Tattoos have long had a controversial reputation in the world of work, largely due to a perception of criminality or distrust. A Peninsula Ireland survey found that 76% of Irish employers would not hire someone if they were displaying a visible tattoo. The survey, carried out in 2015 also concluded that if two candidates were shortlisted for a job, 82% of employers would give the job to the candidate without visible tattoos.
But 2015 was a long time ago (one Brexit and an entire Trump presidency ago, in fact) and in the working from home era you don’t even have to put on pants to do your job. Could tattoos still affect your chances of gaining employment in the year 2020? And is there anything in the law to prevent employers from making hiring decisions based on your ink?
The human desire to make a statement and adorn one’s body with art can be traced back as far as 3400-3100 BC when the Tyrolean Iceman ‘Otzi’ is said to have lived. Otzi was shot in the back with an arrow high up in the Ötztal Alps in Northern Italy some 5,300 years ago and died. His body was preserved in the ice, making him one of the oldest and best-preserved natural mummies on earth. But that’s not even the coolest thing about this guy; studies of Otzi’s body detected 61 tattoos. Mostly consisting of groups of lines and crosses, the tattoos were produced by making fine incisions in the skin and rubbing charcoal into them. It is believed that they served a therapeutic or diagnostic purpose for the Iceman because the tattoo groupings were clustered around his lower back and joints, where scientists identified joint and spinal degeneration. The art of tattooing was also practiced in ancient Egypt as a group of archaeologists uncovered multiple Egyptian mummies with tattoos of sheep and bulls. Small bronze implements identified as tattooing tools were also discovered at the town site of Gurob in Northern Egypt. Amongst the Greeks and Romans, the use of tattoos or “stigmata” as they were then known, were used as a means to mark someone as “belonging” either to a particular religion or to an owner, in the case of slavery, they would also tattoo criminals as a punitive measure, to make them more easily identifiable. This may be how the employers of recent times concocted their preconceptions about tattooed individuals. There is of course, a deep-rooted link between tattoos and the world of crime and a much higher prevalence of tattoos amongst prison inmates than the general population.
But is there anything to stop a potential employer from deciding against hiring someone based on their body art alone? Unfortunately, not. Tattoos are not a protected characteristic under EU or indeed, Irish law, unlike a disability, the colour of your skin, your gender or your sexual orientation. The Irish Labour Court did, however, protect the right to have a beard in the workplace in a 2004 case. The Court found that a Dunnes Stores employee who was sacked for refusing to shave a goatee beard he had worn for 38 years or wear a face covering at work was unfairly dismissed and should be reinstated. Company dress codes are common in Ireland, be it for health and safety reasons; to promote professionalism; or to communicate a consistent corporate image. Such codes can disproportionately affect one gender. For example, it’s entirely lawful for employers to enforce codes that necessitate the wearing of high heels by female employees or the wearing of a tie by male employees. The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015, the governing Irish legislation on employment discrimination remains silent on the treatment of tattooed individuals, before, during and after employment. As such, employers are well within their right to enforce rules stating that those with tattoos must keep them covered up, or indeed, to not hire tattooed people in the first place.
But are policies like these still practiced in 2020?
Working from home allows people to dress more casually while on the job, this begs the question: do exposed tattoos even matter anymore? A potential knock on effect of the remote working era on the tolerance of employers towards body art is yet to be seen but if recent years are anything to go by a tide has certainly turned. In 2018, London’s Metropolitan Police partially relaxed a ban on recruiting tattooed candidates and in 2019, Air New Zealand said it would end a ban on body art to allow workers to express their individuality and cultural heritages. Air New Zealand is however, an outlier amongst airline companies, most airline companies like Qatar Airways and Emirates have a no-tolerance approach to body art when it comes to their cabin crew, even in 2020, with the former banning it outright and the latter only permitting tattoos that are not visible whilst in uniform. Online forums offering advice to aspiring cabin crew members recommend refraining from disclosing your tattoos during the recruitment process. A lot of it comes down to the career you’re pursuing, though, body art may restrict your chances of becoming a primary school teacher, but if you’re after a job in the tech sector, in culinary arts or as a personal trainer your tattoos most likely won’t hinder you. And attitudes are constantly evolving. It’s important to note that in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when the previous generation was coming up, very few people had tattoos. Today FM reported recently that 35% of Irish people have a tattoo and the average number of tattoos per person is two. As well as this, business managers and owners are becoming younger and younger, The New York Times has said that the average age of a tech company startup founder is 42. According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, 63% of people aged 60 and older find tattoos inappropriate in a workplace, while only 22% of people aged 18-25 share this opinion. This younger generation are entering the workplace and bringing with them a more progressive outlook.
Employees without tattoos are not more skilled and do not have a better work ethic than those without. In fact, skill and work ethic have absolutely nothing to do with the presence or absence of ink on your skin, unsurprisingly. Preconceived notions of criminality, laziness or untrustworthiness are slowly but surely growing out of the Irish workforce and this growth is likely to be accelerated by the WFH movement.