Tattoos in the workplace.

Words, Benedict Smith

Like a lot of parents, my Dad has always made it crystal clear to me what he thinks of tattoos. They are in no uncertain terms, the work of the devil. And any type of body art – in his eyes – is a unattractive cry for attention. Now don’t get me wrong, he isn’t some grumpy old complaining codger – quite the opposite actually. But his hatred for tattoos verges on spectacular.

I can’t help but think this way of thinking is just a little old-fashioned. And my hunch is that his impressive distain for ink stems from being the 'corporate' end of business for a fair few years.

‘Nobody wants to hire someone tattooed up to the eyeballs’ and ‘Imagine what they’ll look like when you’re my age’ are his go-tos when I unfairly wind him up about getting one – or little does he know – another, myself. 

And it was after one of these half light-hearted bouts that I started wondering – whether the tattoo taboo still exists in business these days? And if so, why the hell does it?

At first glance, in certain jobs, industries and even locations, the stigma around tattoos at work has been shaken off a little, as they creep their way into the mainstream.  

These days sporting a ‘sleeve’ doesn't tar you with the same brush as a violent criminal with links to the gangster underworld anymore.

The heavily inked national treasure David Beckham is to thank for most of this, of course.

Take yourself off to Dalston in London for example, and you’ll see that there’s as many tattoos knocking about as there are Turkish restaurants. And if you know Dalston, you get the gist. You’ve only got to step out your front door to find yourself swimming in a sea of people plastered with arm, leg, neck, even face tattoos.

While one in five of UK adults have been inked at least once, you get the feeling that somewhere between three and four people in East London are.  And funnily enough, this area is home to some of Europe’s, if not the world’s, most exciting, innovative freelancers, startups and entrepreneurs. Can we read anything into this?

Granted, the rules are far more relaxed for freelancers, creatives and startups, which might explain why tattoos in these kinds of business cultures and environments are actually pretty common. 

But what about in law firms, big management consultancies and the so called ‘corporate world’? Does Dad’s theory that tattoos are perceived as bad news still ring true? Or has the tide started turning?

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It must be. Surely? With many as one in three young people in the UK proud (or sometimes not so proud) owners of at least one tattoo, you’d think the typically traditional, conservative thinking companies might just have to reassess their stance, right?

Wrong. According to The University of St Andrews’ Dr Andrew Timming – a well-known researcher into the effects of body art in employment - attitudes towards tattoos at work are changing – but we’re still some way off them being welcomed in the workplace.

After interviewing over dozen recruiters, across a range of industries, he found that more often than not, having visible tattoos harmed a person’s chances of getting the job.

On top of this, tats were sometimes the first thing recruiters chatted about with colleagues, rather than the interview itself. But I think this says something about the recruiter myself…

To cut a long story short, the taboo surrounding tattoos in the workplace seems very much alive. So, Dad, I’ll give you this one. It looks like you've won this time.

But if we’re talking about tattoos in general, which, more often than not are in fact covered up I might still have a case. Unless you happen to undress at work, revealing a heavily tattooed chest, back, or even legs – nobody is really going to find out now are they? 

So, on second thoughts, we'll call it a draw...

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