Amanda has a lotus blossom tattoo at the nape of her neck, under her long black hair. Caitlyn has an ivy vine in several shades of green curling artistically up her right leg and a dragonfly at the base of her spine. Brad, a single dad, opted for banners with the names of his two daughters, one on the top of each arm. His friend Doug has a huge and elaborate shield covering half his back. And Meg just had a pink heart with her husband’s and new baby boy’s names tattooed right above her heart.
Each tattoo has personal meaning. Each person will tell you that the tattoos are an important expression of their identity. And all of them are in the tattoo “closet.” If you met them at their jobs, you’d never guess there was a tattoo or so under their conservative dress.
You wouldn’t think they’d need to be so cautious about sharing their body art in 2013. A Pew Research Poll (done in 2010) showed that 23 percent of Americans have a tattoo. According to an article in the American Academy of Dermatology, about half of the people in their 20s have either a tattoo or body piercing (other than for pierced earrings) and the number is growing.
And yet: There are many work places that include a ban on body art and piercings in their dress codes.
It’s partly a generational divide. Every generation finds a way to make itself distinct from the one before and to make a statement to the old folks that “we’re cool, you’re not.” The flappers in the 1920s shortened their skirts and bobbed their hair. Young women in the 1960s shortened their skirts even more (remember the mini?) and grew their hair long while the young men drove their fathers wild by abandoning crew cuts for dreads and ponytails. The ’80s saw the rise of hair in new and startling hues (blue, puce, electric green) and multiple ear piercings. In the ’90s it was grunge. The 2000s seem to be about tattoos. It’s not your granddad’s simple anchor on the bicep from his Navy days, either. No. Now it’s full sleeves and multiple tattoos in multiple places. Many really are gorgeous works of art.
The grandparent generation is shaking its collective head. For many older middle Americans, tattoos are associated with convicts, bikers and gang members. As recently as 2008, a Harris poll of 2000 adults found that 32 percent of people without tattoos believe that those with tattoos are likely to do something deviant. That’s almost a third! Corporations, banks, attorney offices, retailers that appeal to the general public and public agencies aren’t likely to risk alienating a third of their potential clients by confronting them with their values about body art.
Hiring managers know that. In a recent survey by Careerbuilder.com, 31 percent of HR managers said that visible tattoos can have a negative impact on their decision whether to hire someone. Why? Because the people who own the business or company are often in the 50- to 70-year-old crowd. Even when that’s not the case, the customer base for a business may include a substantial number of those who are 40 and up. If that’s an important demographic for a particular workplace, tattoos can be a liability for getting a job there.
You may think a hiring policy against body art is discriminatory. It’s not. Companies have the right to have a dress code and that dress code may exclude tattoos. You may argue that it makes sense that a skull and crossbones or a bleeding dagger might bother people but your butterflies shouldn’t offend anyone. Maybe so. But from a company’s point of view, teasing out what is and isn’t okay on an individual basis is just too much trouble. It’s far easier to ban them all.
There are exceptions, of course. Older people in creative fields like design, theatre, advertising, computer app development and any other artistic endeavor tend to be much more sympathetic. They may even have a tattoo or two of their own. And hiring managers are sometimes more willing to hire someone with a tattoo if it is small, tasteful and not located in a spot that would make some people cringe. They are also less reactive to body art in jobs where there is minimal to no interface with the public.
What’s a recent college grad, or anyone on the job hunt for that matter, to do? If you don’t have a tattoo, consider whether the risk to your career potential is worth it. Sure, if you’re going into a creative field where tattoos are widely accepted, it may not matter. But if you’re thinking about work in a more straitlaced profession, you may be significantly limiting your chances.
If you really must have body art, consider having it done in a place that can be covered up for work. Some people actually like this option or at least make it work for them. For some, it’s like having a secret identity. For some, their tattoos are part of their private life, not something they want to share with everyone.
If you do have a tattoo and want a job, consider a company’s culture and dress code before you apply. Don’t expect company policy to change just because you think their attitude about tattoos is irrational. It may be irrational, but it’s their call. Don’t think that you have something so special to offer that they will make an exception. However brilliant, gifted, and creative your tattooed self may be, there’s probably someone equally brilliant, gifted and creative who isn’t sporting a fairy on her ankle or an elaborate design on the arm.
Don’t go into an interview with your tattoos showing. It’s always a good idea to start your relationship with a conservative company in a conservative way. If over time you prove your worth to the company, you may find that your tattoos will eventually be accepted. You’ll probably know when and if the time is right to start wearing clothes that allow them to show. If unsure, you can always ask your supervisor.
Do remember that time is on your side. Attitudes toward body art are rapidly changing. More and more people are getting tattoos as it becomes a more mainstream style and an accepted art form. In another decade or so, the people owning the businesses and doing the hiring are going to have tattoos and piercings and probably some other yet-to-be-determined body enhancement. At that point, it will no longer be a big deal. It won’t be any deal at all.
Then the next generation will be challenged to find yet another way to be different from their elders. Will they push the envelope even further? Or will the next wave of young people decide that the way to assert their identity and maybe shock the old folks is to put a high value on unadorned skin and hair the color they were born with?