Are Tattoos Becoming More Acceptable In The workplace?

  • Written By Dan Hunter on November 21, 2019
    Last Updated: February 2, 2023

To look at this issue with a bit more nuance, we should look at tattoos and their history. We must also focus our lens on the intersectionality of body art and the workplace and its effect on age and gender. Also, what’s the effect of gender and age on tattoos?

There isn’t a federal law that discriminates against having a tattoo in the workplace. Even so, some employers state in their company policies that employees have to cover up tattoos — a viewpoint that’s deemed unfair by many, and rightly so.

What Are the Issues With People and Tattoos?

There are many negative connotations surrounding tattoos, even if these outlooks shouldn’t exist. Visible ink on the face and hands isn’t socially ‘acceptable,’ and there’s a perception of criminality or lacking of trust. In addition to this, women are also perceived as less attractive.

Despite these viewpoints on tattooing, as we know, humans have been modifying themselves throughout history since records began, for many and varied reasons. There are tens of millions of tattooed residents in the United States alone.

The earliest known definitive ink, for example, is around 5,200 years old. Otzi The Iceman had a number — 61 — of tattoos, and the best of current thinking is that they were a mix of medical charms and personal designs. Other cultures through pre-history have had a strong body modification tradition too, so we can see this is a pan-historic and pan-human tradition. 

We can see, therefore, that this isn’t a flash in the pan or a fad — no matter what your mother told you that first time. What we have is a very human desire to change, alter, modify and/or to make a statement. Why we do this is a far more complex reason than simply picking your next design from a book in a parlor. 

In the modern sense, why we do things is as, or more, important than the what. In modern America, change is a mix of glacial slowness burnished with a blazing pace of innovation.

We have staid businesses that have been operating in the same way for many decades, with many of the same rules still in place — dress codes for men and women that still codify sex sartorially — which may seem antiquated and old-fashioned, but are still enforced across huge tranches of the service industry. 

It is then easy to see how old, still-entrenched ideas and beliefs still hold sway across large parts of corporate America. Tattoos are still seen as part of a counter or subversive culture, or the province of low-paid, menial, itinerant workers or Army/Navy/Airforce. 

Changing Times? Changing People?

The cultural demographic has changed far quicker than the established workplace culture. The number of us with one or more tattoos has changed in less than a decade. This rapid shift is also reflected more generally across the population, from Baby Boomers to Generation Z and beyond, with each cohort becoming more artistically decorated. The driving force, however, was, and still is, the young.

We now have a youthful workforce with little or no prior experience starting to look for work within a static, or at least change-resistant employment sector.

The traditional demographic of managers and directors — often male and in their 40s or 50s — belong in a different cohort with different beliefs and ideas. Whereas 1-in-4 people now have a tattoo, in the 60s, 70s and even in the 80’s it was closer to 1-in-10. 

Women and Ink

The gender divide is more noticeable. The uptake in body art in the last decade or two in women has seen the largest change of all. The stereotype of almost a carnival-style tattooed lady pastiche turned into an edgy millennial and then into a soccer mom.

The old guard, if we can call them that, still assign roles to men and women. A man with tattoos is strong, defiant, aggressive-looking and manly — all ‘positive’ male tropes. A woman with a large amount of visible ink fares less well under the microscope; tags such as ‘ugly,’ ‘harsh’ and ‘manly’ are bandied about. None of these can be said to reflect well on their owner. These attitudes, in part, are still reflected negatively in the workplace.

This paints quite a bleak and not wholly accurate picture, however. The workforce isn’t a true monolithic, homogeneous mass, but more of a seething, bubbling melting pot of places, people and jobs. This isn’t to say that the above ideas aren’t entrenched in job roles and public perception, more that there needs to be a more nuanced look at the situation in the 2020’s and beyond. 

What’s New?

Business managers and owners — think tech bubble, here — are younger. Roles and expectations are changing, both of the public and employers. The establishment is at the forefront of this; public services such as the Police, Fire Service and other First Responders are now sporting tattoos. The Army, that bastion of convention, has new rules set out to deal with the changing times.

All of the above draw their employees from a specific demographic, which is, statistically, the most inked of all groups, and furthermore, there’s a need to keep these people employed.

A business truism is that it’s easier to keep good staff than to find new ones. We can see that their hand has been forced. The army relies on an intake of fit, young men, and currently, with close to 40% having or thinking about having a tattoo, it would be simple suicide to exclude people on a simple issue of body art.

Change and evolution are needed and adopted. Why, then, is there such resistance in other parts of the workplace?

The Consumer-Facing Situation and Tattoos

In certain areas, especially customer-driven and customer-facing, there’s still a prevalence that ‘No Tattoos’ are the norm — none allowed to be visible. Thus, the perception by those in charge is that the public doesn’t want to see people with visible ink.

It isn’t a debate that a guy with ink on his hands is less able to sort out your personal accounts, or that a girl with an intricate sleeve can’t help you when you walk into a high street bank. 

What is debatable is that people are, on balance, uncomfortable with this. The bottom line in business is that if something has a negative impact, then it should, if possible, be modified. We can see that the largest response is a lack of response. People, it seems, don’t care if the guy bussing your plates in a high-end restaurant has tattoos anymore than the guy fixing your car. 

What Is the Legal View?

If there is a top-down issue with tattoos in some spheres such as law, finance and healthcare, what legal protection is afforded to the workers? Legally, a tattoo isn’t a protected characteristic in the same way that race, religion or disability might be. 

There have been occasions, with varying degrees of success, where people have been dismissed from a job — in their opinion, because of a tattoo.

People have also been dismissed because of another person’s tattoo, in this case, a confederate flag, along with allegations of racism exemplified by the tattoo.

Some have claimed that their tattoo has religious significance, thereby affording protected status to it and the individual, and allowing a wrongful dismissal suit to be brought, resulting in a six-figure award.

This leads to interesting times for employers and workers where both sides have rights, either legally or morally. Driving away a potential customer base with bad press is all too easy in this modern, viral age. 

What Can We Learn From This?

We can see that there are businesses/jobs that have always been, shall we say, tattoo happy. The US Navy and the construction industry are two good examples of this. There are still businesses with exclusionary policies regarding tattoos, for example, banking front-line services, and there are those that are in transition. 

Change is only brought about in society, by society — a true definition of change from within. Modern business owners are now as likely to be inked. Modern workforces are made up of a pool, a microcosm of the ocean of society they’re drawn from. As we have an increasingly decorated population, we have an increasingly decorated workforce. 

We have a more, or less (depending on your lens), discerning customer base. People are less worried about how people look; they’re more bothered about the service they offer.

What Is the Final View?

The view from on top is becoming disconnected from the society it functions in, where it draws its staff from, and which serves as its base. This can’t be good for business.

Change needs to come. If experience has told us anything in the workplace, it’s told us that businesses that don’t change or evolve, simply die. It seems that change is coming, and that change is coming from the bottom. That change is you, and that change is me.

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