Tattoos & Work


I can’t believe it’s 2011 and people email with questions about tattoos.

  • Can you show your tattoos at work?
  • Are tattoos on the wrist okay?
  • What about a sleeve?
  • Is it illegal to discriminate against me if tattoos are part of my culture?

Listen, there are no hard and fast rules about tattoos at work. I once overheard a Starbucks manager speak to his district manager about a problem employee.

“I need to talk to her. You can see tattoos coming out of her sleeves.”

Really? Hm. It’s coffee. I dunno.

And I know doctors and lawyers with tons of tattoos. Whatevs. Nobody cares. Everybody (for the most part) acts like an adult.

I know you have tattoos. You’re worried about how they impact your job search. Here’s what I know: there are myriad reasons why people get hired. We often choose the prettiest, tallest, whitest, most masculine, most boobalicious, most feminine candidate for the role. (And sometimes those people are the most qualified, too.) We claim that the hiring process is scientific, but in most cases, managers make decisions based on their gut.

I hate the traditional recruiting/hiring process for so many reasons. As the HR chick, I don’t make a decision… I just pre-qualify a pool of candidates. That’s when the games start. Managers will use behavior-based interviewing and competency models to justify a hiring decision, but really, the decision is based on amorphous and unscientific concepts like ‘fit’ and ‘culture’ and ‘likability’.

I’ve often argued that fit and culture could be code words for ageism, sexism, and homophobia. And I think lookism can be placed in there, too.

So of you are applying for a job with a company that is known to be relatively conservative, cover up your tattoos and make sure the interviewer is focused on the qualities that make you a great hire. Bring in a portfolio or examples of your work. Bring your letters of reference with you. Have some great ‘leave behind material’ available. That strategy works for realtors and it should work for you.

And if you’re Maori and living in America and applying for jobs with a face tattoo, good luck with that. I have no advice for you. And for the white guy with tattoos who claims it’s part of his culture, I say that’s awesome. You probably have dreads, don’t you? Good luck to you, too.

And if you have a tattoo and a piercing on your jugular notch — like a really amazing young woman who serves me shakes at a local fast food burger shack — then you are severely limiting your target employment market.

But that’s okay. Not everyone is corporate.  And she makes great milkshakes.

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