What to know about tattoos in the workplace

In 2014, Kristie Williams, a Starbucks barista in Georgia, was fed up with having to wear long-sleeved shirts to cover up a tattoo of her daughter’s name on her forearm. On a hot summer day when her store’s air-conditioning went kaput, Williams still was required to keep her sleeves down. Williams decided to act: In August, she started an online petition against Starbucks’ tattoo-hiding policy.

“I believe tattoos are a simple form of self-expression, and as long as they aren’t offensive or explicit, I think we should be able to show off our artwork proudly,” she wrote. The petition received more than 25,000 signatures and prompted the coffee giant to re-examine its dress code. That October, Starbucks released a new policy that allowed visible tattoos as long as they don’t include swear words or hateful messages and aren’t featured on an employee’s face or neck.

The idea of forcing employees to cover up their tattoos regardless of what they depict appears to be on its way out; many companies now employ a protocol similar to Starbucks’. Rules forbidding exposed tattoos also can greatly limit a hiring pool; a 2015 Harris Poll survey found that 29 percent of Americans had at least one tattoo. However, the tattoo-removal market continues to grow. According to The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there were over 45,000 tattoo removal procedures conducted in the U.S. in 2013.

Still, deciding whether to allow visible tattoos in the workplace is complicated. Here are our conclusions on displaying your ink in the office:


Illustrations by Mike Forbush

It’s Not Really Up to You
You give up certain rights when you work for a company or someone other than yourself. Companies are entitled to enforce dress codes, and no-show tattoo policies are fair game. If you fail to adhere to policy, then yeah, you could lose your job. Under the law, the company pretty much wins unless the dress code clearly breaks discrimination laws. For example, a company can’t prohibit only women from displaying their tattoos.

tattoosThe Business of Dressing for Business
The more conservative the company, the less likely it will accept tattoos on display. However, it’s also more likely it’ll have a traditional dress code that instructs employees to be pretty covered up regardless of tattoos. Men are encouraged to wear slacks and long-sleeved button-ups, while women wear something similar or a skirt and a blouse. So, in a weird way, tattoos and business attire go hand-in-hand. Because nobody is showing much skin, those with tattoos are not singled out.

tattoosThe Stats on Tats
While the acceptance of visible tattoos seems to be more commonplace, the statistics on how tattoos affect employees and sales vary. According to a 2015 survey by researchers at KIIT University in India, 86 percent of young professionals surveyed said they did not think piercings or tattoos reduced the chances of getting a job. Other studies contradict that notion, though: Research has shown that consumers prefer non-tattooed front-line staff, and that tattoo bias is influenced by gender (they’re more acceptable on men) and trade (a mechanic with tattoos is more acceptable than a salesperson sporting ink). A 2014 study from researchers at the University of St Andrews, in Scotland, also reported that visible tattoos had a predominantly negative effect on the hiring selection.

tattoosA Word on Piercings
In some cases, there’s an even stronger resistance to piercings at the workplace than tattoos. A CareerBuilder survey of 2,878 hiring managers in numerous industries found that 37 percent said they would be less likely to extend a promotion to someone with visible piercings, a far greater share than those opposed to having messy hair (29 percent), wearing wrinkled clothing (31 percent), and sporting visible tattoos (31 percent). Companies have varied policies on piercings, but the general rule of thumb is: Less is more. If your piercings are more noticeable than your eye color, your boss might have a problem with them. Piercings also work similarly to tattoos under the law. An employer can reject your nose ring, your gauges, your barbell — no problem. But here’s the plus side to piercings: Unlike tattoos, they’re often easy to remove.