The Tattoo Penalty
In recent years, tattoos have greatly increased in popularity in the United States and around the world as a form of self, cultural, or artistic expression, and to commemorate an impactful event or person. Despite the growing acceptance in society of tattoos, there may still be resistance to the presence of inked individuals in the workplace. As a result, employers may be hesitant to hire tattooed job applicants.
In three studies, we looked at how employment is affected by visible tattoos. We asked employees who had hiring and supervisory experience in companies to assume the role of a recruiter and to examine simulated LinkedIn profiles of fictitious job applicants for a sales manager position. We intentionally examined only Caucasian female applicants in their mid to late 20s due to the complexity of including other demographic groups that vary by sex, race, age, and so forth.
First, we compared equally qualified and attractive applicants with extreme tattoos, a mild tattoo, and no visible tattoo (done via Photoshopping). We found that job applicants with tattoos, especially extreme ones, were less likely to be hired than applicants without tattoos. Additionally, applicants with extreme tattoos or a mild one received lower salary offers than those without tattoos ($2267 and $2159 less annually, respectively). Even if the tattoo has no further effects on performance evaluations, promotions, or pay raises if the person is hired, the initial salary difference adds up over time. If a company gives a modest 2 percent annual raise, even a mild visible tattoo could cost the employee more than $23,000 over 10 years. Not a small price to pay for a mild tattoo!
Second, we wondered why tattooed job applicants suffer hiring discrimination. We speculated that tattooed applicants may be stereotyped by hiring managers as less competent. We discovered that applicants with tattoos were indeed perceived as less competent compared to applicants without tattoos and this negative stereotype was used to justify hiring discrimination and lower starting salary offers—even when tattooed applicants were as qualified as their non-tattooed counterparts.
Overcoming the Stereotype of Incompetence?
To find out if this was possible, we compared highly versus minimally qualified job applicants with or without visible tattoos. Our hope was that outstanding job qualifications could override perceptions of incompetence related to tattoos. Instead, we found that highly qualified applicants with extreme tattoos or a mild one were still less likely to be hired than those without tattoos. However, there were no differences in salary offers among the highly qualified tattooed and non-tattooed applicants. Thus, highly qualified tattooed applicants can overcome discrimination in starting salary, but not hiring.
Finally, we wanted to see if there is another way to neutralize discrimination because tattooed applicants still experienced hiring discrimination even when they were highly qualified. We believed that volunteer experience coupled with outstanding job qualifications could strengthen perceptions of competence among tattooed applicants. Volunteers are often believed to have motivation, intelligence, and leadership—all of which might signal competence. We compared highly qualified applicants with and without volunteer experience who either had extreme tattoos or no visible tattoo. But, unfortunately, volunteer experience did not mitigate discrimination related to hiring or starting salary offers.
Thus, stereotypes against visible tattoos may cause hiring managers to exclude this growing segment of the population, regardless of their qualifications. So, if you are considering body art, you may want to opt for less extreme tattoos in easily concealed locations. Furthermore, enhancing your job qualifications will aid in overcoming stereotypes of incompetence that punish those with visible tattoos.
And for those of you who do hiring at your business, you need to recognize biases you may hold against tattooed job applicants so you don’t overlook qualified applicants based solely on their appearance.
For Further Reading
Henle, C. A., Shore, T. H., Murphy, K. R., & Marshall, A. D. (2021). Visible tattoos as a source of employment discrimination among female applicants for a supervisory position. Journal of Business and Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-021-09731-w
Timming, A. R. (2017). Body art as branded labour: At the intersection of employee selection and relationship marketing. Human Relations, 70, 1041–1063. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726716681654.
Timming, A. R., Nickson, D., Re, D., & Perrett, D. (2017). What do you think of my ink? Assessing the effects of body art on employment chances. Human Resource Management, 56(1), 133–149. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.21770.
Chris Henle is a Professor of Management at Colorado State University. Her research interests include employment discrimination and counterproductive work behaviors such as abusive supervision and workplace ostracism.
Ted Shore is a Professor of Management at California State University, San Marcos. His research interests include employment discrimination and workplace bias.