Study finds visible tattoos prevent women from getting jobs and, if hired, lead to lower starting salaries

visible tattoos

This was one of the tattooed job applicants used for the study.

Having a visible tattoo – any visible tattoo even one that isn’t anti-social or gang related – can prevent you from getting a job. And if you’re hired, that tattoo can result in being offered a lower starting salary.

Don’t believe it? Check out the new research done by Chris Henle, management professor at Colorado State University’s College of Business, and her three co-researchers. The study, Visible tattoos as a source of employment discrimination among female applicants for a supervisory position, appeared in the Feb.2022  Journal of Business and Psychology.

The idea for the research came about when Henle and a friend were noticing the large number of tattoos exhibited by students on campus.

“A few of our students (with tattoos) were mentioning that they were struggling to find jobs. Not only were they having trouble finding jobs, but their starting salaries were lower as well,” Henle says. “And we wanted to test that to see if there was a penalty for tattoos.”

Testing for employment discrimination based on visible tattoos

Just how did the researchers test to see what kind of discrimination visible tattoos could cause?

They decided to study hiring managers’ perceptions of 20-something Caucasian women with visible tattoos who were applying for a sales management position. Henle and her team first looked at whether the tattooed women would be hired in the first place and then at the amount of starting salary offered compared to those without a visible tattoo.

The researchers chose young women, because according to statistics they studied, women are starting to get more tattoos. And they decided on sales management because, as Henle says, “We were trying to pick a common job and a gender neutral job, so we wouldn’t get any gender stereotypes.”

Previous research in the field indicated that job applicants with visible tattoos would be perceived as lacking competence and warmth, both qualities necessary for a sales management position.

Initial study

To carry out the research, Henle and her team created LinkedIn profiles with pictures from Shutterstock photoshopped with various tattoos prominently displayed. One applicant had a dolphin tattoo on her upper arm. Another had a dragon on her neck. And the third, a tribal band with flames.

Through an online site, the researchers recruited people with at least one year of supervisory experience who had recently helped hire a new employee. Participants were asked to take a look at the LinkedIn profiles of eight applicants – three women with the tattoos mentioned above, and three women and two men without tattoos – and determine how likely they were to hire each person and the starting salary they would offer them.

The survey found that the applicants with no tattoo were most likely to be hired, followed by the one with a “mild” tattoo – the dolphin. Those with an “extreme” tattoo – a dragon or tribal band with flames – were the last to be hired.

Starting salaries recommended were:

  • No tattoo: $86,538
  • Mild tattoo: $84,379
  • Extreme tattoo: $84,271
Study Two included job qualifications

Henle and her co-researchers created another study to measure the effect that job qualifications might have. The researchers added an “awards and professional recognition” section, along with advanced education – MBA and  professional certificates – in order to make certain candidates appear more highly qualified than others. The survey was taken by working adults in an MBA program along with undergraduate business students.

Chris Henle, a professor at Colorado State University, was the study’s lead researcher.

In this study there were 10 LinkedIn profiles to consider. And the participants were asked to assume the role of a recruiter for a sales manager position. They found that those appearing to be highly qualified had similar starting salary recommendations regardless of whether they had a tattoo or what kind they had. Those with minimal qualifications and tattoos, however, were offered less salary than those with no tattoos.

In addition, those with tattoos were less likely to be hired than those without tattoos regardless of the level of job qualifications. In other words, having higher qualifications didn’t help in the hiring process if an applicant had a tattoo, regardless of the type.

Study Three added volunteer experience

The third study tested whether having volunteer experience would make a difference. The researchers thought it would. But it didn’t. The volunteers acting as recruiters were more likely to hire those without tattoos, whether they had volunteer experience or not – than highly qualified tattooed applicants with volunteer experience. And they also offered them higher salaries.

Lessons learned

As a result of what she learned from the study, Henle has a few recommendations, both for job seekers and employers alike. She’d like to tell:

Job seekers: If you have to have body art, make sure it’s a milder tattoo. And keep it in a place where it’s covered. In addition, you have to have a lot of job qualifications to cancel out the stereotype (related to those who have tattoos). If you have the qualifications, talk about them, so people can see past the tattoos.

Employers: Stereotypes are definitely alive and well. We need to start working on hiring managers and get them to be aware of these stereotypes, so they’re hiring based on the competence of the individual rather than things like whether they have a tattoo. Not only are the hiring managers discriminating, but they’re missing out on good employees, especially today when there’s such a shortage of workers.

Editor’s note:  Of course it shouldn’t have to be this way. However, if you need a job and are not getting job offers because you’re having difficulty breaking through the stereotypes and implicit bias with your visible tattoos, something to consider is wearing makeup over the tattoos.  Many  people do it with great success.

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