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Tattoos in the workplace – do they leave a mark on your career?

ID-100114329Living in a free country, we have the liberty to look and dress how we want. Some choose to entrench their sense of identity with tattoos, particularly younger people, having grown up with pop stars and sporting heroes inked from head to toe.

When you’re a celebrity you have a certain carte blanche to do what you like without really altering how people perceive you. But does the average Joe Bloggs, however accepting a world he/she lives in, believe that noticeable designs on skin that’s exposed won’t tempt prejudice? Or do they just not care?

I recently watched Bodyshockers, a programme that aims to get those looking to permanently change their body in some way to consider the impact of their decision. The episode featured a man who’d tattooed his face when drunk and reacting to a dare, the fallout of which saw him sacked from his job just a day later. He couldn’t find anyone who would hire him during the following five years, then, after getting the tattoos lasered off, he landed a job.

People’s perceptions can be very powerful. One man, Jason Barnum, was arrested and charged after shooting an Alaskan police officer. Having one half of his face tattooed, including his eyeball, Judge Barnum, presiding over the case, said: I’d like you to take a look at Mr Barnum. He has the right to do this to himself and to express himself. We can’t sentence him for that, but I think we can consider a guy’s attitude and his behaviour.” Mr Barnum’s tattoos were guilty of influencing the jury.

Statistics show that one in five people have a tattoo of some kind. Given that this represents 20% of the workforce, surely some people aren’t offended or put off by body art? When interviewed, many tasked with hiring people admitted that candidates’ tattoos did not offend them personally, but their perception that customers may be offended ultimately affected their choice.

The negative comments tattoos invite can be severe. Managers admit to perceiving tattooed employees as rebellious, lazy, repugnant – and even dirty – individuals. There are some positives to be found, however. Some professions are found to benefit if their employees have tattoos. Prison guards, for example, where tattoos can break down barriers and help make instant connections with inmates.

Putting aside perceptions for a moment, there’s absolutely no correlation between someone’s tattoos and their ability to do their job. And as more and more celebrities parade their tattoos in society, the more acceptable they’re bound to become. It certainly hasn’t harmed David Beckham’s career. Young people are around tattoos and body art all the time; if they see that their role model hasn’t received prejudice due to their inkings – quite the opposite, in fact – there’s little wonder they see no negativity associated with them. Also consider that, as time goes by, those making the hiring decisions are more likely to have tattoos themselves.

In 2006, tattoo fan Rebecca Holdcroft took her employers to court on the grounds of discrimination, after they asked her to cover her fully-tattooed arms and back. However, she didn’t get the verdict she sought because no law existed to protect her at that time.

Researching this topic, I found a good rule of thumb from a legal professional. Her suggestion, that if your contract doesn’t specifically state tattoos aren’t acceptable or that they’re not to be on show, suggests you’d have better grounds for discrimination if your job was threatened or lost because of your body art. And if you were never in physical contact with the public as part of the role you were dismissed from, you’d have a good case for unfair treatment.

The issue here is whether tattoos come under ‘dress code’ in a contractual reference. If employees’ tattoos are such an issue it would seem prudent to give them their own significance in the employee contract.

Discrimination can also be a grey area in some professions but more clear-cut in others. For example, body art on a pop star wouldn’t cause negative reactions in this day and age, but on an undertaker, tattoos may bring about a very different reaction.

The issue of whether tattoos affect careers is certainly not an across-the-board conclusion – in some professions there’s far, far more acceptance than others. And even in the workplaces where tattoos are viewed more negatively, there’s no reason common sense can’t be applied by both employer and employee.

Tattoos shouldn’t affect one’s career – on the whole – and in years to come, it’s quite possible that they never will. But in the meantime, consider that, though you may have control over your body and what you choose to add to it, you have absolutely no control over people’s perceptions of you. In most cases, this is unlikely to affect you, but when it comes to your career, it does have the power to influence your progress.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Would you hire someone with visible tattoos?

Thaks to marin at freedigitalphotos.net for use of the image.

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