Karina Buckingham is a 21-year-old student, bartender, and healthcare worker. Like many people her age, Buckingham is holding down entry-level jobs until she receives a degree and joins the professional workforce. She has plenty of experience to put on her resume and knows how to present herself to employers.
The only things Buckingham worries might stand in the way of job opportunities are her two visible tattoos. On one wrist, Buckingham sports the simple outline of a dove. The letters on the other wrist spell “love.”
“I can easily hide my tattoos if that is the difference between a job and no job,” she says. “I think that many employers understand that this generation is the most tattooed, so they kind of expect them.”
Buckingham is right to say millennials are the most tattooed generation. Approximately four in 10 have tattoos, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey.
If nearly half of young people in the United States have tattoos and piercings, employers are faced with a new dilemma: What policies, if any, should be established to govern employee ink? Existing policies vary depending on the industry. But as more and more millennials move into the workplace, employers will have to adjust to their attitudes about body art.
The rise in tattoos may be due to the increasing cultural tolerance toward them, says Derek Lowe, general manager of Saint Sabrina’s, a Minneapolis tattoo and piercing shop. Lowe says negative attitudes toward tattoos have become less common, but they are still around.
“Those stigmas are much less common today than they were even 10 years ago, and much less so than 20 or more years ago,” he says.
The nature of tattoo stigmas has changed over the years, Lowe says. Beginning with an assumed tie to gang membership and crime, stigmas now are tied to the belief that tattoos are poor decisions made by young people on a whim, Lowe says, and the decision to have them becomes something that will stand in their way professionally as they get older.
After nearly 20 years in the piercing and tattoo industry, Lowe is passionate about his art. He sees piercings and tattoos as much more than a trend. He believes they are a form of expression, and says it is unlikely that the popularity of tattoos will decrease dramatically.
Buckingham believes the same thing. Her tattoos are a form of creative self-expression, she says.
“Life is short; do what you want and express yourself,” Buckingham says. “Tattoos are a way to do that.”
Along with being a form of expression, tattoos are seen by some as a representation of themselves. Dr. Kim Johnson, a professor of design, housing, and apparel at the University of Minnesota, has conducted research about women with tattoos, and how they relate to their self-perception and behavior.
Dr. Johnson says that although tattoos are becoming more tolerable than they were 20 years ago, many employers still worry that a tattooed employee will harm their company’s reputation. She says the presence of a tattoo could keep someone from being hired.
“The reason why a person with a tattoo might not get hired—or if hired, might be asked not to display the tattoo publicly—is because the person doing the hiring may believe that a person with a tattoo does not fit with the company’s image,” Dr. Johnson says. “This is why many people have told us that when they get a tattoo, they are very aware of the location on their body they will put it. Often they want to be able to cover up their tattoo when working or when interviewing.”
Because millennials are going to someday comprise much of the workforce, some employers may need to start re-thinking their tattoo policies. So far, policies range from strict to none at all, and some employers even encourage employee tattoos.
One workplace that is creating a more restrictive tattoo policy is the United States Army. Many soldiers use tattoos to commemorate fallen comrades, and in the past, tattoos were allowed if they weren’t racist or gang-related and weren’t present on the head, neck, or face.
The new tattoo policy states that soldiers cannot have any visible tattoos below the elbow and knee, or above the neckline. The Army says soldiers are required to pay to have their tattoos removed if they violate its terms.
Hospitals and other medical employers have settled on an in-between tattoo policy. Places like Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota and hospitals like Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) in Minneapolis are lenient about tattoos, not requiring employees cover them up as long as there is no interference with job performance. A human resources representative at HCMC says it’s not the presence of a tattoo that necessarily matters; it’s how the patients and clients feel about it.
“We do expect our employees to be clean and neat, and if the tattoo doesn’t fit well with the patient care, employers do have the right to ask them to cover it up,” the HCMC representative says.
Hosea Ojwang, the director of human resources at Boynton, says the hospital’s expectations regarding tattoos are very similar to HCMC’s.
“Our policy states that all visible tattoos and piercings should not be offensive or interfere with job duties,” he says.
Some professional industries have been required to loosen their tattoo policies so as not to exclude a potential employee. The Seattle Police Department wanted its force to represent the public it serves. So in May 2013, it decided to loosen its tattoo requirements for new recruits.
According to CBS Seattle, the former tattoo policy was confusing and made recruits think they would be disqualified because of their tattoos. The new policy states each case will be processed individually, and no candidate will be disqualified because of a tattoo as long as he or she maintains a professional appearance.
The restaurant industry is usually open to employees having tattoos, but at least one restaurant goes so far as to encourage its employees to be inked. Shannon Weed, a manager at Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge in Minneapolis, says the woman who owns the restaurant also owns Saint Sabrina’s and is 100 percent supportive of tattoos on her employees.
Weed says because of the expanding cultural tolerance, tattoos shouldn’t be a factor when judging a job candidate.
“I don’t believe in judging someone with tattoos,” she says. “Tattoos have become more accepted culturally, and should be more accepted in the workplace.”
Removals on the Rise
Despite varying levels of employer leniency, some young people feel that sporting a tattoo isn’t worth risking future job opportunities. As the number of young people getting tattoos has increased, so has the rate of tattoo removal. Patient’s Guide, a publication written by dermatology experts, reports that a 32 percent increase in tattoo removals occurred from 2011 to 2012, with employment being the leading reason for removal.
Pamala Ek, a front desk coordinator and assistant at Dr. Towey’s Tattoo Removal Shop in Minneapolis, says clients remove tattoos for many reasons, including for work.
“Some choose to remove it because they feel they have outgrown their tattoo. Others feel the need to remove for better job prospects,” Ek says. “Some have felt that the tattoo did not look good or was not done well.”
Depending on the color of the tattoo, Ek says sometimes they need to lighten the tattoo before they can remove it. The removal process can take up to a year or longer, and is done with a laser.
Ek says the procedure, which costs between $120 and $150 on average, works by using the laser to break up a tattoo into small enough pieces for the body to collect into the immune system. “Tattoos naturally fade,” Ek says. “But with the technology we have now, we can usually speed up the process.”
The pain of removal varies from person to person, she says, but it generally feels like a rubber band snapping against the skin.
As the owner of a tattoo shop, Lowe doesn’t believe that tattoos are a reasonable way to judge a job applicant, claiming that the presence of tattoos and piercings has “zero impact” on skills and job performance.
“Does having tattoos prevent someone from having the proper understanding of tax code to be a good accountant? Does having tattoos mean someone is going to be an extra-skilled surgeon? Obviously not,” he says.