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Tattoos In The Workplace Elicit Mixed Reactions

Compiled by Abigail Rome
December 10, 2009

Displaying a tattoo in the workplace can elicit more than innocent remarks of admiration. It can expose definitive biases against body painting - especially in conventional cities or workplaces. In fact, employers and employees across the country report mixed feelings about the appropriateness of tattoos in professional situations.

According to an article in the Washington Post, many young professionals are hesitant to expose their tattoos, going to work wearing long sleeves, button-up collars and close-toed shoes even on sweltering 90 degree summer days. One employer at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, MD experienced subtle condemnation from her boss when she rolled up her sleeves on a hot day in the office.

The article, which is based on a reader's blog on the topic initiated by the newspaper, states that the button-down nature of government work and stuffy office mores of law firms and lobby shops are responsible for a less-than-friendly tattoo atmosphere. "D.C. is culturally one of the most conservative cities I've ever lived in," said Sarah Graddy, 31, who works at the Department of Agriculture and has lived in three other U.S. cities.

According to CBS 2's Mike Parker, many companies - including McDonalds, GEICO Insurance, Burger King and even Hooter's - won't hire people with visible tattoos. In discussing employer bias, Chicago-based Human Resources Attorney Carol Coplan Babbitt comments that when tattoos are racially charged or sexually graphic, coworkers may feel harassed, and bosses can be considered liable. "If another employee is offended, it can contribute to creating an unlawful, harassing or discriminatory environment," she says.

Indeed, news media in suburban Chicago report that with the recession making it difficult for people of all ages to find work, many are turning to non-invasive cosmetic procedures to improve their appearances to potential employers. Likewise, Fox Business News recently reported on "one of the hottest beauty products on the market today, a temporary tattoo concealing creme."

A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center finds that almost 40 percent of Americans 18 to 40 have at least one tattoo. Meanwhile, Personnel Today reports that the British employment intelligence firm XpertHR conducted a survey in 2009, and found that tattoos are allowed by 27% of employers for men, and 23% for women.

Reactions to tattoos in professional situations seem to be highly dependent on the specific industry and the employer. This was the consensus at a panel discussion entitled "Tattoos and Professionalism," held in July and sponsored by the Susquehanna (Pennsylvania) Art Museum and Harrisburg Young Professionals. In its report on the discussion, the Patriot News cited high level staff in an advertising agency, who said "our clients come to us because of our creativity. I've never heard of tattoos being an issue with a client."

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