Do Tattoos Affect Job Performance?

Will the day come in the next 10 years when the C-suite of your company is dominated by tattooed individuals? The gentleman across the table with the body art peeping from his collar will be your CEO and you won’t think twice. For most companies, that sounds like a stretch. But what’s already happening is the workplace is filling up with employees with tattoos. The question is whether having “body art,” as it’s sometimes called, affects job performance.

An article in The Economist notes that despite its popularity, tattoos are still not a favorite of employers: “Though increasingly mainstream, tattoos still signal a certain rebelliousness that works against jobseekers, says Andrew Timming of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In a forthcoming study, Timming and colleagues asked participants to assess job candidates based on their pictures, some of which were altered to add a neck tattoo. Inked candidates consistently ranked lower, despite being equally qualified.”

In the U.S., there are laws that prohibit discriminating against job candidates based on factors such as race and gender, with it also illegal to ask candidates whether they are married and how old they are. With that in mind, how careful should your company and managers be before deciding to rule out job applicants with visible tattoos? If your company has a customer and client base that is socially liberal, filled with people likely to sport tattoos themselves, then the decision to hire tattooed employees is easy. However, what do you do if your company serves conservative customers or clients and the job the applicant is applying for is on the front lines?

From the trainer’s perspective, the challenge is giving managers guidance during the hiring process. You need to train them how to approach the issue of highly qualified applicants who are perfect for the job and have tattoos or body piercings, for example. Is this an issue that’s OK to discuss during the interview? For example:

“Melanie, you obviously are very qualified for this position, and I don’t doubt that you would do a great job, but I had a concern I wanted to discuss with you. Our clients tend to be very conservative. Would you be opposed to covering up your tattoos when in client meetings?”

Would that be an OK conversation to have? I ask because if I were a hiring manager at a conservative company, I might want to ask that very question.

Trainers and Human Resources executives are sometimes tasked with proactively setting the culture of the company through courses and messaging sent to employees. With the Millennial generation much more likely to have tattoos, body piercings, and hair colors such as blue or pink, you have a decision to make with your executive board. Do you change or broaden your appearance expectations, or do you work with managers to require new employees to conform to the standards you have had in place for decades?

It’s an important question to answer because not only does it affect who you hire, but who you retain. An employee may take a job in a financial crunch in which she isn’t able to display her tattoos, wear her body piercings, or keep her hair purple, but will she stay long term? I don’t believe so. An important part of successful longevity at a company is feeling that you are accepted as yourself, and don’t have to worry about keeping up appearances or putting on an act. It’s just too draining to always be role-playing, rather than just being yourself.

It’s still possible for now to only hire employees who conform to rigid personal appearance standards, but in the coming years, it may not be so easy. You might want to start slowly integrating highly qualified people who happen to deviate from the usual look of your employees, getting the company and your customers or clients used to the idea. You could even make the cultural transition part of a positive message about the company’s overall philosophy: “The quality of your work and your ability to deliver for our customers or clients is what matters most to us.”

How do you guide and train managers to approach hiring employees who deviate in personal appearance from what you and your customers or clients are used to?