the poll, although one in five U.S. adults (21 percent) has at least one tattoo—up from 14 percent in 2003—45 percent of the 2,016 adults surveyed in January 2012 said people with tattoos are less attractive, 39 percent said they are less sexy, 27 percent said they are less intelligent and 25 percent said they are less healthy than others.

Such impressions could cause hiring managers to avoid tattooed candidates for jobs or promotion opportunities, particularly if they fear that an individual’s appearance will impact customer or client relations.

Yet those with tattoos have very different opinions. According to the Harris poll, those with body art said their tattoos make them feel:

  • Sexy (30 percent).
  • Rebellious (25 percent).
  • Attractive or strong (21 percent).
  • Spiritual (16 percent).
  • Healthy (9 percent).
  • Intelligent (8 percent).
  • Athletic (5 percent).

Notably, 50 percent of people without tattoos think those with body art are more rebellious than their nontattooed counterparts.

Harris concluded that although the association of tattoos with “deviant behavior” has decreased slightly, “among those without tattoos there are still several negative stigmas associated with having tattoos.”

Other Findings

The poll revealed demographics about those with tattoos that some might find surprising:

  • Tattoos are most prevalent in the Western U.S. (26 percent) and least prevalent in the South (18 percent).
  • Adults aged 30-39 are most likely to have tattoos (38 percent) compared to those in other age groups. Thirty percent of those aged 25-29 and 22 percent of those 18-24 have tattoos, as do 27 percent of those 40-49.
  • Women are more likely to have a tattoo than men (23 percent vs. 19 percent), reversing the male-dominated trend for the first time since Harris began exploring this topic in polls.
  • Most (86 percent) of those with tattoos said they never regretted getting a tattoo.

Workplace Considerations

In addition to dealing with possible stereotyping and stigma, those with tattoos might find that some doors will be closed to them if their tattoos cannot be covered during work hours.

Such perceptions are changing, however.

“Two decades ago, showing off tattoos and body piercings would be a sure fire way to get your resume placed in the ‘No Way!’ pile,” said workplace authority John A. Challenger, CEO of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., in a 2010 statement. “Times have changed. Those making the hiring decisions are younger and not as adherent to traditions about workplace appearance.”

While some employers might frown upon conspicuous body art, the practice is becoming so commonplace that companies would be limiting the pool of candidates severely if they rejected everyone with a tattoo or nose ring, Challenger added.

Whether an employer will accept visibly inked employees will depend in large part on the nature of the job and the customs of the industry and geographic area.

As SHRM Online has reported, many employers base their appearance policies on issues such as safety and corporate image. For example, in an HR Talk bulletin board posting on Jan. 5, 2012, a Society for Human Resource Management member who works in a retail environment said employees who hold customer-facing positions are expected to “completely conceal any visible tattoos” and “remove any visible body-piercings, including nose piercings, ear gauges/expanders/flesh plugs/barbells.” Regular ear piercings are permitted.

The member’s policy gives a solid reason for the restriction: “Customers should walk away remembering your service, not your jewelry.”

Some companies are choosing to apply the same principle to body art.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.​


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