Tattoos in the workplace

Would you hire her for a management position?

“You’re not going to spend your entire career in the armed services,” the young bride warned her Marine husband. “How will it look to your future business associates when you roll up your sleeves and they spot a tattoo on your forearm? They’ll perceive you as a lowly private, and you’ll be stuck in the same job forever, unworthy of a promotion.”

The class-conscious wife had a point. In the years I served as a U.S. Marines commissioned officer, it was the gravel-crunchers who sported tattoos. (Yes, “tattoos.” The more elegant “body art” held no place in the Marine Corps’ vernacular).

When surprised by the sight of a commissioned officer wearing a tattoo, I always assumed he started as a raw recruit and worked his way up through the ranks. Before condemning me as an elitist, consider that I and my fellow “90-day wonders”—newly commissioned college graduates—regularly discussed, in deeply reverent tones, those fellow lieutenants who’d earned their commissions the hard way—by starting at the bottom.

Tattooed sailors

Two sailors aboard the American battleship USS New Jersey in 1944. Photo credit: National Archives/Wikimedia Commons.

But while tattoos were common—almost a requirement—among the rank and file, we newly commissioned college grads never discussed getting one. I can’t recall even suggesting that we visit one of the busy tattoo parlors that flourished just outside the camp gates. The thought of body-etching an indelible seahorse, skull or skiff never entered my mind. Nor, apparently, did it tax the brainpower of my peers.

And later, through decades of creating marketing campaigns for such clients as General Electric Co. and Procter & Gamble Co., I can’t ever remember seeing a tattooed colleague. Did they conceal their tattoos beneath their button-down, Brooks Brothers shirts? Unlikely.

It seemed that the lower one descended on the income scale, the more prevalent the appearance of tattoos. Prisoners serve as a prominent example. Their wages stagnate at the bottom of the income scale, yet tattoos among the incarcerated are virtually universal.

If you find it fanciful to imagine that tattoos can play a role in income levels, consider this: numerous studies provide ample data showing tall people earn more than shorter people—solely on the basis of height. So why wouldn’t it be possible for income to vary on the basis of tattoos? Correlation is not causation, of course, but an East Coast chief executive told me that he would be put off by seeing a tattoo on an applicant seeking a management position.

In a 2010 study, the Pew Research Center surveyed more than 2,000 adults and 23 percent acknowledged having at least one tattoo. Yet of those aged 65 and above, only 6 percent had a tattoo. The younger generation—aged 18 to 29—were far more accepting; 38 percent said they were tattooed.

These Pew findings, now six years old, need updating. I urge a concerned Wharton professor or student to conduct a new study. With such widespread tattoo acceptance among the younger generation, what will their attitude be when they step up to play a role in management? Will managers take the presence of a tattoo as lightly as a job candidate’s horn-rimmed spectacles or receding hairline? Will a tattoo influence an employee’s income or job advancement? Now’s the time to identify the questions that still need answers.