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Applicants with Tattoos: Just Because You Can Reject Them Doesn’t Mean You Should

Toby Graham /
closeup of tattooed hands

Can a tattoo hurt a person’s chances of getting a job?

My daughter would like to know. This was the dinner table topic a few days ago—she’s 14 and really wants a tattoo of her own. On the one hand, I, like many parents, feel a twinge of fear when I imagine my kid getting a tattoo. I worry about what could go wrong: Would some people think less of her? What if she regrets it?

On the other hand, it’s 2018. Who am I to say what she decides to do with her body? Who cares what someone who would judge her thinks, anyway? Besides, we live in Portland, Oregon, where you look like an outsider if you don’t have ink.

Fortunately for us and all the other families out there dealing with the same questions, SHRM recently published an article on this very subject. News editor Dana Wilkie writes:

“About 3 in 10 Americans (29 percent) have at least one tattoo, according to a 2016 Harris Poll of 2,225 U.S. adults. Among those with any tattoos, 7 in 10 (69 percent) have two or more.

Tattoos are especially prevalent among younger Americans, with nearly half of Millennials (47 percent) and over a third of those belonging to Generation X (36 percent) saying they have at least one, compared to 13 percent of Baby Boomers. Millennials and members of Generation X (37 percent and 24 percent, respectively) are also far more likely than their elders (6 percent of Baby Boomers) to have multiple tattoos.”

Despite the prevalence of body art, however, no laws currently prohibit hiring managers from discriminating against people with visible tattoos. Furthermore, companies can establish any employee policies they want: allowing any and all tattoos, prohibiting certain kinds of imagery or tattoos on certain visible body parts, or requiring all workers to cover any of their tattoos.

That said, employers should be aware negative attitudes toward tattoos look increasingly old-fashioned:

“In the U.S., most people would be comfortable seeing a person with visible tattoos serve in roles across a range of industries and professions, the Harris Poll found. The levels of comfort range from highs of 86 percent for athletes, 81 percent for IT technicians and 78 percent for chefs, to lower majorities of 59 percent each for primary school teachers and judges, and even 58 percent for presidential candidates.”

Read “What Are an Applicant’s Tattoos Telling Potential Employers?”

Still not sure how you should think about a tattooed applicant? My advice (and I’m speaking to myself here as well) is maybe don’t worry so much about it. Tattoos, like all forms of outward appearance, aren’t great indicators of a person’s character. And remember: it’s an employee’s market—why unnecessarily limit your candidate pool?

So, perhaps “live and let live” is the best policy. In the words of Jon Bovi, “it’s is my life.” 

…Actually, take back everything I just said.

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