Tattoos and facial piercings are taboo in the workplace, right? Not so fast. Conventional wisdom is starting to shift. As body modifications become more mainstream and competition for top talent grows more intense in the hiring process, many workplaces no longer frown upon tattoos and piercings.
“I think most workplace practices now revolve around the well-being of their employees,” said Eyal Pasternak, founder and CEO of Liberty House Buying Group. “Part of this is respecting their bodily autonomy, including being able to get piercings and tattoos. Some of these are even cultural practices, as is the case with some Native American tribes, and should be respected as such.”
We’ll examine the current workplace climate for piercings and tattoos and explore factors that professionals should consider when contemplating body modifications.
Tip: Brush up on workplace anti-discrimination laws to create a safe and inclusive workplace from the top down.
Are piercings and tattoos still unprofessional at work?
Many companies are adopting a workplace that’s supportive of personal expression, including body modifications such as tattoos and piercings.
Jim Whitehurst, former president and CEO of Red Hat, said this was the case at his company. “Red Hat is an open organization, accepting of people and how they choose to express themselves. Whether you have tattoos or piercings, we want people to feel comfortable and free to be who they are here.”
Red Hat’s enthusiastic workforce even mixes this freedom with unprecedented employee loyalty. “In fact, we have at least three associates who are so passionate about our role in changing the world through open-source technology, they have gotten tattoos of our company logo, Shadowman,” Whitehurst said. “How many organizations can say the same?”
While tattooing your current company’s logo on yourself may make future job interviews a bit awkward, Red Hat’s employee-centric company culture demonstrates that you can be successful and appreciated for your ink.
Kirsten Davidson, former head of employer brand at Glassdoor and current managing partner at Employera, noted that many people seek employment in companies that allow self-expression, eschewing buttoned-down, traditional work attire. With unprecedented demand for skilled workers and experienced professionals, many companies are relaxing archaic policies about appearance.
“Labeling something taboo is dangerous for workplace transparency,” Davidson said. In her time at Glassdoor, she saw that companies that were rated highly for company culture and values often let people be themselves. “[We often saw] employee feedback about feeling comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, or feeling free to be authentic.”
Encouraging people to be themselves means getting the best version of your team members, imbuing them with self-confidence. “When we encourage people to be themselves, we foster creativity and innovation that is essential for producing the highest-quality work,” Davidson added.
Bottom Line: To improve workplace diversity and inclusion in your business, you need to support every employee and help them feel accepted, respected, and safe at work.
How does personal appearance affect how you’re perceived in the workplace?
Statista data shows that 41% of millennials have tattoos, followed by 32% of Gen Xers and 23% of Gen Zers. Piercing data isn’t as recent; still, in 2017, 17% of respondents had one facial piercing, 17% had multiple piercings and 14% were considering getting a piercing.
It’s safe to say that many people in the workforce already have body modifications, and many who sport tattoos and piercings are likely in hiring positions recruiting new employees.
Despite changing perceptions and a diverse workforce, there are still negative attitudes about body art and piercings. Pasternak said that although many employers respect employees’ bodily autonomy when it comes to tattoos and piercings, “[Some] workplaces, unfortunately, don’t feel the same way about these and continue to see them as unprofessional.”
You may encounter resistance to tattoos and piercings in these types of work environments:
- Businesses with strict dress code policies. Businesses can enact tattoo and piercing rules as part of dress code policies prohibiting visible body modifications. These policies can be unpredictable and varied.
- Businesses where workplace safety is a concern. A job may have workplace safety issues that require the removal of jewelry in someone’s piercings.
- Industries with wide-ranging restrictions. Some industries have strict tattoo policies. For example, most U.S.-based airlines require that no tattoos be visible when cabin crews and pilots are in uniform. Military policies vary, but the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have strict policies prohibiting visible body art, while the U.S. Navy is more lenient, allowing tattoos anywhere but the head and face. For medical professionals, body art regulations are in the hands of each facility.
- Businesses where customer bias may be a factor. Sales professionals in customer-facing positions who have body modifications may encounter customer bias. “In sales, you have to be prepared to close a deal with anyone, and unfortunately, you can’t control what biases customers bring into your interactions,” said Oliver Zak, co-founder and CEO of tattoo skincare company Mad Rabbit. “However, in more private, non-sales-driven environments, body art is now considered art, created to connect with yourself and others.”
FYI: In addition to tattoos and piercings, how you dress can affect how you’re perceived in the workplace. Experts advise dressing for the job you want to improve your performance and how others see you.
What should workers consider when getting piercings and tattoos?
If you’re considering body modifications such as tattoos and piercings, or if you already have tattoos or piercings and are seeking professional employment, here are some tips and best practices to consider:
1. Stay away from offensive body art.
Anything that involves nudity or violence is generally a no-go. You won’t get hired as part of a pharmaceutical sales team with a visible skull with a knife through it on your arm. Your boss also wants to eliminate potential sexual harassment incidents if co-workers are forced to see offensive images on your arm.
“I think the main thing workers need to keep in mind while getting tattoos is that they don’t get an offensive phrase or symbol, because this can disrupt and offend their co-workers, making the workplace unsafe for them,” Pasternak said.
Bottom Line: Seemingly innocent symbols may be offensive or mean something other than what you intended. Refer to tattoo meaning resources to ensure your tattoo isn’t taboo.
2. Consider the tattoo’s extent.
Most people won’t mind your kids’ birth dates or a small image that holds great meaning for you. However, if you display more ink than skin, you may face pushback or run afoul of dress code policies.
Consider the extent of the tattoo, its location and how much it affects your ability to perform the job. For example, shirts and jackets can usually cover full sleeves and chest and back tattoos.
3. Keep tattoos off the face and neck.
Face, neck and hand tattoos are enormous commitments, and you should consider your future career goals carefully before moving forward.
“As all tattooers know, a neck or hand tattoo is a big commitment and traditionally is reserved for those heavily covered and ready to confront society on a daily basis as a heavily tattooed person,” said tattoo artist Dan Bythewood.
Bythewood cautioned that certain tattoo locations must be thoroughly considered. “Although tattoos are more accepted now than ever, we are still judged daily for our appearance. A hand or neck tattoo may mean the difference between that next job or promotion, and also may spur daily judgmental looks and harassing comments from strangers, as many of my friends have experienced.”
Bythewood explained tattoo artists’ reluctance to create face and neck art on someone who may not be ready for the repercussions. “It’s not a thing to be taken lightly, and I long ago drew an ethical line in the sand for myself as a professional tattooer to turn down ‘job stoppers’ on those who are not already committed to living as a heavily tattooed person.”
FYI: Refusing to do a tattoo for any reason is well within a tattoo artist’s rights. The most common reason is that the design is offensive, a copy of someone else’s work or against the artist’s personal beliefs.
4. Get piercings that heal quickly or are removable.
The consensus on piercings seems to be that if you are in a customer-facing position, facial piercings can be distracting. However, they shouldn’t affect how you treat customers, even if the customer has preconceived notions about how they’ll be treated by someone with facial piercings.
“With piercings, I think it’s important to not get a piercing that is going to hurt or take a long while to heal, which hinders your performance as an employee – for example, a tongue piercing,” Pasternak said.
Many facial piercings, like nose and eyebrow rings, can be filled in with a clear plastic substitution. If a customer or colleague has an issue with a piercing and you are aware of it, consider plugging the hole with one of these substitutions to avoid purposely making someone uncomfortable.
5. Consider your career goals.
“Workers should consider their current work situation and future career goals when getting tattoos and piercings,” said Ray Leon, CEO of Pet Insurance Review. “You should abide by your employer’s guidelines, if any, as this may affect what part of your body you can get a tattoo or piercing.”
Sharon Dylan, co-founder and career coach at Management Help LLC, said consulting with the company lawyer or HR personnel before getting a tattoo or a piercing can help identify any employee handbook clauses you may violate by getting body art.
“If you plan on entering a career where a ‘clean’ professional look is paramount to success,” Dylan said, “then you may want to reconsider getting a tattoo or piercing.”
Suzanne Lucas contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.