Fight The Power: Tattoo Discrimination in the Workplace

I was a hundred or so words from finishing this article a few moments ago. It just needed some rounding off and some polishing, and then it was good to send over to the Ed. We had been speaking throughout the day and I had told him that he would have the first draft in his inbox by that evening. Reading back over it though, something wasn’t quite right.

My article was arguing that tattoo discrimination in the workplace should not be illegal. I had done hours of research, I had spoken to numerous friends about it, and I had set out my argument in a clear format, highlighting, what I believed to be the most important aspects of the issue.

Despite reading over what I had written, I was not convinced by my own words. I saw holes in my argument, I saw contradictory logic, and I did not like the message that I was advocating. I must not be alone in reaching the 90 per cent mark of an article before realising I did not agree with what was being said.

This shows the depth and complexity of the issue. Not only do I not have an answer to give to you, but I don’t have an answer to give to myself. Whereas at first I thought the idea of a law against tattoo discrimination was rather silly and redundant, now I am not so sure.

One of the first comments you will hear when getting a tattoo is always how it may negatively affect your job prospects. You are told that bosses may not look too favourably upon your neck tattoo of a soaring eagle, no matter how good you may think it is personally. The fact that you may be overlooked for jobs due to your tattoos has led to the claim that there is tattoo discrimination in the workplace, and some believe that such action should be illegal.

On the 18th August this year the BBC ran an article by Jon Kelly asking precisely this question. Should tattoo discrimination in the workplace be illegal? It is a thought-provoking piece, with numerous case studies and instances of employees that have been discriminated against because of their ink.

I am not going to repeat that articles contents, but I encourage you to give it a read. It was the inspiration behind this piece, and because of that it has really forced me to evaluate my position on the topic. During chats and small talk, you don’t necessarily need to have made your mind up on an issue, but when writing a one-and-a-half thousand word article for a leading UK magazine it is probably best you know which side of the fence you sit on.

Having said that, I am getting splinters in my ass right now. Sitting on the fence swaying this way and that, I see valid points on both sides of the debate, and I am yet to fully make my mind up.

My initial argument centred around two things; choice and inevitability. I shall begin with the latter.

To quote myself; “Ideally I would like a workplace, and world, whereby there is no discrimination, but inevitably discrimination is going to occur at some point.” Here I was talking about the fact that discrimination in the workplace takes on any number of forms. Tattoos may be what we are discussing here, and may be one of the most obvious, but there are all sorts of discriminatory practices going on in the offices and interview rooms of the UK. I was sharing the belief of one of my friends when she said that if employers cannot discriminate against you for your tattoos, “they will just find something else”.

I fully believe this to be the case, and there are numerous studies in the UK, in the US and in Australia that paint a shocking story of just how deep prejudice and discrimination runs. In May of 2013 Forbes published a piece which looked at how our appearance impacts on our employment. In 2004 a “study… at the University of Florida found that for every inch of height, a tall worker can expect to earn an extra $789 per year.” In 2009 a similar study was conducted in Australia and that concluded that “a 6ft tall man can expect 1.5 per cent more than a workmate who is 5ft 10 ins”.

Such discrimination is not only limited to height though; on average obese workers are paid significantly less; blonde haired females earn seven per cent more than any other; workers who exercise regularly earn nine per cent more than those that do not; women who wear more make-up earn more money; and unattractive employees earn on average nine per cent less than their more aesthetically pleasing counterparts.
It was after this that I had said: “Ideally I would like a workplace, and world, whereby there is no discrimination, but inevitably discrimination is going to occur at some point.” Looking back at it that is an awful sentence to type or read. There is a depressive air of surrender about it, as if I am saying: “this is the way it is, so this is the way it will always be”. You don’t need me to tell you what a ridiculous argument that is to make.

Yes, there may be all sorts of discriminatory and prejudicial practices in the workplace, but that does not mean that we should simply accept their existence. Discrimination, of any kind, is immoral, and so if we were able to remove one form of workplace discrimination, then surely we should.

If tattoo discrimination became illegal, you may get sacked for your hairstyle, or for a new facial piercing, or for any number of reasons, but what happens when those discriminatory practices are also illegalised? We begin to create a world whereby people are not hired and fired on the shallow belief that appearance is king. It may take some time to get there, but Rome was not built in a day.

The second part of my argument looked at the issue of choice. It went something like this: In the UK, under the Equality Act of 2010, there is a list of “protected characteristics” that people cannot face discrimination on. It contains the usual suspects; age, disability, gender, race, religion and sexual orientation, among others. Common among all of these is the fact that a person has no power, or control. You have no decision in the ageing process, you cannot pick your skin tone when you are born, nor can you pick your gender or sexual orientation. For these reasons I believe that discrimination on these issues should be illegal, because you are punishing a person for an outcome they had no choice in.

But what this line of thinking seems to suggest is that if you have a choice in a decision or outcome, then it is all right to face discrimination because of it. What I seemed to be proposing was that if you were white, gay, male, female, straight or disabled, it would be wrong to discriminate against you because you had no choice in that outcome. Whereas if you did have a choice, in the case of having a three foot green Mohican, or a sleeve of tattoos, or a lip piercing, then somehow discrimination is ok, or even that you have asked for it, because you have actively changed the situation.

Making distinctions between which forms of discrimination are okay in the workplace, and which are not, is a minefield of illogical thinking. If you believe that people should not be discriminated against over things they had no choice in, then someone who was physically forced to have a tattoo on their face could not be fired from a job, but someone who chose to have a tattoo on their face could. Clearly then the illegality of discrimination should not be based on choice.

I can also see the other side of the argument. If an employer has created a brand that presents itself a certain way, then I don’t think they should necessarily be forced into hiring an employee that contradicts or clashes with that image. If I had a friend that owned a nursery for example, I would understand it if they chose not to hire Zombie Boy, despite the fact he may be great with people and perhaps has all the right qualifications.

The time may not yet be upon us whereby CEO’s, bankers, politicians and news readers have clearly visible tattoos, but their absence currently, does not mean it will always be so. More than any other, this generation has fallen in love with tattoos, and it is this generation that will play a more important role in the coming decades.

I have always viewed my tattoos as a personal challenge. They are not a hindrance, but a motivation. I have marked my skin in such a way that I immediately stand out from the crowd, it is then down to me whether or not this prominence is a positive or a negative thing. Either you can be the candidate that perpetuates the tattoo stigma, the one who bosses can dismiss without a second thought, or you can be the one that breaks the mould, the one that blows the other candidates out of the water, and the one that forces the CEO to break the policy of a lifetime by hiring a tattooed worker.

It is through these actions that we will see progress, and it is through these actions that we will motivate and inspire others to follow suit. You have no control over other people’s decisions, but you do have control in how they reach them. Make yourself un-fireable, make yourself the best you possibly can be, and then when you are in a position to hire and fire the tattoo discrimination will end. Legislation may help the cause, but the cause is nothing if it does not have pioneers to lead it.


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This article was originally published in Skin Deep issue 243.

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