Can Tattoos Lead to Job Discrimination?

August 23rd 2015

Alex Mierjeski

For young people, tattoos are increasingly commonplace: according to one Pew poll, as many as 40 percent of Millennials have at least one. Still, many are inclined to get inked in discreet places to boost hireability and maintain a professional appearance in workplaces that frown upon tattoos. One University of Tampa study found that a majority of students think visible tattoos hamper their job prospects.

A doctor has a tattoo under his lab coat

In many cases, those fears are born out by recruiters and hiring managers who either follow workplace regulations that bar visible ink, or make inferences about an applicant's viability based on visible tattoos. Students interviewed for the Tampa study, for example, said that if they were in a hiring position, someone's visible tattoos would negatively impact that person's prospects. A separate study from Scotland's University of St. Andrews showed that managers thought visibly tattooed workers could be perceived as "abhorrent, repugnant, unsavory, and untidy" by customers.

But are workplace policies lagging behind the times as a younger, tattooed workforce comes onto the scene? Moreover, how reliably can lifestyle inferences based on a person's tattoos be grafted onto their workplace performance, and how far do discrimination laws go to protect tattooed employees and applicants from facing retribution from employers?

Many workplaces have strict grooming and appearance rules, which tattoos fall under. In those cases, the guidelines are straightforward, and often rigidly enforced. Last month, a reportedly skilled British financial consultant was fired for revealing a 4 centimeter butterfly tattoo on her foot when she wore a dress to work. And in 2014, a longtime Starbucks employee who was allegedly hired with a tattoo faced termination for the heart shape mark on her hand no bigger than a penny. Although those who are fired over a tattoo may feel explicitly discriminated against, employers can fall safely back on policies dictating the conditions of employment—which also might cover a skirt too short, or an unkempt beard.

Woman with tattoos

Federal law prohibits workplace discrimination for both employees and applicants based on things like age, disability, sex, gender, race, or religious beliefs. Workplace appearance policies essentially can not infringe on those protections. But according to legal advice sites, tattoos and other things that might fall under the personal expression category—an offensive T-shirt, for example—can be dictated by an employer if they think that a form of personal expression might tarnish the company's reputation or cause a public relations gaffe.

Some local governments, including Washington, D.C., Madison, Wisconsin, Santa Cruz, California, and Urbana, Illinois, prohibit discrimination based on personal appearance, though visible body art cases still lean in the employers' favor.

Obviously, what constitutes an offensive tattoo that might reflect badly upon the company varies from employer to employer—think of the British consultant. There are also nuanced outlier cases, too, like the Long Island man who was made to leave his job at Home Depot, which allows employees to have visible non-offensive tattoos, after revealing an inner-lip tattoo bearing a girlfriend's name—"Isis." (For the record, a manager said the tattoo wasn't the only reason he was fired, but wouldn't elaborate.)

Some companies have relaxed policies regarding tattoos in recent years—including PetSmart and Starbucks—in efforts to attract younger workers. "We want to build a company where self-expression, empowerment and inclusion are nurtured," read a company memo to employees.

Still, there are potential indications that tattoos are a negative quality for a job applicant: the removal industry is still booming, with revenue from procedures surging 440 percent in the last decade, and U.S. spending on removals expected to hit $83.2 million by 2018, numbers some analysts say can be traced to more job seekers during the recession. However, tattoo removal statistics could say less about workplace conceptions of tattoos, especially in a large pool of regrettable ink.

Overall, research points to persisting notions that tattoos communicate unprofessionalism—even for employers who have body art themselves. Still, some companies looking to pander to both a younger audience and job applicant pool seem to be relaxing stuffy corporate attitudes—and that could be more indicative of a larger shift.