Tattoos and employment

Kevin O'Meara

Tattoos and body art

As recently as 20 years ago, visible tattoos were viewed as a significant hurdle in gaining meaningful, professional employment. A recently published study, jointly conducted by the University of Miami Business School and the University of Western Australia has suggested that this attitude has not just changed, but possibly inverted.

Tattoos, piercings and body modification, in general, have roots in many ancient cultures, yet still, they are often viewed in a negative light.

Take Japan for example; ‘Traditional Japanese’ style tattoos are renowned the world over, yet due to their connection with the Yakuza in Japanese culture, tattoos have always been a taboo subject. While Japanese society has grown more accepting of tattoos on foreigners, they are less forgiving to natives. Tattoos mean instant exclusion from any space where they may be visible, most notably in on-sen, Japanese hot springs. Japanese tattoo artists have however continued to operate until recently when a new law requiring tattoo studios to have a medical licence effectively shuttered the industry overnight and forced those who continued to do so into criminality. This, of course, has led to the further sullying of tattoos in the broader public consciousness.

In western society, tattoos have undergone a much more brisk rehabilitation, with acceptance by the general public growing over the last 10-15 years, with almost everyone knowing someone with at least one tattoo. The study showed that up to 40% of millennials and 20% of all adults in the US now have a tattoo. Lead study author, Prof. Michael French University of Miami Business School said “The long-held stigmas associated with having tattoos, and particularly visible ones, may be eroding, especially among younger individuals who view body art as a natural and common form of personal expression.”

The study surveyed over 2000 participants. When collating the data upon the end of the study, it found that there was no distinguishable discrimination against those with tattoos and those without. What the study did show, however, was that in certain fields, having visible tattoos or piercings may decrease the likelihood of securing employment.

In today’s competitive job markets, particularly those in the areas expected to see the most growth, i.e. the tech industry, landing and securing the best possible talent for an available role is crucial. Given this knowledge it is understandable why the big players such as Facebook and Google build campuses specifically designed to not just help employees relax, but also to increase the amount of time spent in the offices and most crucially, to allow room for creatives to think and make the leaps in logic and thinking that propel the industry forward. With clear links between self-expression and creativity, it stands to reason that if recruitment managers excluded this pool of applicants that they would effectively be settling for candidates of a lower calibre.

“Given the increasing prevalence of tattoos in society – around 40% for young adults – hiring managers and supervisors who discriminate against tattooed workers will likely find themselves at a competitive disadvantage for the most qualified employees” said French.

Kevin O’Meara

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