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Go ahead, get that tattoo. Your boss shouldn’t mind

August 20, 2018

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Nora Flanagan’s first tattoos hid strategically under her clothing. An aspiring teacher, Flanagan worried the ink could cost her a job.

“There was definitely an idea of what a teacher should look like,” Flanagan, now 42, recalls of her early career in the late 1990s. Teachers wore long, wholesome floral skirts, not child-corrupting body art.

But several years into her job at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep High School, Flanagan got a teaching award, tenure and greater confidence. She shed the floral skirts, slipped on her Doc Martens and accumulated more tattoos, letting them creep visibly down her arms.

Now chair of the English department at Northside College Prep High School, Flanagan is covered in tattoos from her knuckles to her collarbone, plus some on her calves, and she wears them proudly.

“I’m the tattooed teacher,” said Flanagan, adding that she has gotten no complaints from parents or administration. “It’s a big deal to the kids for a day and then I start to give them grades like everyone else, and no one cares.”

A new study on tattoos at work has come to a similar conclusion: No one seems to mind.

The research, published in the journal Human Relations, surveyed more than 2,000 people and found that the inked were just as likely to be employed and to earn as much as the uninked, regardless of the number, visibility or offensiveness of their tattoos.

That was a surprise to the study authors. Previous research has found that hiring managers widely perceive people with tattoos to be less employable than those without, even in recent years when the popularity of tattoos has surged.

That negative perception is driven in part by other research that has found customers frown upon being served by or buying from people with tattoos, which years ago were associated with countercultural delinquents.

“We thought with this new information we are certainly going to uncover some discrimination,” said lead author Michael French, professor of health economics at University of Miami Business School.

But the study found no adverse employment outcomes for the tattooed, regardless of whether they were men or women, blue-collar or white-collar workers, in management or not. In fact, having one or more tattoos was associated with slightly higher employment and more hours worked, the study found.

The results suggest negative perceptions of tattoos don’t play out in actual hiring decisions, or that workplaces are embracing tattoos’ evolution from symbols of rebellion to expressions of creativity and commemorations of life events, French said.

“This is a healthy and common form of expression,” said French, 57, who has a colorful arrow on his forearm and numerous other tattoos, all of which he got over the past decade. Workplaces that ban tattoos are at a competitive disadvantage, he added, because they miss out on good people.

Tattoos have become much more prevalent and visible in recent years, moving far beyond the subtle butterfly on the ankle to full sleeves and neck tattoos.

Thirty percent of Americans had at least one tattoo in 2015, up from 20 percent four years earlier, according to the most recent Harris polls available. Seventy percent of people with tattoos had more than one.

Nearly half of millennials are tattooed, compared with 13 percent of baby boomers, the poll found. A third of 40-somethings had tattoos in 2015, up from 14 percent in 2003, changing what it looks like to be middle aged.

The ubiquity is such that, in a rare moment of unity, Republicans are as likely as Democrats to be inked.

Tattoos still carry some stigma. Nearly 30 percent of adults without tattoos think those with are less intelligent.

Still, most people surveyed shrugged their shoulders at tattooed professionals.

More than 60 percent said they were comfortable with their banker or doctor having tattoos.

said they were comfortable with tattoos on camp counselors and teachers. Attitudes were starkly divided along generational lines. Half of millennials feel “extremely comfortable” with a tattooed judge, compared with 15 percent of people over 70.

Whether the embrace of tattoos will change as tastes shift or taut millennial skin ages remains to be seen; 23 percent of the tattooed survey respondents said they regretted their ink.

But they may be feeling less pressure to get them surgically erased. Tattoo removal procedures were down by 35 percent in 2017 compared to five years earlier, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

To be sure, some buttoned-up employers and customer-facing companies are still cautious about body art.

Six Flags Great America in Gurnee prohibits employees at its theme parks from having visible tattoos on or above the neck, and on the rest of the body permits only one small visible tattoo no larger than 2 inches by 2 inches. All other ink must be covered.

At Chicago-based Atticus Recruiting, which places attorneys in law firms, co-owner Rob McAndrew said it is better to err on the conservative side, at least when making a first impression. He advises new lawyers to interview wearing suits, which cover most tattoos.

“Know your audience,” said Michael Erwin, senior career adviser for Chicago-based CareerBuilder.com. While many more job candidates interview with tattoos showing and the casualization of workplaces has made employers much more accepting, some more conservative industries, such as banking and finance, stick to straight-laced convention, he said.

Ultimately, though, people should work in an environment that allows them to be who they are.

“Tattoos are an extension of yourself so you want to make sure you are at a place that embraces that,” Erwin said.

Many employers are loosening their collars as younger, tattooed generations take leadership roles at companies and more conservative executives age out, said Mark Marsen, director of human resources at a Pittsburgh health nonprofit and a subject expert with the Society for Human Resources Management.

That’s good, he said, because judging employees based on tattoos, or looks generally, is risky legally and for morale.

Though tattoos are not covered by anti-discrimination laws, employers run the risk that an anti-tattoo stance could be construed as singling out a demographic that is protected, such as for race, age or sexual orientation, he said.

“I think it’s good practice to always focus on job requirements,” Marsen said. “If someone is able to do the job, it shouldn’t make a hill of beans difference what they look like, including whether they have tattoos.”

In a case a few years back, an employer faced a disability discrimination charge after asking an employee to cover his arm tattoos, as the man had a health condition that caused him to overheat, said Jason Clagg, an attorney at Barnes and Thornburg who represented the employer in the case. Management argued, in part, that soldiers wear thin long-sleeve shirts to protect them from heat, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed the case, he said.

Clagg said he is writing fewer tattoo-specific workplace policies amid “a gradual lessening of restrictions and less concerns.” But some employers still take a harder line — including high-end restaurants and those that work with children or medicine — out of concern that they might bother customers.

Tattoo policies must be applied consistently and include exceptions that allow for reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs. Employers also should be aware the content of a tattoo could be problematic if it is deemed to violate the civil rights of other employees, such as an image of the Confederate flag.

“Anything that could be potentially racially or sexually charged, there should be a consistent policy that anything like that would be covered,” Marsen said.

The Society for Human Resources Management recommends policy language that says the company allows reasonable self expression through appearance unless it is “regarded as offensive or harassing toward co-workers or others with whom (the company) conducts business.”

Outside of those exceptions, however, Marsen advises against requiring employees to cover their tattoos because “it sends a bad message to employees that they are being judged for how they look.”

Marsen has undergone a conversion of sorts on the tattoo topic. Raised in a “traditional 1960s household” with little exposure to tattoos, he associated tattoos with being “scary” and “other,” until he did business with heavily inked artists and “realized it was stupid on my part to have those notions.”

Marsen, 57, got his first tattoo at 50 as a “mid-life acting out” and now has 14, including one of his employer’s logo. He enjoys showing them off in professional settings, as it helps him be relatable to younger people, and telling the stories behind the art helps break the ice.

Flanagan, the tattooed teacher at Northside College Prep, said her tattoos make her approachable to the kids who don’t fit in.

“I’m a weirdo magnet and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Flanagan, who coaches the school’s poetry slam and sponsors the gay-straight student alliance.

Many of her tattoos have literary references, including the letters “Read More” across her knuckles. Inside each forearm she has tributes to each of her sons, while other tattoos reflect travel or people she’s lost. For fun, there’s a bowl of ramen on the back of her arm.

But Flanagan is not flippant about the potential workplace implications of being heavily tattooed.

Even at Northside, which she fondly calls “a bastion of weirdness,” Flanagan worried that tattooing her hands would be a “job stopper,” and thought about it for a year before getting her knuckles done. She once scolded a student teacher for flaunting his tattoos, telling him he never knows when a disapproving administrator might walk in.

“I feel like I earned it,” she said of her comfort displaying her own tattoo bonanza, and that’s not the case with people starting out in their careers.

If she could go back to those first interviews, she said, she would probably still conceal her tattoos under clothes. But, she said, “I would skip the floral skirts.”

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