The Tattoo Dilemma: How Much Do Skills Matter If You Have Visible Ink?


I’ve noticed several articles recently about how job seekers with visible tattoos shouldn’t be discriminated against when it comes to hiring.

One article I read even said that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be expanded so that inked individuals are protected from workplace discrimination.

Huh? We inherit our race, gender and national origin at birth. The last time I checked, getting a tattoo is a choice.

Now before you go berserk and jump to the comments to rant about how you should be judged by your talent and skills, not your appearance, please humor me and let me explain.

Perceptions and first impressions

For the sake of clarity, visible tattoos are ones that you can’t hide — the ones climbing up your neck and chest or on your face and hands. I’m not referring to the ink that’s easily hidden by clothing or by rolling down your sleeves.

When it comes to first impressions, do you know how much your skills matter if you have visible ink?

I don’t. I do know that you can’t assume the tattoos won’t be distracting. More important, you can’t predict or control the biases and judgments that others may make about you.

I wanted to write this for the same reason I wrote this article telling women not to wear giant bling to a job interview. When you put yourself in a position to be judged by others, you give away your power to be noticed only for your skills and expertise. Instead, you risk being in the critical eye of someone who perceives you inaccurately.

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There are jobs outside of the Corporate America office where it’s perfectly fine for workers to have visible tattoos — a physical labor job, work at home, or bouncer/security guard, just to name a few. I’m sure the music and art industry are fine with visible ink as well.

Body art and success

People get tattoos for various reasons. Whether it’s honoring a loved one or simply self-expression, it’s a personal decision and I get that. While I believe we’ll see a shift at work towards tattoo acceptance, it’ll be slow. And even if the company you work for is cool with your ink, customers may not be OK with it — which adds another challenging layer to the issue.

One article I read was from a medical website and a doctor said he believed that if he had tattoos and piercings that his patients wouldn’t take him seriously. Patients, he felt, are more apt to comply with the instructions of physicians who look professional, which leads to better health outcomes. He also said that your label — your brand — can impact your ability to get referrals for new patients.

In a perfect world we’d all work in an environment where people don’t judge each other based on appearance and enjoy a culture that embraces diversity. But as long as we have humans at work, we can kill the idea of ever having a non-judgmental workplace.

This was originally published on Kimberly Patterson’s Unconventional HR blog.

Kimberly Patterson is the founder of Unconventional HR. An HR pro turned consultant, she has 25 years of progressive experience as a strategic HR and business leader in a variety of industries. Her hands-on and innovative approach allows her to create and deliver HR solutions to meet business challenges and needs by managing human capital, talent acquisition and technology. Connect with her on Twitter at, or at .


11 Comments on “The Tattoo Dilemma: How Much Do Skills Matter If You Have Visible Ink?

  1. I wonder how many amazing, productive people you haven’t hired because they have ink. How many lost opportunities have your companies had because you hired the mediocre person with no tattoos? How many poor marketing campaigns has your company done because you hired the old school, buttoned up marketing director instead of the young creative brimming with ideas with ink on his forearms? How many leads have you missed out on?

    This is nothing more than the classic HR focus on perpetuating stereotypes based on things that don’t matter.


    Successful white collar professional with 8 different tattoos, some of which are visible, but none that get in the way of my daily performance.

    1. I am a successful white collar woman who has tattoos as well. But frankly, even though I am liberal minded, a visible tattoo can be seen as “off-putting.” As the author stated in her editorial, the approval rating for this will one day change, but it will be slow. If a person chooses to have a tattoo, and they are wishing to work in the white collar world, they need to be choosey on which body part they are placing their tattoos. The double standard exists. Have I missed out on an opportunity in hiring? No. Have others? Possibly. I have the ability to look past tattoos. Do others? Maybe. But frankly, in life, unfortunately, the double standard, and old thought processes still exist. Sad, but true.

    2. Ah Karlyn, but that’s where you’re incorrect when you say, “things that don’t matter”. While something like visible tattoos may not matter to YOU or even to me, that’s the entire point of this post — you really don’t know who they matter to.

      1. You’re right Kimberly. And you don’t know who you may be offending by your haircut. Or your jewelry. Or the color shirt you’re wearing. I’m a woman with very short hair – if I was working for a man that didn’t believe a woman should cut her hair that short and penalized me because of it, would that be ok?

          1. Likely the same way that I would know if someone is judging me for any other choice that I have made about my own physical appearance.

          2. That’s the tricky part Karlyn. It’s highly unlikely that someone will ever say to you, “we’re not hiring/promoting you due to your tattoo/hair/piercings, etc.”

            The new job and/or promotion just will not happen.

  2. I have to agree that in certain professions, mostly those that have direct contact with the public, visible tattoos can be a negative. I have tattoos. My wife has tattoos. When my son is out of school and is mature enough to make wise decisions, he can go ahead and get a tattoo. But if anyone thinks even for a second that they won’t be judged on their ink, they are fooling themselves. Our policy at work is that if it isn’t offensive, it won’t stop you from getting a job, which translates “if it doesn’t offend or cause our customers concern.” Will smart, capable, even exceptional people miss out on jobs because they have sleeves and neck/face/hand tattoos? Absolutely. Did they put themselves in the position of not getting a job? Absolutely. Just like it takes a lot to look past someone who comes to an interview dressed like they just threw on whatever AC/DC shirt and baggy shorts they could find, it is hard to see past that first impression, and in any customer service job, that first impression will make or break you. Unfortunately, the decisions we make will always affect the opportunities we are presented with.

    1. And the job someone is doing when they decide to get a tattoo may not be the job someone ends up doing. Life changes so much that although we’d like to think that we have a plan for our lives, we don’t.

      In life, the only thing that stays the same is change. Thanks for your comment Chad.

  3. As someone who has tattoos – not visible, you also need to consider where you work. Are you a banker? Financier? Minister? Sometimes these careers are considered more conservative…as such, if you want to have tattoos, consider the spaces on your body where they won’t be seen. If you have a job that is considered more conservative, don’t get a tattoo up your neck, or facial tatts…facial tatts are really hard to get past. I realize that ink as a whole is not just a preference, but sometimes a life style choice, and many may not share your joy in ink. I know for a fact, my parents think it’s “stupid” that I have tattoos…but you know what? Yes, it’s my body, but they are also places that unless I’m nekkid, no one can see them…OK, the one on my back is visible if I wear a backless dress or a chemise to work, but when I wear a chemise, I am also usually wearing a sweater or a jacket. So, if you want ink, and you’re a woman (yes the double standard is even more prevalent here – what’s okay for a dude, is not always cook for a dudette) and you want a tattoo on your leg? Make sure it’s high up on your thigh (because, frankly super minis are not cool in the workplace) so a pencil skirt can cover it. Spare the foot tatt, especially if you like pumps and sandals, and stay away from hand and full sleeves. If it can’t be covered and you remain comfortable? Don’t get it put there. So get your tattoo, but make sure, especially if you’re female, that it can stay hidden…is this unfair? Sure…but frankly folks, life ain’t fair and as usual, in regard to women, the double standard is alive and well.

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