Despite the popularity of tattoos, a St. Andrews University study strongly suggests that there remains an overall negative attitude towards them among recruiters, except in a few select industries.
According to Pannone, the number of tattoo studios has increased by 112% since 2009. Previously, the customers of these studios had been primarily male – now, though, tattoos are becoming more and more popular amongst women as well.
But many of the people getting inked may not fully appreciate the long-term effects that tattoos may have – not just on their appearance, but also on their prospects as job candidates.
A study, 'Visible tatoos in the service sector,' by Dr. Andrew Timming of the University of St. Andrews’ School of Management, reflected an overall negative attitude towards tattoos on the part of employers. The intensity of this attitude depended on what tattoos the candidate has, where they’re located on the body, the company or industry that the open position is in, and how close that position is to the company’s customers.
The negative attitude did not extend to tattoos that could be easily concealed by clothing – Sagepub Press writes that three of the hiring managers Dr. Timming interviewed had concealed tattoos themselves.
Screening in the Service Industry
Visible tattoos are of particular concern in the service industry, where employees work closely with customers. The study found that visible tattoos can be a roadblock to employment in this sector. If the content of the tattoo is offensive, recruiters’ prejudice towards the candidate is even higher.
The Telegraph, reporting on Dr. Timming’s interviews for his study, quotes one male interviewer telling the researcher, “Tattoos are the first thing [fellow recruiters] talk about when the person has gone out of the door.”
According to Timming’s research, tattoos could be a deciding factor in whether or not the candidate’s qualifications are even discussed at length.
Recruiters claim that their concerns with tattoos have less to do with any personal opinions they may have about tattoos, which may not matter in their task, than with how they think customers will perceive employees with visible tattoos. The less customer interaction in the desired role, the less prejudiced recruiters were towards the candidate.
Respondents to Dr. Timming’s interviews went as far as to say that tattooed workers may be perceived by customers as “abhorrent,” “repugnant,” “unsavoury,” or “untidy,” biased by stereotypes associated with body art.
When Visible Tattoos are an Advantage
Dr. Timming’s report did conclude that some types of tattoos could convey a positive image, such as regimental insignia for military veterans, which could be seen as a “badge of honour.” Moreover, tattoos can be an advantage in certain industries, depending on the target audience. For example, HR managers at prisons note that tattoos on guards can be good conversation starters, which are necessary to establish connections with prisoners.
Tattoos can also be an advantage in certain retail organisations and shops, depending on their target demographic. For some organisations, only certain types of tattoos lower job prospects, such as those related to gang-culture.
The subject of tattoos can also heavily influence hiring decisions. Dr. Timming told a conference that tattoo acceptance was highest for innocuous symbols like flowers or butterflies, while tattoos likely to be viewed as distasteful had to do with death, sex, drugs, and racist symbols.
The Future of Tattoos and Candidate Screening
While tattoos are a risky venture in the current job market, Dr. Timming also told Sagepub that “there was a broad consensus among the respondents that although visible tattoos still hold a degree of taboo, in the not-so-distant future they will inevitably gain greater acceptance in the wider society.”
A future study of the same phenomenon could yield very different results, but until tattoos are more accepted in society and among HR managers, there are many important factors to consider before getting inked, including concealment and content.