Since the Paleolithic era, tattoos and other body art have been a recognized aspect of human culture. Tattoos were the art form of choice among sailors, bikers, soldiers, and prison inmates for decades. Today, tattoos have made the transition to mainstream, showing up on the bodies of celebrities, athletes, television news anchors, architects. and office receptionists.
According to a 2006 study by the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, 25 percent of adults ages 18-50 in the US currently have a tattoo. In 2003, just 15 percent of US adults had a tattoo. Based on the number of new tattoo parlors and the number of people getting tattooed, this trend does not appear to be slowing any time soon. Body art is becoming easier and safer to apply and the percentage of employees showing up to work with a tattoo is increasing. Because of that, human resources has recently gotten involved in deciding what is appropriate to display on your skin in the workplace.
Tattoos do not become an employment issue unless they are visible. Many workers realize this, and those with body art on their torsos, arms, ankles, or necks cover their exposed tattoos with work-appropriate clothing. But if - and how - you need to be covered up depends on the industry.
For example, Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. all have written policies that apply to visible tattoos. Disney does not permit its employees to use bandages to cover their tattoos, but they can use opaque makeup. SeaWorld specifies "non-conservative, large or offensive tattoos" and that tattoos will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Wal-Mart specifies tattoos 'that are offensive or distractive are to be covered by clothing or other means."
Law enforcement agencies are more restrictive about visible tattoos. A college graduate who dreamed of becoming a police officer was prohibited from getting a job in law enforcement with the New York State Police because of his tattoos. A 2006 department rule prevents hiring anyone who has a tattoo that is visible when an open-necked short-sleeved shirt is worn.
At the other end of the spectrum, some companies are embracing visibly tattooed employees who they believe may help them project a hipper atmosphere, as well as attract younger workers who may not feel welcome in more conservative environments. Whole Foods Market, based in Austin, Texas, allows its individual store team leaders to write their own dress codes. For example, one store allows its employees to have tattoos, providing that the images are not offensive.
David Barron, a labor and employment attorney and partner at Epstein, Becker, Green, Wickliff & Hall, P.C. in Houston, said that there is nothing wrong with limiting visible tattoos in the workplace, as long as the dress code is enforced consistently and equally across all employee groups. Barron advises HR managers to, "have a policy in writing and in practice that if there's an offensive tattoo, like a Confederate flag, for instance, then that has to be dealt with the same way an offensive picture, e-mail or poster would be dealt with. If it's offensive ... it should not be allowed in the company." He also recommends to companies drafting their dress-code policy that it must be justifiable to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in case a discrimination complaint is filed by either a prospective or current employee whose body art falls just outside the parameters of the company's dress code.
According to the EEOC, employers can impose dress codes and appearance policies so long as they do not discriminate or hinder a person's race, color, religion, age, national origin or gender. Peter Ronza, a spokesman for the Society for Human Resource Management, said that from an employer's view, some customers might be understanding of your body art, but there will be a lot that will not. Employers "can't afford to lose business because a guy has something [tattooed] crawling up his neck," he said. "Perception is reality, and people make decisions based on image." Ronza said that trends come and go and perceptions do change, citing the increasing number of high-powered corporate men with pierced ears. If more people with tattoos move into positions of responsibility, tattoos will become more accepted.
Employers who can't find workers with the right skills are becoming more accepting of body art, according to global outplacement firm Challenger, Gary & Christmas. Additionally, those making the hiring decisions are getting younger and are not as stringent about holding on to traditional ideas about workplace appearance.
The bottom line is that yes, you can have a tattoo and a great career, but you do need to be aware of the company's policies regarding body art. You need to judge whether the employer with whom you are interviewing or for whom you are currently working is going to accept your body art. If they will not, but it is someplace you want to work, you will need to make an effort to conceal your tattoos.
Photo credit: Microsoft