What Your Boss Really Thinks About Your Tattoos

Millenials are bringing a lot of change to the workplace, and one of those changes is attitudes toward tattoos and body piercing.  According to statisticbrain.com,  35% of Americans 18–25 years old and 40% of those 26-40 have at least one tattoo.  Only 6% of those 65 and older have a tattoo. What happens when they join the workforce and come into conflict with older workers or customers who don’t share this high incidence of body art?

In an published in 2015, the researchers from Roger Williams University surveyed students to see if attitudes toward tattoos and piercings had changed since a similar survey done in 2004. The authors surveyed 141 college students, men and women, 98% of whom had had a job before taking the survey. The survey asked students if they had a tattoo and why they had gotten one, as well as what they thought the view on tattoos were in the workplace.  

They also researched 20 companies to see if they had policies specifically addressing tattoos and body piercings, and 75% do.  

What they found showed attitudes had indeed changed in the intervening 10 years. The majority of students considered tattoos and piercings to be a personal decision rather than a workplace concern. Compared to a similar study from 2004, the authors note that for almost all students (first-year students were an exception), a greater majority believe tattoos and piercings are a personal issue than in 2004 and fewer believe they are a workplace issue than in 2004.  

And only 31% of the surveyed students had a tattoo or piercing, so they hold these attitudes towards body art even if they don’t have a tattoo or piercing themselves.

Given these attitudes, the authors point out that companies will lose applicants if policies about tattoos and piercings are too strict. And yet customers may be put off by visible body art, especially if they tend to be middle-aged or older.

Photo Credit: LittleVisuals.co
Photo Credit: LittleVisuals.co

Their advice is to be specific with language about tattoos.  Very few companies say employees may not have tattoos or piercings; more typically, they say that employees must cover their tattoos and remove piercings while at work or during work hours.

Here’s an example of a specific policy the article cites: “Tongue and lip jewelry are not permitted. Gauges and plugs are discouraged but, if currently worn, must be no larger than a dime and solid in color. … Visible tattoos are permitted, provided they are tasteful and not offensive. For this purpose, ‘offensive’ is defined as what a reasonable person would find distractingly uncomfortable. This can be caused by—but not limited to—images, size and wording.”

This is a specific policy that can then be applied consistently, and even the vague term “offensive” is given a definition that is not simply personal. The authors stress that policies like this are important for avoiding court cases claiming discrimination. Although it is not illegal to discriminate because of body art, because such art is “alterable/mutable” (can be removed), if no policy exists employees are more likely to claim personal discrimination.

The authors cite a court case settled by Red Robin for $150,000 when they fired him for not covering up wrist tattoos which the employee claimed were part of his religious practice.  A court case against Costco that they cite, however, ended in favor of the employer when an employee claimed her eyebrow ring was part of her religious practice in the “Church of Body Modification.” However, the company had a dress code policy in place that only earrings were allowed as jewelry.

The Two Lead Researchers, courtesy of Tamucc.edu
The Two Lead Researchers, courtesy of Tamucc.edu

Millenials with tattoos and piercings will continue to make up a larger and larger portion of the workforce and consumer population, no doubt leading to more tolerance of body art.

In the meantime, maybe there are other more pressing issues to worry about with tattoos. According to atisticbrain.com, 29% of people with tattoos say their tattoo makes them feel rebellious, and 31% say it makes them feel more sexy. Perhaps workplace policies for acts of insubordination and relationships between co-workers need to be a priority.  

Citation: Schultz, Megan; Harvey, Diane M.; Bosco, Susan M. “Tattoos and Body Piercings in the Workplace.” Proceedings for the Northeast Region Decision Sciences Institute (NEDSI). 2015, p1-10. 

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