Are tattoos harming employability?

Over a third of UK adults would treat those with tattoos worse than those without, a YouGov poll reveals. Libby Harris investigates why this stigma remains in the 21st century.

In the beginning, tattoos were a foreign concept. They were markings of tribes, of places from far away. They eventually became a sign of royalty and the aristocracy. Or, they were for criminals and sailors.

There was no in between. At some point over the last 200 years, however, they have crept more and more into western society, they are no longer a sign of the rich or the rough. It’s everyone from the rich to the rough.

Recent studies show in fact, that a fifth of adults has tattoos in the UK.

Despite this, over a third of adults will still form a negative opinion on someone if they have a large tattoo.

With shows such as Miami Ink hitting the spotlight in 2005 leading to more recent, controversial shows such as Tattoo Fixers, we can now see more and more into the world of tattoos and all the different kinds of people that get them.

For whatever reason, people love to get tattooed, in memory of someone, to reflect a favourite film or book, or even just because it looks nice, everyone is different in style, class and walk of life.

Nevertheless, many people are still facing issues when it comes to looking for jobs because of having visible tattoos.

In my last job as a hostess at a fine dining restaurant, the standard uniform across the chain was a black dress and skin coloured tights.

Another part of the uniform policy was to have no visible tattoos on show.

I have 13 tattoos on my legs.

Whilst doing my training, the manager asked how I’d got the job, as I couldn’t have visible tattoos yet the uniform meant I would.

I had to politely explain to her that we wore trousers as a host at the Manchester venue, whilst holding back some serious embarrassment about being told I could lose a job before I’d even started because of what I chose to do with my body.

This raised a lot of questions for me, as I progressed in my job and became extremely good at it, I grew ever more curious as to why I may have missed out on the experience I gained there simply because they thought I wasn’t formal enough because of my tattoos.

I currently have thirteen tattoos on my legs

There is nothing offensive on visible show, my right leg consists mainly of references to pop culture while my left leg has tattoos symbolising my parents.

Whilst researching into this, I saw that it has been a topic of debate for a while, the general population assuming that tattoos will stop you getting certain jobs, typically front-facing roles such as teachers or doctors.

But it spreads further than this. From the roles we assume would face trouble to roles in restaurants or the creative industry. People can come under so much scrutiny for choosing to express themselves in a more permanent, visible way.

Creative web designer, Sarah, told me how when she went to a recruiter recently she was “massively patronised” because of her tattoos. She told me, “She took great pleasure in speaking to me like a child when asking, ‘Now is that going to be a problem?’ after telling me my tattoos would have to remain covered to retain professionalism.”

In an industry that is all about expressing oneself, it is surprising to hear that this stigma is present,

“I’ve never experienced such snobbery before,” continued the 23-year-old who has both her chest and arms tattooed, “especially in a non-client facing role. Subsequently, I was offered the job for almost 50% of the salary on the initial ad.”

Me and my chin turned 23 today 🎈

A post shared by S A R A H (@sarahhhelliott) on

In a study done by ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), it was revealed that,

“A few employees suggested that they would welcome a greater opportunity to ‘be themselves’ at work. In reality, this also meant ‘bringing out one’s personality’ to a greater extent thereby increasing their level of comfort during interactions with others at work.”

An inter-industry union in the service sector suggested in the ACAS research that many employers are duty-bound to accept a person’s appearance if openly presented in the hiring process. This can arguably be used to stop appearance based selection decisions. They stated,

‘In recent years there have been slightly more queries around tattoos, piercings and hair colour. The advice we give is that staff must adhere to the uniform policy. However, if they were employed with visible tattoos, piercings and their hair colour, the Company cannot then expect them to change this after their appointment’. (Union official)”

This was very much the case for a door-to-door tea distributor, Adam*. The 35-year-old has a regular cycle dealing with between 100 and 140 people per day in the Washington Tyne & Wear area. Adam is tall and broad, with tattoos literally from the back of his head down to his ankles.

When he initially applied for the job, over a year ago, the two managers interviewing him said they were really happy with him, but commented on the fact he had a wolf’s head on his hand and his neck and back of his head were completely tattooed.

Their question was, “How would you deal with people who are put off by his look?”

His response, “If they dislike me for the person I am or have a problem with me then that would be their loss, as I see myself as a normal down to earth bloke.”

3 days later he received a call who told him that although he had concerns over reactions from elderly customers, the head office had told him, ”If you think he can do a good job and represent this company then there isn’t any reason he can’t do the job.”

Since his employment, feedback from clients has been nothing but strong. They love that the company are getting into the 21st century and employing younger people with tattoos. He is on first name basis with many clients and his managers have received calls to tell them how polite Adam is.

Nevertheless, when he started he was told to grow his hair out to cover his head tattoos and when he revealed he was getting another visible tattoo, his manager has turned around and says this could be a problem.

When I spoke to him he was baffled and seeking legal advice, because, as ACAS suggested, the company knew he had tattoos when they employed him. He has proven that he is an asset to the company and yet they are still discriminating against him.

He stated, “I think this is the perfect example of it matters not how I look but how I talk to people and how I come across as a man regardless of my looks. I love my job. I get paid for really just talking to people. To me, that is not work and I thoroughly enjoy what I do.

“Bear in mind I’m 6″3 and heavily, heavily tattooed. I’ve had to win round my manager, my area manager and all my customers to see the man I am rather than the stigma of ‘Oh he’s got tattoos, he could be trouble’.”

This leads to the question; with more and more UK adults getting tattooed each year, are business owners missing out on potentially talented employees by discriminating against someone due to a tattoo?

Many people argue that you can’t create a rule to stop discrimination for tattoos because someone may have something offensive. Meaning that it could cause problems in certain jobs.

Others simply believe that it’s just a case of dressing appropriately. A teacher I know told me he wears long sleeves and a suit in work because it’s professional, and yes, it covers his arms which are both covered in tattoos.

For myself? I have an agreement with my mother that I won’t get tattoos where they can’t be covered until I’m in a stable job that will accept them, even though nothing I want is offensive.

People are judged constantly for skin colour, sex, religion; things that they cannot change. We live in a world filled with so much hate and discrimination. So maybe it’s time to discover if a person can do the job before deciding they can’t because of the changes they choose to make to themselves.

*This name has been changed at the request of the interviewee to protect his identity


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