Are tattoos really still a problem in the workplace?

tattoos-at-work-webAcas recently published a research paper on dress codes and appearance at work. The paper examined a number of areas around appearance, including dress codes in different industries, attitudes to physical appearance during recruitment and the link between employees’ appearance and protection of a brand.

I was interested in the findings on attitudes towards tattoos in the workplace. It seems to me (purely from my own observation rather than on any scientific basis) that in the last few years the number of people with tattoos has increased significantly, so I was interested to find out whether attitudes to tattoos had softened accordingly. I should state at this point in the interests of disclosure that I personally have no tattoos, but I know significant numbers of people who do, and who work in a wide variety of jobs and sectors.

The sample used in the research was small, and focused more towards those sectors with significant outward-facing customer service elements to their work (retail, hospitality and similar), and towards uniformed occupations, but there were some revealing findings. There was mention of people with tattoos (or other body modifications) being “written off” in the financial sector, “not getting through the application stage” in an airline. Several respondents mentioned being concerned about clients’ perceptions, and there were several mentions of various stereotypes that still attach to tattoos, such as the feeling that those with tattoos were a bit rebellious and therefore might not take their job seriously, or might cause trouble in the workplace (I can assure those who have these types of concerns that in my experience, there is absolutely no correlation!).

Do people really still make an assumption that someone with a visible tattoo will not be a valuable employee?  I wonder whether some of the respondents who claimed to be concerned about clients stereotyping (“I’m not against tattoos myself but…”) were using that as an excuse to cover up their own prejudices?

Because really, are the general public actually shocked by the appearance of  tattoos anymore? I don’t think so. When body art is as prevalent as it is now, the shock factor of seeing a tattoo peeking out of a shirt sleeve has surely all-but vanished, hasn’t it? By law of averages many clients of any business will also have a tattoo themselves these days anyway. It’s not rebellious anymore – it’s perfectly ordinary and commonplace.

My anecdotal observations suggest that tattoos in the workplace are a lot more common and a lot less of an issue than they used to be – you see tattoos on people in customer-facing jobs or ‘serious’ jobs without batting an eyelid now (or at least I don’t) where previously you’d be surprised to come across them.

I’m hoping that the focus of the survey in terms of respondents has skewed the results and that in general people are a lot more open-minded and less quick to make negative judgements on the basis of some body art. Another factor is clearly likely to be the generational influence – a greater proportion of the people setting the tone/culture/policy and making the decisions in any organisation are likely to be older – perhaps if this piece of research was repeated in 10 years’ time the results would be different. Let’s hope so – it doesn’t seem very commercially-minded to make such sweeping judgements about employees or potential employees based on this type of thing. Think of all that talent you might be writing off!