Research isn’t exact, but recent polling shows that as many as half of Americans under the age of 40 have a tattoo, and that has implications for the job market.

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The growing battle to attract and retain workers has led employers to adjust longstanding workplace and hiring policies, from embracing hybrid and remote work to eliminating college degree requirements. A less-covered policy also changing: visible display of tattoos on workers.

Companies including Disney, UPS and Virgin Atlantic have relaxed their dress and style codes to allow employees to show their tattoos in the workplace. Many of the moves have come over the past two years as the tight labor market that preceded Covid became even more intensely competitive during the pandemic.

When longtime Home Depot CFO Carol Tomé was named CEO of UPS in June 2020, many of her first efforts to shake up the package delivery giant centered around increasing the job satisfaction of the company’s more than 534,000 workers globally. A few of those initiatives centered on the company’s dress and style restrictions.

“We did not allow facial hair; we did not allow natural hair. So, if you’re African American and you wanted to have an afro or twist or braid, that wasn’t permitted. Our tattoo policy was more restrictive than the U.S. Army,” Tomé told CNBC last year. 

UPS, well known for its regimented brown uniform and driver dress code, acknowledged that it needed to make changes that “would create a more modern workplace for our employees that allows them to bring their authentic selves to work,” said Christopher Bartlett, UPS vice president of people and culture.

Initially, UPS looked at its hair- and beard-related policies, which previously barred men from having hair that extended below the collar or beards. The adjusted policy, rolled out in November 2020, now permits beards and mustaches “worn in a businesslike manner,” as well as several “natural hairstyles.” The policy, however, says employees are expected to maintain a neat and clean appearance “appropriate for their job and workplace,” and that hair or beard length can’t be a safety concern.

Shifting views on tattoos at work

Bartlett said after that policy was well received, UPS began looking at changes to its tattoo policy. Previously, the company barred employees from showing any visible tattoos — workers with tattoos had to cover them with long sleeves or pants, or skin-colored coverings.

After a series of culture surveys, discussions with employees and other research, UPS settled on a new policy announced in April 2021 that would allow employees to show their tattoos provided they don’t contain any offensive words or images. Workers are also not allowed to have tattoos on their hands, head, neck or face.

“Tattoos matter to people, and while there was a time where people may have gotten a tattoo on a whim, more frequently now a tattoo really matters to someone; it’s part of who they are,” Bartlett said. “We wanted people to feel like they could bring themselves to work not only in their current job but as they thought about their whole career.”

Disney‘s parks division underwent a similar shift in April 2021, updating its dress and style code to allow workers to show their tattoos, which it said was part of a wider effort to make its employees and guests feel more welcome at its theme parks.

The policy change “provides greater flexibility with respect to forms of personal expression surrounding gender-inclusive hairstyles, jewelry, nail styles, and costume choices; and allowing appropriate visible tattoos,” Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney parks, experiences and products, wrote in a blog post on Disney’s website.

“We’re updating them to not only remain relevant in today’s workplace, but also enable our cast members to better express their cultures and individuality at work,” D’Amaro wrote.

According to the Disney cast member handbook, visible tattoos that are no larger than an extended hand are permitted except for any on the face, head, or neck. For larger tattoos on the arm or leg, employees can wear matching fabric tattoo sleeves. Any tattoos that depict nudity, offensive or inappropriate language, or violate any company policies are also not permitted.

Disney did not respond to a request for comment.

Virgin Atlantic, the British airline owned by Richard Branson, removed its ban on visible tattoos for uniformed employees in May. Estelle Hollingsworth, chief people officer at Virgin Atlantic, said in an emailed statement, “Many people use tattoos to express their unique identities and our customer-facing and uniformed colleagues should not be excluded from doing so if they choose.”

The U.S. Army has taken similar steps, rolling out an updated directive in June further expanding its tattoo allowance, including tattoos on hands and the back of the neck. The Army previously relaxed its restrictions that limited the number of tattoos that recruits and soldiers could have on their arms and legs in 2015.

“We always review policy to keep the Army as an open option to as many people as possible who want to serve,” Maj. Gen. Doug Stitt, Director of Military Personnel Management, told the Army’s news service. “This directive makes sense for currently serving Soldiers and allows a greater number of talented individuals the opportunity to serve now.”

According to the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, 41% of 18- to 34-year-olds have at least one or more tattoos. 

Customers more accepting of tattooed workers

Enrica Ruggs, an associate professor at the University of Houston C.T. Bauer College of Business Department of Management and Leadership, said that there have been long-standing negative stigmas towards tattoos that harkened back to biker culture and a sense that rebellious people were the ones that got tattoos. That carried over into corporate culture, where hiring managers would stereotype applicants with visible tattoos, or where employers would worry that employing someone with tattoos would turn off customers.

However, Ruggs said recent research found that most tattoos now reflect a sense of belonging – for example, in-memorial images, callouts to their culture or profession, or a tattoo that matches one on a loved one.

Ruggs ran an experiment measuring customer reaction to workers wearing temporary tattoos. While some customers still held negative stereotypes about tattoos, the tattooed employees had just as many sales as the untattooed ones. Negative stereotypes also did not negatively affect customer perception of the organization. In fact, tattooed employees in white-color or creative jobs were looked at more favorably and competent than non-tattooed employees by customers, Ruggs’ research showed.

“Part of the argument has always been that it’ll hurt the organization, and that could actually change a consumer’s purchasing behavior,” Ruggs said. “But if the cornerstone of your business is service, that’s not changing, but allowing and relaxing some of these policies can help with employee morale and can expand who you can hire, which can help to improve employee performance. If employees are happy and they feel satisfied with their employee, they are likely to also be very productive.”

While there aren’t exact statistics regarding tattoos, a January Rasmussen Reports survey found that nearly half of Americans under 40 have tattoos. Across all ages, 33% of Americans have tattoos, the survey found.

The New York City Council currently has a bill that would look to curb discrimination against people with tattoos, including in the workplace. The bill would add tattoos to the categories in the city’s administrative code that are already prohibited from discrimination such as race or sexual orientation. While it would still allow employers to mandate that employees cover tattoos, it would require them to prove that not showing a tattoo is a “bona fide occupational qualification.”

Bartlett said that after UPS changed its policy, he noticed that several employees posted their UPS-themed tattoos on the company’s internal message board.

“When someone puts a UPS logo on them after a 25-year driving career here, that matters, and it shows that the company matters to them,” he said. “This isn’t a P&L play here, but this is about inclusion and bringing your authentic self to work.”

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