Chances are, if you’re in a hiring position, you’ve encountered a candidate with a tattoo — whether you knew it or not.
In Canada, one in five people have a tattoo, according to research cited by the National Post in 2013. Advocacy group Support Tattoos And Piercings At Work (STPAW) puts the number even higher, at nearly 40 per cent of the Canadian population.
Still, many companies are still wary of tattooed candidates, and either filter them out in the hiring process and force employees to cover up their body art through workplace dress code and professionalism policies. In fact, a 2014 Workopolis poll found a whopping 77 per cent of employers would or may be less likely to hire someone with tattoos.
But given the rising popularity of tattoos, how can employers avoid discriminating against tattooed candidates — and make sure they’re hiring and keeping the best people, regardless of whether they’ve been inked?
Avoiding unconscious bias
Andrew Timming, a professor at the University of Western Australia Business School who has conducted multiple studies on tattoos in the workplace, says it’s important to remember that tattoos often lead to “unconscious bias.”
“That is, sometimes managers don’t even realize that they are discriminating on the basis of body art,” he says.
Other times, managers consciously discriminate against body art because they believe the tattoos are not consistent with the brand identity of their companies, Timming adds.
For employers who want to avoid both unconscious and conscious discrimination, it’s important to remember that letting bias seep into both how you hire and retain employees could cause you to miss out on qualified team members.
After tattooed Toronto resident Cassandra Wojak landed a contract at the head office of a telecommunications firm, she learned she wasn’t allowed to have a single tattoo on display. Another tattooed coworker had to wear full long sleeves, even in the summer.
“I had a short sleeved dress on the one day and was asked to leave the office and was told to find or buy a jacket,” she recalls.
Wojak didn’t stay there after her three-month contract.
Employer branding through personal style
In a Forbes column, Micah Solomon, a customer experience consultant, argues that allowing employees to maintain their own style means companies can project how genuine they are as a brand to employees and to the customers they support.
“Your customers—including the important millennial generation of customers—project their own style through tattoos, piercings, and interesting hairstyles, and for the most part, they’re happy to see your employees doing the same,” says Solomon.
Employers shouldn’t reduce their ability to select such people by arbitrarily excluding a large group of them, he adds, just because they express their personal style differently than what is allowed by a company’s “dated guidelines.”
Spelling out a company policy
And to prevent individual managers from discriminating against anyone, experts say it’s crucial to have a company-wide policy that makes the organization’s stance clear — and if that stance means being more open to tattoos, you need to spell that out.
Wondering how to do that? You can take cues from Starbucks, which updated its dress code to clearly state support for tattoos among staff – with a few caveats.
“Tattoos are allowed, but not on your face or throat,” reads the policy. “Treat tattoos as you treat speech — you can’t swear, make hateful comments or lewd jokes in the workplace, neither can your tattoos.”
STAPAW puts it this way: Tattooed staff shouldn’t receive preferential treatment, but that doesn’t mean employers shouldn’t make more effort to hire and keep candidates with tasteful body art.
“Giving managers the flexibility and freedom to allow staff to have ink and piercings provides more company hiring options, higher retention rates, and better public relations,” the advocacy group says.