May 5, 2017

Are tattoos still a taboo in the workplace?

Inked candidates have a 64% chance of being discriminated against.

It’s estimated that a third of all young adults in the UK have a tattoo, and about one in five of the total population possesses some form of tattoo. Despite these figures, there is currently no specific legislation preventing discrimination against those with tattoos in the workplace.

With that in mind, we decided to look into the attitudes those in hiring positions had towards candidates with tattoos. The aim was to gauge the widespread acceptance of a once shunned body modification in our modern, cosmopolitan world. So, we surveyed 1000 hiring decision makers, asking them a range of questions about how they perceive tattoos in the workplace.

What we discovered worried us a little, and highlighted several points we’ll be keen to keep an eye on over the coming years. We also thought it would be a good opportunity to mention a few points of best practice when it comes to working with, and hiring, employees with tattoos.

Troubled by tattoos

We made a conscious decision to target hiring decision makers instead of those employed specifically in HR, to gauge whether discrimination may be flying under the radar of HR departments, allowing personal prejudices to sway the hiring decision.

The results paint a rather ugly picture of tattoo perceptions. We found that 64% thought that tattoos were undesirable features in candidates, a figure that represents a significant potential to be discriminated out of a position. This becomes especially worrying when pitched against the finding that over half of respondents (54%) would rather hire the non-tattooed candidate when faced with two candidates of the same ability, the only difference being that one was tattooed.

Career limiting?

The findings made us question whether tattoos may be inadvertently limiting some of the population’s ability to find work – a fear that was only strengthened by our finding that, next only to ‘scruffiness’, tattoos were ranked as the feature most likely to limit career potential.

This highlights the problem that those ultimately in charge of hiring may be letting their personal prejudices against tattoos colour their judgements of character ability. As such, these seemingly ‘skin deep’ stereotypes may be denying honest, talented workers from a fair judgement based on their ability to perform in the position they applied for. 43% of hiring decision makers stated that visible tattoos were ‘valuable markers’ for determining candidate character, and nearly a third (30%) revealed that they thought visible tattoos were telling clues for predicting candidate performance – despite them having no link to actual ability.

Free pass

There is currently no legislation that protects tattooed workers – unless those tattoos for religious or cultural reasons covered by other protected characteristic legislations. As a result, a tattooed candidate would find it extremely hard, if not impossible, to contest any suspicions that their tattoos were the reason behind not being hired.

In fact, it is currently quite simple to cite tattoos as a reason not only to decline a position, but to actually fire an existing employee. According to ACAS, “employers may wish to promote a certain image through their workers which they believe reflects the ethos of their organisations. Sometimes this can mean that they ask workers to remove piercings or cover tattoos while at work, especially when dealing with customers.” If an employee’s tattoos violate a company’s dress code – perhaps if they were especially visible – they would be able to dismiss the employee fairly, as long as the employee was aware of the rule.

Looking forward

Paul Drew, Managing Director at DPG Plc., said “a dress code can be an important way of shaping how a business is perceived. Features such as tattoos, however, can be problematic. Such a large portion of the population is now tattooed in some way, so potentially widespread discrimination can present a very real problem that can limit talented workers from entering the workforce.”

“Perceptions may be changing with the prevalence of tattoos, and we are seeing some truly inspiring companies leading the way with their acceptance of a wide range of previous flashpoints. Our study found that a small but notable faction of 13% would actively choose to hire a tattooed candidate over one without tattoos, and a full third stated that it wouldn’t make any difference.”

“Despite this, I wouldn’t be surprised if a large discrimination case centring around non-religious/cultural tattoos emerged in the coming years. We’ve seen some interesting and enlightening developments in protected characteristics over the last decade – for example with obesity discrimination – so it may be that a change in legislation is just around the corner.”

If you’d like to learn more about issues such as these, as well as how to approach them in the workplace, check out our CIPD Level 5 Course.

Please note that the HR qualifications that appear on this page will be replaced in 2021. For more information on this change please read the CIPD’s announcement here.