Tattoos in the Workplace: Why Still Taboo?

It remains a disappointing fact, even in the modern age, that having tattoos greatly hinders a person’s ability to find work, especially in career fields requiring professional or business attire at all times. In a 2011 study conducted by Harris Interactive among 2,878 U.S. hiring managers, 31 percent said visible tattoos would make them less likely to promote an employee. Visible tattoos were ranked third on the list for “most likely to limit career potential,” following piercings and bad breath. Yet more than one in five Americans – 23 percent, to be exact – have tattoos, according to a 2010 Pew poll.

I’ve always wondered, what is the logic behind this discrimination? Don’t get me wrong – I completely understand the importance of keeping a professional appearance in the workplace. What I don’t understand is why, exactly, tattoos are considered so unprofessional. I realize that “no visible tattoos in the workplace” has been the norm for years, but should it continue to be?

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Some of the most intelligent, dedicated and hardworking people I have ever met have sleeves full of tattoos. Yet according to today’s standards, many employers would refuse even to consider hiring them. That doesn’t seem right to me. I’ve never seen proof that tattoos correlate to poor job performance or a lack of professional service. These employers could be missing out on what might have been the best employee they ever had, but now they will never know it.

Some employers argue that they would like prospective clients to focus on their products or services, rather than on the tattoos on their employees’ skin. But how is a tattoo really different or any more distracting than an employee wearing a beautiful, shiny necklace or a fancy tie, or even an employee with a creative or colorful hairstyle? These are simply forms of self-expression, a way to distinguish yourself among others. Tattoos are just one of the many ways people express their individuality. In fact, the presence of creativity and the ability to express one’s self are important in any workplace because they add innovation and diversity.

I would like to be able to get tattoos without worrying about whether or not they will affect my future employment, and the majority of the friends and colleagues with whom I’ve discussed this say they feel the same. Unfortunately, working in accounting has prevented me from doing so. It is highly unlikely that I will find an accounting position that would allow visible tattoos, and there is no way in hell I would wear long-sleeved clothing to work every day while living in Las Vegas.

While it’s good that we’re seeing more business executives, doctors, police officers and other professionals getting visible pieces, negative attitudes toward tattoos still remain strong among employers. I can only hope that in the near future tattoos will no longer be viewed as something unprofessional. Having a visible tattoo does not hinder any person’s ability to do his or her job, nor does it affect the quality of someone’s work performance, so why does it continue to hinder our ability to achieve our professional goals?