Hiring Managers Unable to See Past Applicants’ Visible Tattoos

photo of a woman at work with tattoos on her arms, smiling and resting her head on one handFinding a new job is never easy, but College of Business research found that visible tattoos will likely make the job search even more difficult while also decreasing the amount offered for initial salaries.

Management professor Chris Henle and her coauthors found that prejudice associated with visible tattoos is difficult for job applicants to overcome. Their recently accepted paper, “Visible Tattoos as a Source of Employment Discrimination Among Female Applicants for a Supervisory Position,” in the Journal of Business and Psychology, explains the details.

“You look around and there are people with tattoos everywhere now. How something like that impacts hiring decisions is super interesting,” Henle said. “And most people can relate to this experience somehow.”

Countless studies analyze workplace discrimination based on stereotypes. Plenty of those specifically look into stereotypes associated with tattoos. Henle built on that foundation to further examine whether visible tattoos are likely to lead to adverse employment outcomes and if so, what drives these effects.

“We were shocked at how hard it is to overcome discrimination based on tattoos,” Henle said. “We really thought we could find a point at which hiring managers could move past it, but we didn’t get to that point.”

Are tattoos becoming more accepted in the workplace?

The study notes that 29 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo; women are more likely than men to have one, and the prevalence of tattoos is higher among those ages 18-40. Due to the challenges of designing a discrimination study that includes multiple levels of sex, race and age, Henle’s research intentionally examined only Caucasian female applicants in their mid to late 20s.

“There are increasingly more people of working age with tattoos. We really wanted to find out why people discriminate against them no matter how competent they are,” Henle explained the study’s narrow focus. “When you start adding other variables, it makes it difficult to pinpoint discrimination factors.”

two fists bumping, one with tattoos

Henle and her coauthors hoped to replicate past studies that found tattooed applicants were less likely to be hired and investigate further by examining if visible tattoos also lead to discrimination in starting salaries. Experiments also considered professional competency, perceived warmth and volunteer experience as mitigating factors.

“We thought originally they would be stereotyped as less competent and less warm. I wonder if the focus on women played a role there. Maybe if we had studied men, there would have been an affect in warmth,” Henle speculated. “The historical stereotype of people with tattoos is that they were cold, but that didn’t show up for us.”

The study sought to create a realistic hiring context through simulated LinkedIn applicant profiles and used participants with recent hiring experience to evaluate the applicants as they would in a real hiring situation. Henle and her coauthors also looked at the characteristics of hiring managers, hypothesizing that if they had piercings or tattoos, they would be more accepting, but they were not.

Do people with tattoos earn less?

The three studies concluded that tattooed applicants were less likely to be hired, especially if they have larger, more aggressive tattoos that are harder to conceal. Those with mild tattoos who were hired were offered lower salaries and rated lower on competence than their non-tattooed counterparts, and people with more extreme tattoos were hit even harder by these discrepancies.

Highly qualified candidates were able to lessen salary discrimination and achieve decent offers, but their competence did not lessen hiring discrimination: they received the same rate of job offers as less qualified individuals with tattoos. Volunteer experience did not alleviate prejudice at all.

Wages spelled out on decreasing stacks of coins

Further, Henle’s results suggest that a mild visible tattoo could lead to a dip in initial annual salary of $2,159. With that, even if the tattoo has no further effects on performance evaluations, promotions or pay raises, the difference adds up over time. If the company gives 2 percent annual raises, the mild visible tattoo could cost the employee more than $23,000 over 10 years.

“Tattoos will make it harder to get a job. It will take longer; you might have to work harder to find the right employer. It’s a struggle for people who have tattoos,” Henle said. “One thing we didn’t get to explore was if certain industries, like fashion, music or sports, might be more accepting, or even see tattoos as an asset. So, you’ll have to find what works for you.”

Future implications

Ultimately, this research shows that stereotypes and biases against visible tattoos may cause hiring managers to automatically exclude this growing population, regardless of applicants’ qualifications. Those considering body art may opt for less extreme tattoos in easily concealed locations to increase their odds of getting a job offer. Additionally, emphasizing job qualifications and competence will aid in overcoming stereotypes attributed to those with visible tattoos.

“I don’t like it when we blame job applicants, though. They just happen to have body art and are perceived in a certain way. Really, we need to start focusing on the hiring managers and what they fixate on,” Henle said. “We might have to do some training with hiring managers and help them become aware of their biases. And not just body art, piercings or attire; it’s really appearance-based bias.

“We need to give them techniques to overcome their biases and make sure they’re making sound hiring decisions based on qualifications and skills. If you throw all these people out, you could be missing out on a really great employee.”

Henle pointed out that companies are struggling to hire right now, and the legal environment is changing. There are more laws protecting people from appearance-based discrimination, and that will only increase. So, the burden lies with all parties; people with tattoos have to work hard to highlight their competence, and hiring managers and companies need to take a deeper look inside to see why they may be missing out on some of their best prospects.