Tattoos in the Workplace: The Research Forbes Was Too Lazy To Do

If you Google "tattoos in the workplace", you'll find that there are thousands of articles on the topic. The top search engine real estate is dominated by websites like Forbes, USAToday, and Business Insider.

This article from Forbes published in 2011 argues that tattoos still have a negative impact on employment. In 2013 they recanted, saying tattoos were "no longer a kiss of death in the workplace".

The funny thing is that while these articles were published two years apart and argue the exact opposite points, they support their arguments with the exact same research studies.

In fact, when you click through to any of these top news sources you'll find that every article on the topic is citing the same three sources: an old Career Builders survey from 2011, a Pew Research report on millennials from 2010, and an infographic designed by a skin boutique (really??).

Wow. For a topic that affects millions of people, top news sources are pumping out article after article on the same pathetically thin research sources that they've been using for years.

What does modern research say?

I took the liberty of looking into actual academic research on tattoos and employment from the last few years, and came up with some interesting conclusions and stats.

Here are a few key findings from the research studies I reviewed that support that attitudes towards tattoos in the workplace may be changing:
  • 86% of young professionals did not think piercings and tattoos reduce the chance of getting jobs (source)
  • Grooming and business attire were more important indicators in the hiring decision than tattoos and piercings (source)
  • Heavily tattooed professionals felt that tattoos made them more accessible to younger coworkers (source)
However there were also findings that tattoos still may be limiting in the workplace. Researchers also revealed that:
  • Visible tattoos had a predominantly negative effect on employment selection, driven by the hiring manager's perception of customer expectations (source)
  • Tattooed professionals frequently experienced unwanted touching in the workplace (source)
  • Consumers showed a preference for non-tattooed front-line staff (source)

What does it mean?

Looking at the research, we can definitely see that there has been progress towards the acceptance of tattoos in the workplace, but highly visible tattoos can still have a negative impact, especially in customer-facing jobs.

Tattooed professionals often manage their "business" and "tattooed" selves as separate identities by covering up their tattoos in professional settings, especially upon first impressions, by covering up their tattoos. Some people choose to always cover their tattoos, while others show their tattoos after they have established their professional knowledge and authority.

If you are concerned about negative impacts of tattoos either in finding employment or rising in your career field, getting tattoos that can be easily covered up is a good way to mitigate the risks of discrimination.