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Body Art on the Rise But Not So Trendy at Work

The brow, lip, nose or tongue – piercings are becoming more common, and likewise, tattoos are more prominent. But both current and prospective employees may want to think twice before revealing body art in a professional setting.

Body art is a growing fashion trend, and while acceptable in some environments, in the workplace visible tattoos and facial piercings are often seen as unprofessional and unwanted by coworkers.

“Body art can lead to stereotyping, stigmatization and prejudices in the workplace,” said management professor Brian K. Miller, who recently teamed with fellow Texas State University professors to conduct a study on how body art is perceived at work.

Miller, who is a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), will present the findings at the upcoming SIOP Conference, April 10–12 in San Francisco.

“Our analysis suggests that body art wearers have not yet overcome employment prejudices and that they may have simply punctured their employment possibilities. People tend to prejudge people with body art because it has created a bit of a stigma that is historically based, in that tattoos were, to be really stereotypical, worn by motorcycle–riding outcasts.”

Body art has become increasingly popular, especially in the past 10 years. According to data published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2006, only 1 percent of Americans had a tattoo 30 years ago, but now the number has jumped to 24 percent. The data also reported that today 14 percent of Americans have body piercings in places other than the soft lobe of the ear.

Older generations have and still get body art, but this trend is most prevalent with young people. In fact, Miller said approximately 16 percent of people ages 18 to 24 have both tattoos and piercings. 

But just because more people are inked or pierced nowadays does not mean it is acceptable. To explore the acceptability of body art in the workplace, Miller, along with colleagues Jack Eure and Kay Nicols, distributed more than 150 surveys to people both with and without body art. Given a workplace scenario of selling business insurance, participants were asked their opinions about working with someone with visible body art.
The researchers also wondered how employees who already had body piercings or tattoos felt about coworkers who exhibited similar body adornments.

The findings suggest that people would rather not work with someone who has visible body art in situations requiring face-to-face contact with customers, even if qualified for the job. Also, people do not want to share sales commissions with body art wearers, concerned they could negatively impact their own job performance.

“Clearly, the stigma associated with tattoos and piercings in the workplace exists,” Miller said. The research shows that workers are not receptive to fellow workers with visible tattoos and piercings.

Surprisingly, Miller’s study found even those with body art were critical of others whose bodies were adorned with fashion statements. However, an interesting aspect of this finding is that body art wearers would only express their opinions anonymously.  He said that people with tattoos and piercings would probably not reveal their thoughts publicly, but in a condition where identity is not revealed, it turns out they do find body art a little unsavory in coworkers.

Supporting data were found by another survey led by Vault.com, a Web site for career information. Vault.com reported that 58 percent of managers said they would be less likely to hire an applicant with visible tattoos or body piercings. Additionally, the data showed that 81 percent of respondents thought visible piercings other than the ear are unprofessional, and 76 percent of respondents thought visible tattoos are unprofessional. Considering these figures, it is not surprising that this survey also found that 67 percent of employees with body art conceal it while at work. 

With this in mind, people should think about the consequences of body art. The needle will poke at the time, but it is a person’s career that may hurt in the end.

However, body art is not always frowned upon, Miller pointed out. Although most companies prefer tattoos and piercings to be covered, some jobs may actually favor such decoration. “Think about the audience for concert tickets or skateboards,” Miller said. “It might be desirable for these sales people to have this sort of adornment because customers of these products are probably more likely to have body art themselves.”

But in a traditional work environment, what are body art wearers to do?

Miller’s advice is to “conceal your body art – it’s a wise thing! If that’s what’s required, and you value your job, you have to do what it takes.”

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For more information, contact Brian Miller at (512) 245-7179 or bkmiller@txstate.edu. He will be presenting his research on body art in the workplace at the SIOP Conference on Saturday, April 12 at 9 a.m., and the media is welcome. Held at the Hilton San Francisco, this year’s conference is the 23rd annual event and is projected to attract more than 4,000 attendees. It will take on a three-day format with full-day sessions on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. There will be hundreds of peer-reviewed sessions spanning a wide variety of interesting topics related to workplace issues.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is an international group of more than 6,500 industrial-organizational (I–O) psychologists whose members study and apply scientific principles concerning workplace productivity, motivation, leadership and engagement.  SIOP’s mission is to enhance human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings by promoting the science, practice and teaching of I–O psychology.  For more information about SIOP, including Media Resources, which lists nearly 2,000 experts in more than 100 topic areas, visit www.siop.org.