Do Tattoos Still Carry a Burden in Today’s Workplace?

Study Suggests Ink Can Be an Advantage in Certain Career Fields

Woman's arm with tattoo

Here’s a quick question. When you spot someone with highly visible tattoos, what might be among your first guesses: Rapper? Pharmacist? Welder? CEO? Nanny?

Better slow down on the assumptions. Over past decades, American stereotypes about tattoos have pivoted. Not so long ago, body art almost exclusively leaned toward the rebellious segments of our culture. Today, acceptance is so much broader that matching mother-daughter tattoos don’t raise a brow even in the tidiest suburbs.

When it comes to the workplace, however, the story can get muddled. Hiring officers, managers and customers very likely do make assumptions because of your ink. But whether that saddles you with negative stigma or grants you a cool, independent-thinker image is more fluid that you might expect, according to Enrica Ruggs, associate professor at the University of Houston C.T. Bauer College of Business Department of Management and Leadership. She’s somewhat of a detective on how groups become marginalized in society and what onlookers should do when they witness it.

“In the past, tattoos existed on the edge of society... many tattoos serve opposite roles now and are designed to depict belonging."
Enrica Ruggs, associate professor of business

“I became interested in tattoos because of my professional interest is stigma, especially in workplaces. My life’s work is to understand how people burdened with stigmatized identities are devalued in society and treated unfairly at work,” she said.

Ruggs is so intrigued by the evolving attitudes about tattoos and their related subtleties she has dedicated research to dissecting notions about wearers of body ink in the workplace. The more recent study, “Do Employees’ Tattoos Leave a Mark on Customers’ Reactions to Products and Organizations?,” of which she is first author, is published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

“In the past, tattoos existed on the edge of society. They were found mostly on outsiders from the mainstream and usually represented individualism, even rebellion. But that has turned around. Many tattoos serve opposite roles now and are designed to depict belonging. They can be visible shout-outs to a person’s culture, orientation, profession or some other group. Some memorialize a rite of passage. Others show symbols that reflect the wearer’s faith or reflect in-memoriam images that honor the passing of loved ones,” Ruggs said.

woman in office with tattoo on arm
Portrait of Enrica Ruggs

Enrica Ruggs, associate professor at the C.T. Bauer College of Business.

Enrica Ruggs, associate professor at the C.T. Bauer College of Business.

officer workers; one man has arm tattoo
officer workers; one man has arm tattoo

Even with today’s relaxed attitude about body ink – or newfound admiration, depending on your inclination – levels of acceptance on the job can vary. You might sense shifts in your own reaction, even, that depend on where you happen to be, what circumstances you find yourself in, and even the color intensity of the tattoos you notice.

“In a graphic artist’s studio, a tattoo, even a bold one, might spark the edgy image a potential customer appreciates in an artist, leading a client to feel they discovered the perfect talent. But in other situations, that’s not so true. In medical settings, particularly, tattoos may be seen as unwelcome. Maybe patients find them inappropriate on certain professionals or perhaps mistaken beliefs still linger about tattoo studios and cleanliness,” Ruggs said.

To test how much difference tattoos make on a commercial frontline, Ruggs and her co-author from Rice University, Mikki Hebl, measured customers’ reactions to workers wearing tattoos (temporary ones, so the same individuals could switch between tattooed and non-tattooed roles) across three experiments.

Main Study Findings

  • Customers were divided in having positive and negative stereotypes about tattoos. But negative stereotypes did not rule. Tattooed employees were evaluated more positively and in a field experiment, they had just as many sales as their untattooed counterparts.
  • Negative stereotypes about tattoos did not negatively affect customers perceptions of the organization employing the tattooed work or the products being sold by the worker.
  • Employers in white-collar jobs that involve artistic or creative skills may find that hiring tattooed employees gives them a competitive advantage. Findings showed that in some white-collar jobs involving artistic skills, customers viewed tattooed employees more favorably and competent than non-tattooed employees. Visible body ink generated favorably edgy images for artists and increased their chances of being hired.

But wait a minute. Tattoos are not inborn aspects of our identity, like gender, race, sexual identity and orientation. After all, no one is required to be tattooed, right?

“Maybe that is true about tattoos, but should it matter? People think it’s okay to negatively judge others when they believe their stigma characteristics are voluntary. I see a link between tattoos with other perceived voluntary stigmas, such as being overweight. There is the direct prejudice and discrimination people experience due to stigmas that often do not affect one’s ability to do their job. It’s hurtful personally and damaging in the workplace. Tattoos are optional, yes, but should they influence how you are regarded on the job?,” Ruggs asked.

As old assumptions fall, new attitudes thrive. And popularity of tattoos becomes widespread in more sections of the society – even among professors.

In case you’ve been wondering: Yes. One small tatt inked during her teen years – to the horror of her mom but nonchalance of her dad – and kept well covered in the grownup professional world. Requests for further details were declined.

- Story published June 22, 2022