Will That New Tattoo Screw Up Your Career?

John Dietrich

This year 40% of households will have at least one person with a tattoo in it. That means there are roughly 45 million people out there who have gotten themselves inked. This has led HR Acuity to call tattoos the “trending employee relations issue” of the year.

This situation has also led to a spate of mostly contradictory articles about tattoos in the workplace. Roughly half of those articles say they’re totally fine now, and you can get your tattoo with abandon. The other half say you’re totally screwed if your hiring manager catches the slightest glimpse of a tattoo, even if you’re trying to keep it covered up.

The truth is, as in most things, a lot more complex than these articles would have you believe.

Tattoos aren’t as big of a barrier to getting hired as they used to be, with exceptions.

For example, most hiring managers say the way you dress and groom yourself matters way more than a tattoo does when it comes to scoring the job offer, unless you’re applying for a front-line position where you’ll be dealing with customers and clients. However, some professions and industry sectors are still far more conservative than others.

An IT professional or a graphic designer can probably get away with showing a little ink if they also show up looking and smelling nice in a smart suit. Bankers, attorneys, and accountants are going to have bigger hurdles to overcome.

Company culture has a lot to do with your chances, too. Keep in mind a company’s culture isn’t just the values and buzz words on the walls and web pages. It’s also locked into the demographics of the people working in the office. If the company is stuffed to the gills with millennials, you’ll probably all wind up comparing tattoos over your lunch break. See a lot of grey heads? They’re 60% more likely to disapprove of your body art.

Be aware there aren’t any laws in any states protecting any employee from body art discrimination. Plan accordingly.

Tattoos can slow down your career progression.

While there are plenty of hiring managers out there ready to let you get your feet wet, it’s good to be aware a tattoo can keep you from making your way up the career ladder. If your employers know about your tattoo you could get passed up for raises and promotions.

The unconscious bias effect is at work here. People still make snap judgements about the types of people who make the decision to adorn themselves with tattoos. Companies are spending big bucks eliminating unconscious bias in hiring, but these efforts don’t necessarily penetrate the heart of the organization. Sporting a tattoo may lead your direct supervisors to subconsciously believe you are more rebellious, less responsible, and less valuable to the organization.

It sucks, but it is what it is.

It’s not particularly fair, but gender bias impacts the tattoo equation too.

This is particularly annoying because women are more likely to have a tattoo than men are (though men are more likely to admit it). Nevertheless, a woman with a visible tattoo looks more “shocking and rebellious” to the average person than a man does.

HR Departments must treat both men and women the same on paper—they can either allow visible tattoos for both genders or deny visible tattoos for both genders, no exceptions. This does not mean, however, that a woman with a tattoo won’t be penalized more harshly than tattooed male counterparts in thousands of invisible ways, from being taken less seriously to being treated as if she’s less trustworthy.

It’s the unconscious bias effect times two as society’s collective lizard brain makes assumptions about her based both on her gender and on her ink.

Some cities and companies are more tattoo friendly than others.

Starbucks and Pet Smart have openly tattoo-friendly policies. There are quite a few other big name corporations who don’t seem to penalize anyone for getting inked. (You’ll find a list of 36 of America’s most tattoo-friendly companies here). If your dream job involves one of these companies you’re probably safe enough, though of course there’s no guarantee there will be an opening where you want to work.

Where you live makes a big difference, too. Tattoos in the workplace are barely a problem in somewhere like San Francisco, CA or Austin, TX. However, if you live in Tulsa, OK, look out—55% of the population there feels tattoos in the workplace are completely inappropriate.

In general, urban companies are more accepting of tattoos than rural ones, though there are exceptions. Washington, DC is not particularly tattoo-friendly, for example, nor are most of the major cities in the Midwest, with the exceptions of Chicago and Detroit. Boise, Idaho might be a big city, but it’s not necessarily one where it’s easy to get hired if you happen to show your body art off to a potential employer.

Remember, too, we live in a global marketplace. If you are targeting international companies with offices in other countries, it’s best to be cautious. Tattoos still carry deep stigmas in many foreign nations, and certain tattoos are even illegal in some of them. An international employer might be painfully aware of this fact. You might get hired, but you might find many of your opportunities restricted if the company can’t feel comfortable about, say, sending you to their Tokyo office at need.

Making sure you can cover up your tattoos if you need to is a smart career choice.

What your employer doesn’t know about won’t hurt you.

Tattoos on your shoulders, chest, back, upper arms, legs, and ankles are safe. Tattoos on your lower arms and wrists are iffy unless you don’t mind wearing long sleeve shirts every day you happen to be at work. Tattoos on your face, hands, or neck are a big risk, since they’re almost impossible to cover up in a professional setting.

The content of your tattoo can make a big difference.

Controversial images are even more controversial when they become tattoos. In general, you should avoid showing off religious or political tattoos when you’re in the workplace—and yes, tattoos that include a reference to a Bible verse would count. The one exception might be an Americana tattoo worn with patriotic intent within American borders.

As for that pin-up girl tattoo, well…few employers are going to take the risk, even if an individual hiring manager has a personal appreciation for a busty and scantily clad sailor woman winking proudly from your sleeve. Sexual tattoos like these could make female employees feel as though they’re working in an unsafe or hostile environment and it’s best to cover them up, even if they’re meant innocently. This rule of thumb isn’t necessarily gendered, however: if your tattoo includes images of overly muscled, half-naked men in kilts then you should probably keep that one covered up for the comfort of the men around you as well.

In a couple of decades, we might all be done talking about this.

It’s not surprising that 94% of the 45 million of us with tattoos say they’d of course hire someone else with a tattoo. Given tattoos are going more and more mainstream there’s a good chance the tattoo-wearing and tattoo-accepting crowd will soon outnumber the haters. When that happens, we’d expect it to become very rare for most tattoos to cause any kind of rare or work related issue.

Nevertheless, most of us will need to eat over the next two decades. So, get your dream tattoo, but be smart about it. And to ensure when you are showing off your new ink it’s something your proud of, get a free quote from us. We’ll make sure you get the design you want by setting you up to work with one of our talented artists.