In the workplace, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee on the grounds of their gender, race or skin colour. Should discrimination against an employee’s tattoos be set in the same category?


If you were to ask 100 people about tattoos you’d probably get 100 different answers. Many think it’s just a mindless form of rebellion. Others think it’s an artistic expression. What we do know is that tattoos have become more common over the years, which has obviously led to employers to be in a difficult situation in how to address the matter.

Firstly, here is a simple timeline of the history of tattoos to give you an idea of the social stigmas about tattoos throughout the years (provided by Burleson Consulting, 2012):

  • 1850 – 1900 – Bastion of carnival freak shows, with people flocking to the circus to see the amazing tattooed Lady
  • 1900 – 1950 – Tattoos in the early 20th century indicated a Sailor or Marine.  Tattoos were generally indicative of enlisted men.  Few Navy or Marine officers dared to draw on their body
  • 1950 – 1960 – Tattoos became popular with the criminal element, mostly outlaw bikers, social outcasts and the mentally ill.  It was during this time tattoos took on a more ominous reputation
  • 1960 – 1990 – This was the age of “prison tats” where having a tattoo indicated to some people that you were a tough felon
  • 1990-2008 – Today we see hordes of young people drawing on themselves with free abandon, (almost 30% of people in the 1980’s)

I believe that there is a prejudice against people with tattoos in the corporate world.

Career builders, a recruitment company made a study about tattoos and the professional world.  They stated that “perils of tattoos for aspiring professions, and confirms the conventional wisdom that tattoos are a sign of immaturity, bad judgement and bad taste”. Furthermore, their findings showed that out of the managers that they questioned, forty two per cent stated that their perception of an individual would change in a negative way if the person had visible tattoos. As well as this, Career builders states in their findings that ‘3 out of 4 respondents believe that visible tattoos are unprofessional.’

The law of discriminating people with tattoos sways towards employers, so the organisation has the divine power in most cases. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) it is not discrimination; the EEOC covers race, religion, age, color, natural origin or gender. Tattoos fall outside those parameters, and according to the EEOC organizations can enforce dress codes and appearance policies as long as they don’t infringe the items that do fall within the definition of discrimination. This I believe is because it is something a human can control. Nobody can decide for himself or herself what color, race or gender they are. However they are in control of the ink they put on their skin. This is why it can’t be deemed as discrimination as it is not nature. An employer has the right to discipline an employee because of their tattoos just as much as they can discipline an employee about their dress code.

However there have been cases those employees have won due to the fact that employers have discriminated against religious tattoos. A Red Robin restaurant will pay $150,000 to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the EEOC. The EEOC had charged the company with refusing to accommodate the religious needs of an employee and illegally firing him. The employee in question had religious tattoos on he’s wrists. The EEOC states although he received zero complaints from staff members or customers, a manager fired him for not concealing them. During the case, the company stated that making changes to its dress code policy would undermine its “wholesome image.” This argument was rejected.

According to a survey by the American Academy of Dermatology in 2004, 24% of 18-50 year olds have at least one tattoo, in comparison to 3% in 1990.  Tattoos are on the rise and a company’s perception of tattoos in turn need to change.

If companies are unwilling to accommodate people with tattooed skin, employees are forced to cover up their artwork. However this may be uncomfortable at times, like for Sarah Champion in a CNN article from 2008. She was made to cover up her tattoos however the environment she worked was very hot so this was impractical for Sarah. She states:

“I was out on site all day, and I wasn’t allowed to show any of my tattoos. Ninety-eight degrees and long sleeves are not so cool when you’re in Miami.”

So we must ask the question, are companies willing to maintain a non-tattoo image at the expense of their employee suffering or give their employees more freedom to ensure they will work to the best of their ability?

The social stereotype for people with tattoos are people who work in industries such as lorry driving, garbage removal and dead end blue collar jobs. Dave Kimelberg (2007) challenges people’s preconceptions withy photos and readings of tattooed people in a professional working environment.  Here is a selection of professions that are highlighted in Kimelberg’s book (INKED Inc, 2007):

Name Occupation Tattoo details
Alex Campbell Preschool teacher Koi fish tattoo on her leg. She includes it as a part of her teaching plan in class


Bruce Potts University lecturer Full tribal face tattoo that he wanted since he was a child


Dr. Dave Medical doctor Medical theme tattoo sleeves. “MD” on he’s back


Lara Corporate administrative assistant Full sleeve tattoo done by her husband


The book echoes the point that company culture needs to change and keep up with the upandcoming generation. It is time for the baby boomer to move aside and accept that the 21st century’s perceptions of body art have rapidly changed. Organizations need to take steps in order to change the status quo and welcome generation X. Tattoos aside, there are many differences between the traditional workplace and the new generations that may be why it seems the two are clashing on many different levels.

We can see from the report that the issue surrounding tattoos in the workplace is complex and raises some interesting arguments both for and against the matter. In conclusion, I personally believe that there is nothing wrong with tattoos in the workplace, but as we have seen some corporate organizations disagree with this. As previously stated, the world is constantly changing and society changes with it. For this reason, corporate rules and regulations regarding the matter seem very outdated. Things changed about perceptions of women in the workplace, so why should this matter be different? Employers should judge someone on their qualifications and experience, not what artwork they have on their skin. In most cases tattoos are a beautiful art form with allot of meaning so who are we to judge?

This is my personal opinion; and as I said at the very beginning of the report, ‘If you were to ask 100 people about tattoos you’d probably get 100 different answers’. At the end of the day, tattoos are very much in the eye of the beholder.

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