Once again, summer is upon us. If you work in an office with an informal dress code, shorts and t-shirts are in full force. And, so are the tattoos of colleagues who may be ink collectors.
Although one out of every five people has a tattoo, many professionals still feel pressured to cover their body art at their place of employment. This is understandable if your tattoo happens to be on your chest or lower back. (Because even the most relaxed office dress codes typically prohibit crop tops and hot pants.) However, many folks who have tattoos on their forearms are often hesitant to roll up their shirtsleeves on a hot summer’s day for fear of exposing their ink.
Why? Because despite the growing popularity of tattoos, many old-guard perceptions persist regarding individuals with tattoos.
According to a poll by Salary.com, 22% of individuals aged 18-25 thought tattoos in the workplace were inappropriate. Compare this statistic to the 63% of individuals 60+ who frowned upon tattoos in the workplace. As the age of the respondents increased, so did the number of people in those age brackets who thought tattoos had no place in a work environment.
Despite their feelings on tattoos in the workplace, the majority of those polled —76%—agreed that having tattoos hurt a candidate’s chances of getting a job. This point was further corroborated by the staggering 39% of employers polled who believe that employees with tattoos “reflect poorly on their employers.”
Discrimination Against Tattoos in the Workplace
Is there a law that protects those with tattoos from losing their job or from facing discrimination at the hands of their employer? Actually, it’s quite a grey area. Similar to at-will employment laws, employers have the right to dictate whether it’s appropriate for employees to display visible ink. In 2006, the 6th District Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Robert v. Ward that employers can enforce dress code policies that include tattoos as long as these policies are “handled in an equitable fashion.”
For instance, if a person has a tattoo for religious reasons, they may not be able to be fired for their ink, as demonstrated in the case of a former restaurant server who had a tattoo that was part of his religious obligation. He was fired by his employer for violating their policy that prohibited servers from having visible tattoos. The server took them to court, citing it as a violation of his rights, and won $150,000 for wrongful termination.
While this is a rare instance, many established companies do have policies that are favorable towards employees with tattoos:
- Children’s Hospital of St. Louis allows its staff to sport tattoos without having to cover them. They do reserve the right, however, to deem certain tattoos offensive or to request employees cover them if they may be frightening to children.
- Automotive maker Ford allows all of its employees to have tattoos and/or piercings. However, factory workers are prohibited from having piercings that may get caught on machinery and cause them injury.
- Walmart allows tattoos that aren’t offensive, but prohibits facial piercings. They require offensive tattoos to be covered with clothing or makeup.
The grey area exists in what sort of tattoos employers may deem “offensive.” It may be limited to tattoos that incorporate profanity or nudity within the design, or it may also include certain types of horror-themed tattoos that may have artistic amounts of gore incorporated into the design. You may even have an employer who finds a tattoo of a butterfly objectionable. How “offensive” a tattoo may be is solely at the discretion of the employer and their explicit company policies.
Why Are Tattoos So Polarizing in the Workplace?
While polls and numbers reflect the varying attitudes towards tattoos in the workplace, it still begs the question of why some feel the way they do.
Over 30 years ago, only 1 out of every 100 people had a tattoo. Compare that to today where it’s more common to run into someone who has even a tiny tattoo than no ink at all. The older generation grew up with the belief that most people who had tattoos were criminals and deviants. The crude quality of some older tattoos—ink jobs that were a far cry from the artistry and photorealism of ink today— may have given body art a bad rap.
In fact, the art of tattooing itself was illegal in many states and cities throughout the U.S. It may sound hard to believe, but New York City—arguably the most metropolitan city in the world—banned tattooing from 1961 until 1997. The ban was based on the belief that unsterile practices may have led to an outbreak of Hepatitis B, marking tattoos and their wearers as potential carriers of disease.
Today, tattoo parlors are among some of the cleanest and most-regulated establishments around. There are numerous practices surrounding sterilization of equipment, inks, and even handling clients. (Go ahead! Visit a tattoo parlor and ask any artist worth his or her salt how many pairs of disposable nitrile gloves they go through in an hour-long sitting.)
Attitudes about tattoos and tattooing have changed as the art itself has evolved. Television shows such as L.A. Ink, Ink Master and Tattoo Nightmares have shown the artistry and layers of meaning behind tattoos, that these portable works of art carry strong significance for their wearers. Some people get meaningful words or signatures of loved ones inked on their skin. Others get photorealistic portrait tattoos of deceased loved ones, carrying a picture on their skin along with many fond memories.
Where Do You Stand?
Personally, I think it would be nice to live in a world where we’re judged on the merits of our work rather than the clothing or art with which we choose to adorn our bodies. In my mind, there isn’t much difference between a tattoo and a large, colorful birthmark. The only difference is, many people with tattoos feel as if their body art is a birthmark that should have always been on their skin. If someone is able to express themselves— or more importantly, be themselves— they are able to do their best work and be a great asset to their team and clients.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, “If you prick us with a tattoo needle, do we not bleed? If you mention a Friday office Happy Hour, do we not laugh?” Tattooed coworkers are no different from those who don’t have ink. If you’re going to judge your fellow cube mates, judge them on the caliber of their work, not their choice of body art.