Ask Alto : What should workplaces’ policies be on tattoos?

October 18, 2022
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Ask Alto

Did you know that Sir Winston Churchill had a tattoo – along with his mother Lady Randolph Churchill?

Except that they probably didn’t.

The famous wartime Prime Minister’s arm anchor, and his mother’s wrist-snake, turn up often in online searches about tattoos – never with any definitive source. It seems that Lady Randolph may have made her tattoo up to shore up her image as a “wild woman”, and that Churchill himself just didn’t have one.

But the story that they did is emblematic of much that is written about tattoos. Body ink is now widespread, but older negative perceptions linger on, and there’s a desire to use historical examples to counter those perceptions (like their association with prisoners and gangs, recently used by South African police minister Bheki Cele as justification for not hiring people with tattoos.)

How many people have tattoos?

As in the Churchill family story, statistics are hard to come by. But it’s clear that a large number of people worldwide now have tattoos. And, tattoo artists the world over have reported a boom in tattoos over the covid pandemic lockdown period:

  • A 2018 Ipsos poll suggested that 30% of people in the United States have at least one tattoo; those under 55 years old are twice as likely to have at least one tattoo.
  • In 2015, a survey found that a fifth of all British adults were inked, with 30% of 25- to 39-year-olds having at least one tattoo.
  • A 2012 Australian study found that 14.5% of respondents had been tattooed at some point in their lives, and 2.4% of respondents had been tattooed in the year before the interview. Men were more likely than women to report a tattoo, but the highest rates of tattooing were found among women in their 20s (29.4%). Men and women ages 20-39 were most likely to have been tattooed.
  • A 2006 U.S. study found that 38% of Hispanic people had tattoos and 28% of Black people had them, while only 22% of white people did.
  • In a post-covid world, many people saw tattoos as the “new feel good” reminder and a celebration of overcoming the hardships from 2020

How do attitudes towards tattoos affect people’s job opportunities?

A 2014 survey showed that while many people may have tattoos, they may still be an issue in workplaces. Employers were asked how a candidate’s tattoos would affect their decision to hire or not hire that person. Fourteen percent (of a sample of 327) said they would be less likely to hire someone with tattoos, 23% said it would not affect their decision, and the rest said it would depend on the number and location of the tattoos and/or the role being filled (except for one individual who answered that they would be more likely to hire a person with tattoos).

But, how have perceptions changed in a world where WFH and flexible work solutions are still largely here to stay?

Why do workplaces need to consider their policies on tattoos?

It’s clear that tattoos are widespread among young people – so any employer who is hiring young people is going to have employees who have tattoos. On the other hand, the employer may have clients or customers with concerns about tattoos. A fine dining restaurant may not want the maître d’ to have large tattoos of skulls on the back of each hand. But it might not matter if a dishwasher in the kitchen has the same tattoos.

A workplace’s attitude to tattoos should also be seen as part of its thinking around diversity, equity and inclusion. While tattoos can be viewed as a choice that someone had made (rather than an innate characteristic like skin colour), Enrica Ruggs, associate professor at the University of Houston C.T. Bauer College of Business Department of Management and Leadership, asks why someone having elected to be tattooed should matter. “Tattoos are optional, yes, but should they influence how you are regarded on the job?” she asks.

It’s possible that a tattoo may be an expression of religious belief, and there are gender issues too. Historically, it is likely that more men wore visible tattoos than women, so an interviewer who notices a tattoo on a man’s arm may have no reaction. But the same interviewer may have an adverse reaction if a tattoo is visible on a female applicant’s ankle. Conversely, if a male employee is required to cover up his skull tattoo, but a female employee is not required to cover up her “cute” butterfly tattoo, the male employee could claim that he was being discriminated against due to his gender.

What to consider when drafting a policy on tattoos

  • Avoid blanket bans on tattoos, suggests the MidAtlantic Employers’ Association. Limits on visible tattoos should be based on legitimate business reasons, such as projecting a neat, clean and professional image to customers and clients, and should be flexible with options to offer reasonable accommodation for religious reasons.
  • Any policy regarding the covering of visible tattoos should be consistently applied to avoid discrimination claims arising from inconsistent application.
  • Managers and supervisors must be trained to be sensitive to the potential significance of visible tattoos, not only to the bearer of the tattoos (as the tattoo may have religious or cultural significance) but also to co-workers who may be offended by the symbolism of another employee’s tattoos (think of an Black employee in the U.S. who may point to the uncovered Confederate flag tattoo on a white co-worker as evidence of racial harassment).