The Tattoo Debate: Are You Judging Candidates by Their Qualifications or Their Body Art?

One of the issues that I’ve tackled over and over again in my years of writing about and talking about diversity is the issue of tattoos.
Tattoos are in a rare category as a diversity issue. They aren’t a genetic, physical, biological or physiological category of difference.
In some ways, tattoos aren’t even really a class or a sociological division anymore.
Recently, I saw that up close and personal.
Last month, I helped give workshops assisting incarcerated men and women on how to explain a felony conviction when applying for jobs. These people were still in prison.
In one day, I saw tattoos across a wide swath of demographics. Many of those prisoners - across racial and generational lines - had tattoos. A third-year law student attending a top-ranked law school who helped with the workshop- had tattoos. The white female security guard in her 60s letting me into a Fortune 500 company later that day had tattoos.
With the exception of the law student, all of the tattoos I saw that day were visible. Nothing less than a face mask, turtleneck sweater and gloves could have hidden most of the tattoos. And they were quite the variety.
Over the years, tattoos can definitely be seen in more places than military get-togethers and biker bars. They’ve become very mainstream. In fact, studies show that approximately 25 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 have at least one tattoo.
However, as the economy has made this more of an employers’ market, many studies are showing that an increase in potential employees’ are undergoing the tattoo-removing laser to better compete. An organization that gathers statistics on elective procedures says that last year, there was a 32 percent increase in tattoo-removal procedures.
That increase is based on good reason. has reported that 31 percent of human resources professionals cite visible tattoos as a reason why they have passed on an applicant. And 40 percent of people surveyed regarding why they were having tattoos removed cited employment reasons.
Frankly, I’m not surprised at all.
Tattoos are a sensitive subject. While I don’t have one, several close friends who are professionals have them. In fact, the person who has the most tattoos out of anyone I know has a law degree and and a master’s degree in library science.
I would never advise anyone who has chosen to have tattoos to have them removed. That’s far too personal and invasive a procedure to recommend. But, more often than not, I would advice someone who is about to get a tattoo, that unless they are a stage of their career where people call them and offer jobs based on their reputation, they are best off staying far away from visible tattoos.
Is that unfair advice, considering that people should be judged by their qualifications and not their body art? Actually, no.
Piercings (something that received more negative feedback than tattoos from the surveyed human resources professionals) and tattoos are perceived to be personal, affirmative choices.
A person can decide whether a tattoo goes on their hand versus their forearm. Or on their lower back versus their neck.
A tattoo isn’t a birthmark. Getting a tattoo is an act of judgment and evaluating whether you’re using good judgment is one of the first conscious and subconscious values a prospective employer will evaluate.
I’m not saying that tattoos are an indication of bad judgment. I’m saying that some interviewers will perceive it as indication of questionable judgment when comparing you to a candidate whose tattoo judgment can’t be seen in an interview chair.
There are a whole host of factors that employers and potential employers know that a candidate has little control in changing. And most of those potential factors are things that a candidate would not change even if they could.
But I think the uptick in tattoo removal is as significant sign of the times - it shows that while mores may change over time, employers and people wanting jobs don’t change all that much.
Organizations and companies want to know that you can fit into their corporate culture and be a rule-follower. Tattoos still smack of rebel and rule-breaker to many-- even if the tattoo is an adorable heart with the word "mother" written across it.