“The times are changing.” Each year we hear this phrase in accordance with tattoos becoming more acceptable in the workplace. Given that it’s 2022, one would hope we were already in a world where offices are dominated by full sleeves, face tattoos, multi-colored hair and piercings in every part of the body without anybody batting an eye. While we’re still not there yet, the vision is becoming more real than ever.
Recent research and countless worker testimonials have shown that ideas of professionalism have shifted since the pandemic started. Simultaneously, millennials—the most tattooed generation—are finally seeing spaces where they can show up as their full selves, along with Gen Z ushering in deep values of diversity and inclusion.
To add more oil to the engine, a bill has just been introduced that will ban tattoo discrimination by employers and landlords in New York City. The law was proposed by District 7 Council Member Shaun Abreu, and is co-sponsored by Council Members Natasha Williams, Justin Brannan and Kevin Riley. If passed, tattoos would be protected from discrimination in the same way as gender, race, age and sexual orientation. Exceptions to the bill would include tattoos containing hate speech or symbols linked to racism.
“We should focus on merit-based work,” Abreu told ABC7 New York. “Can you do the job? If the answer is, you can do the job, then what does it matter if someone is wearing a tattoo?”
Past generations have had to deal with tattoo discrimination in the workforce for decades. Donshia Evans, a business development manager with real estate and marketing experience at Colliers International and PingPong Digital, talked about getting his first tattoo on his back at 18 as a dedication to his African heritage. “I got it because I wanted to get it, and it had deep meaning to me,” he says, “but then when my mom saw it, the fear and anxiety of my future [crept in] about my ability to get a job.”
Evans is among the 50 percent of Americans under 40 who have tattoos in 2022, and has watched the landscape of inked workers transform. “I’ve spent a lot of time around high net worth individuals,” he says, “and the ones that are younger have tattoos out the wazoo.” After working overseas for years and then returning to the U.S., he was reminded of how much more normalized tattoos are here, especially when compared to countries like South Korea and China. “[Back in the States] it kind of became cool because at certain companies with certain guys—for me working in sales, we bonded because we had tattoos.”
Since the pandemic started, LinkedIn research published in Bloomberg News showed that 60 percent of working Americans agree that what is considered “professional” has changed. The study, which surveyed about 2,000 workers, showed that Gen Z is the least likely to endorse a “traditionally professional” look in the office, with less than 40 percent believing you must maintain a “conservative” appearance that includes covering tattoos.
Tattooed employees also don’t have the negative impact on companies as was once thought. This February, the Journal of Organizational Behavior published a study called “Do employees’ tattoos leave a mark on customers’ reactions to products and organizations?”, where researchers found that visible tattoos on employees do not negatively impact customers’ attitudes or purchasing behaviors in some white-collar jobs—in fact, customers who stereotyped tattooed employees as being artistic and creative were more likely to view the employee and their company in a positive light.
Robert Pauliny, an NY-based project manager at Turner Construction Company, has tattoos from chest to ankles despite being in a corporate, client-facing role. At his job, he has had to find the balance between owning his tattoos without them affecting his work. “I didn't get arm tattoos and I still don't have really visible tattoos,” he says. In order to maintain a professional appearance, he started out by getting pieces on his chest, ribs, back and legs—things that would be covered on a typical workday.
“When I first started with the company, it was a button-down shirt and tie, and maybe you roll up your sleeves a little bit, and that was kind of the dress code,” Pauliny continues. “It has relaxed in the last 20-something years that I’ve been there, from a shirt and tie to a polo and jeans or khakis. So that opened up the opportunity to see other people with tattoos a little bit easier.”
Though millennials are the most tattooed generation, Gen Z is quickly catching up, with 32 percent having at least one tattoo. By 2025, 27 percent of the workforce will be populated by Gen Z, and as they take their place in the world of work, a different set of moral standards will also be brought in. A recent Forbes article by Ashley Stahl cited this generation as one that is “shaking up business culture and work as we know it.”
In working with Gen Z clients, Stahl found notable differences in how the group perceives work compared to other generations. They operate with a heavily values-driven approach to career prospects. Gen Z also tends to have a more negative perception of the tech industry and are more likely to only purchase from brands that align with their values. Gen Z is also the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, and thus has higher expectations for diversity, equity and inclusion when deciding upon their place of work.
Izaba Paras, Manager of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging at Opportunity@Work, an organization that brings fulfilling careers to workers skilled through alternative routes, recently shared a LinkedIn post that went viral of her stunning headshot showing tattooed arms and pink streaks in her hair. The post listed things she has been told throughout her career, including “Cover your tattoos, you work in HR. You have to set an example,” and “PINK HAIR?? Isn’t that a little unprofessional?” In response to all this, she insisted that it’s time to see beyond what we’ve traditionally known.
“For baby boomers, tenure or loyalty to an organization was the greatest thing,” she reflects. “Millennials are looking for work-life balance. We wanted a job [where] when it was five, we could clock out. Gen Z is looking for work-life harmony.”
Harmony, in Paras’ view, refers to a lifestyle where workers no longer draw a hard separation between their work and personal life. Rather, the emphasis is placed on how seamlessly a job can tie into the rest of their day. “Now, Gen Z is saying, during my lunch break, I wanna go to the gym, do some yoga” Paras explains. “One o'clock, log in. And then, 3 pm, time for a mental health walk… which I think is so important because it tells us there's so much more to life.” It’s easy to see how newer generations won’t stand for a job that doesn’t mesh with the rest of their lives, including their views on tattoos.
As a tattooed HR professional, Paras considers herself to be living proof of progress. She also cites her organization’s director of HR as someone who has tattoos showing on her shoulders, letting everyone know they can fully be themselves. “We see humans as who they are,” says Paras. “If someone comes in with tattoos, our eyes don't immediately go to their tattoos. We say, ‘Hey, great smile. Thank you so much for showing up. It's almost normal for us because we've embraced diversity so much.” She continued, “Organizations are actually missing out on fantastic talent and great and innovative human beings when we start putting barriers.
“I would never want to work at an organization that's asking me to be somebody different than myself, because when I have to be different than who I truly am, it's going to show in my work,” Paras continues. “I can save that energy for my job and not have to worry about what I wear, how I do my hair, how I speak.”
Paras strongly believes that when companies stop trying to control what their workers look like, employees feel empowered. “You're going to see employees that are high performers,” she says. “They're more engaged. You're going to see great retention. You're also going to see happier employees who truly want to invest in the success of the organization.”
Tattoo acceptance in the workplace is in a transitional phase and there may still be times where you’ll have to compromise your appearance for the comfortability of others. However, more often people are asking themselves, “Do I really want to hide parts of myself, or sacrifice things that have special meaning to me, for a job that doesn’t want me to be my full self?” Companies are starting to listen and adjust accordingly, altering what the workplace looks like.
Evans theorizes that our culture is in a period of flux. “I think that is just the natural succession of things, and this is just where we're at with the stigmatization of tattoos,” he says. “I think it's more of a generational thing. Tattoos are beautiful and inspirational, but they also have been used for decisive and destructive means as well. So it's just who's telling the story.”
Pauliny visualized what it would take for tattoos to be destigmatized in workspaces. “I think it’s gonna be like how we start accepting inclusiveness [in the] workplace for everybody,” he says. “So, it’ll probably come down to, you might have an HR seminar on it one day: How do you perceive people with tattoos? Do you think about them negatively when you first see them? Do you even think about it? There's an unconscious bias that you probably don't even know about.”
Paras tells us seminars of this type have already been happening. At her company, her team manager trains an entire panel on unconscious bias. “We train our hiring panel on, if somebody has a tattoo, it doesn’t matter. Can they do their job? (...) So if we have a kid that shows up with tattoos, piercings… since DE&I is embedded in everything we do, and because all of us here at Opportunity@Work get trained on it, it’s almost like second nature.”
People are starting to realize the absurdity in having their every move and appearance scrutinized in the workplace. Emboldened by the way the workplace has changed since the onset of the pandemic, many workers are finally taking a stand to say that the way we look, and how we choose to get our work done, shouldn’t matter. Momentum is picking up faster than ever with laws like the new tattoo discrimination ban being proposed. Tattoo embracement in the workplace is only going to keep becoming the norm rather than the exception and it’s about damn time.