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The True Cost of a Tattoo

Data suggest that visible tattoos affect employment opportunities.

Apparently, placing a tattoo in a visible area has both economic and social consequences. In particular, research suggests that a visible tattoo can affect employment opportunities.

Historically, tattoos have been associated with society’s out-groups and fringe elements, including bikers, prisoners, circus performers, gang members and punk rockers. These individuals (or groups) used tattoos to symbolize various things, such as rejection of mainstream society, physical strength, aggression, ownership of their bodies in an overcommercialized society, affiliation with a group, religious beliefs and so forth. Despite such personal intentions, however, research suggests that people with tattoos are not more aggressive, rebellious and so forth.

In recent years, lots of people from all walks of life have been getting tattoos, and in a general sense, body modifications, including tattoos, have gained more acceptance among members of the general public. Nearly 36 percent of Americans between 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo, and 40 percent of Americans sport one or more tattoos. Despite more and more people getting inked, however, discrimination against tattoos—in particular, those that are situated in visible areas like the face, neck and wrist—is alive and well.

Rebekah Burgess ©
Source: Rebekah Burgess ©

Dishearteningly, many people view those with tattoos as lacking good judgment, deviant, sexually promiscuous, self destructive, dependent on drugs, dangerous, uneducated and having low self-worth. Furthermore, research also shows that women with tattoos are viewed worse than men with tattoos, a slight that is doubly discriminatory.

It should probably come as no surprise that people with visible tattoos are discriminated against in the labor market. Various other aspects of physical appearance have been shown to influence hiring, firing and promotion, including height, subjective assessments of beauty, a person’s natural features, grooming and clothing choices. Potential employers either have a direct preference for certain characteristics or associate such characteristics with productivity.

Here are some research findings from various studies that point to such discrimination against people with visible tattoos:

  • Miller, Nicols and Eure have shown that employees view colleagues with facial tattoos and piercings as less suitable for work that requires interaction with a customer.
  • According to Swanger, 87 percent of surveyed employers in the hospitality industry report that visible body modification is negatively perceived.
  • Ligos found that 77 percent of managers believe that sales people with visible tattoos have a harder time making sales (“closing”) than do those without visible tattoos.
  • Brallier and colleagues found that restaurant mangers prefer to hire people without visible tattoos. Moreover, non-tattooed women are perceived by these managers as more employable than either tattooed men or women; whereas, non-tattooed men are not perceived as more employable than tattooed men or tattooed women.
  • In an IZA (Institute for the Study of Labor) discussion paper, researchers suggest that employment status of those with visible tattoos is more vulnerable. In other words, although a person who has a job and then gets a visible tattoo may not lose her job outright, if she does lose her job for whatever reason in the future, it may be harder to get rehired somewhere else.

It seems that a lot of the data concerning visible tattoos and employment opportunities points to management’s trepidation to place a salesperson with a visible tattoo in contact with a client for fear of lost sales. As consumers, we should take these findings to heart and look within ourselves to examine whether we discriminate others based on the presence of visible tattoos. After all, the research shows that the person selling the watch, car or candy bar is likely to be equally qualified in all respects to any other salesperson without a hand tattoo, neck tattoo, face tattoo or so forth.

On a final note, hopefully as more people get visible tattoos, less discrimination will exist. Maybe more people will realize that getting a tattoo, whether readily apparent or not, is merely a form of expression and definitely no reason to deny employment or employment opportunities.

Alternatively, because only a minority of people who get tattoos actually get visible ones, managers with non-visible tattoos themselves could continue to discriminate against prospective employees with visible tattoos, a pretty hypocritical reality to be sure.

More from Naveed Saleh M.D., M.S.
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