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Tattoos May Be Giving Wrong Ideas to Employers


by Abby Welsh, SIOP Intern


A Bowling Green State University study finds that job applicants who adorn themselves with tattoos are less likely to be hired.

By Abby Welsh, SIOP Intern

No matter what position someone is trying to obtain, one thing that may give a negative outlook for hiring managers is self-expression through tattoos.

Once the realm of sailors, circus performers, and gangs, tattoos have become a common method of self-expression for people of many different walks of life. In fact, 23% of Americans have at least one tattoo, according to a Pew Research poll from 2010.

Although there may be signs that attitudes toward tattoos are becoming more tolerant, the study by Ryan Whorton and Scott Highhouse shows that hiring managers may not be as accepting of this social change.

Whorton and Highhouse conducted experimental research with a sample of hiring managers, investigating the degree to which their attitudes toward applicants were influenced by their tattoos.

“We wanted to know if applicant tattoos have an observable effect on hiring attitudes and if the only motivation was concern for customer reactions,” said Whorton, a doctoral candidate in Bowling Green’s program. “This area of research is becoming more important as more people with visible tattoos are searching for work and entering the work force.”

Participants were asked to examine a job description, a resumé, and a picture of an applicant. Every participant saw the same resumé but was randomly given a job description for a customer service help desk attendant who dealt with the public or an airline call center employee who didn’t.

The researchers used pictures of five males with different styles of tattoos to capture general attitudes toward tattoos in the employee selection context. The tattoos were painted onto the hypothetical applicants using photo-editing software but looked genuine.

After examining the job description, resumé,and picture, the hiring managers were asked to rate their attitude toward employing the applicant by completing a short questionnaire.

Overall, Whorton and Highhouse saw a pattern of results that was the same for both jobs. Hiring managers had less positive attitudes when shown an applicant with several tattoos than when they were shown candidates with a single or no tattoo at all.

“The managers were reluctant to hire heavily tattooed applicants, even though they met all the criteria listed in the job description and would never have face-to-face interaction with a customer,” Whorton said. “If the only reason to not hire a tattooed applicant was negative customer reactions, the amount of tattoos the job seeker had should not have influenced hiring attitudes for an opening in a call center.”

Hiring managers were also given the opportunity to provide comments after completing the attitude questionnaire. Whorton explained that most people who provided a comment mentioned the applicant’s tattoos.

“The results of this study and the comments indicate that hiring managers’ negative attitudes toward these applicants is not only due to concern for customer reactions but also a belief that a heavily tattooed person wouldn’t make the best employee for a company,” he added.

Whorton believes this may be due to a stereotype about tattooed people, which is an overgeneralization that led the hiring managers to make a decision against heavily tattooed applicants.

There is no federal law protecting people with tattoos against discriminatory hiring practices, unlike religious or ethnic minority groups who are protected by equal employment law.

“Employers have every right to avoid hiring people with body art, and our preliminary evidence suggests they do so. It appears that hiring managers are actively screening out people with tattoos,” Whorton said.

Whorton encourages more research to be done to better understand the role of the tattooed person stereotype in the hiring process, the content of that stereotype, and which types of jobs the stereotype exists.