Getting inked: The realities of tattoos in the workplace

The growing prevalence of tattoos in North American media and in society at large has made them an attractive option for students today. Increasingly, figureheads of social and political importance have revealed their tattoos to the public, including Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Samantha Cameron, wife of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; however, tattoos still carry with them the possibility of discrimination from employers, which can be limiting for many in the choice of whether or not to get inked. 

One precaution commonly taken before getting a tattoo is to locate it strategically so that it can be covered up, if need be, for professional and formal environments. For some, finding a location on their body that can be easily hidden is a preliminary step to getting a tattoo. 

Trudeau, for example, has been cited as the only world leader with a tattoo known to the public. This does not mean that no other world leaders have tattoos, but rather that he is the only one who has made it publicly known. In the world of politics and other white-collar careers, visible tattoos are not widely acceptable, and may be seen as a sign of informality or disrespect for the profession. 

“Depending on the industry, tattoos can be more or less acceptable,” Cindy Mancuso, Arts and Diversity advisor at the McGill Career Planning Services (CaPS), said. “Students need to use their good judgment when going for an interview. Most individuals I’ve seen with tattoos have them in places that are easily hidden. For most interviews, we suggest that individuals [err] on the side of dressing up if they are not sure what the attire should be. Unless someone has tattoo sleeves, or tattoos on their hands, face [or neck], they usually get covered up with the appropriate attire.”

Further, in some professions, employers reserve the right to regulate the dress of employees with visible tattoos. Tess Kaiser, U2 Arts, has firsthand experience with such a policy.

“I worked at a German restaurant where the waitresses had to wear dirndls, the traditional German dress,” Kaiser explained. “There were a couple of girls where, even though it was hot and it was the summer, they had to wear shawls because they had tattoos.”

Kaiser also suspected that her employment prospects were decreased because of a tattoo on her upper back. 

“[My tattoo] could have been part of the reason I didn’t become a waitress there,” Kaiser said. “I was never [promoted] when other people were; I was just a busser. They knew that I had a tattoo; I don’t know if that was entirely it, but I’m sure even if I did become a waitress there, it would’ve been an issue. I would’ve had to cover it up.”

The negative societal connotations of tattoos have long-ranging impacts across many fields beyond the service industry. Andrea Terceros, U1 Neuroscience, who has several tattoos on her arms and hands, can anticipate receiving pushback against her tattoos in the medical field. 

“I guess going to [medical] school, there are people who don’t necessarily want to see their doctors with tattoos,” Terceros said. “There’s a bit of a stereotype and a stigma […] [Were I asked to remove my tattoos by employers,] if that’s my dream and they want that, I would probably remove them.” 

On the other hand, many people get tattoos because of the deep personal significance of the image or message in their tattoo. For this reason, it can be upsetting to receive negative feedback from employers. 

“[Tattoos should be treated] as you treat someone’s shirt,” said Jacob Garrah, U1 Environment, in reference to his half-sleeve tattoo. “It’s someone’s personal choice—it should be a total non-issue. If someone was really like, ‘You cannot have that showing, please wear a long-sleeved shirt,’ I’d be a little upset, because it means a lot to me, and I made it very visible for a reason.”

Further, Garrah postulated that regulation or discrimination of employees with tattoos may be a used to hide other social biases. 

“Tattoos can sometimes be an excuse to discriminate against someone,” Garrah explained. “I’m a white male working at a research institute or working in a customer service physical labour environment, they have no reason to discriminate against me, so my tattoo [and] my piercings [are] totally fine. But if someone had that implicit bias against someone, and then they had a tattoo […] it can be like a proxy.”

Though Mancuso suggested that students dress to appeal to employers by hiding their tattoos, she also recognized the agency of employees in choosing how to express themselves. 

“It generally takes 30 seconds to make an impression, so students need to be mindful of what kind of impression they want to make,” Mancuso said. “On the flip side, some people might decide they don’t want to work for a company that may discriminate on the basis of body art—this is valid too. It is a personal choice at the end of the day.”

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