The Ugly Truth About Tattoo Discrimination In The Workplace

How many people have tattoos in America is hard to factually, determine, but there are some numbers that can help us do a decent job of “pinning the tail on the donkey”.

Slightly fewer than 40% of all Americans under the age of 30 have tattoos. There are roughly 121,800,000 Americans under 30, which means about 47,000,000 in that slice of the demographic pie have tattoos.

In the 30 to 45 age group 32% have tattoos. Since the census doesn’t break down the population by that particular age division, we have to extrapolate a bit, but it seems that roughly another 21,500,000 of the population have tattoos. If we lump the 46 to 65+ groups together we get something like an additional 10,000,000 tattooed souls.

Adding these numbers up it appears our best estimate of the total number of people in the U.S. with tattooed is 78,500,000 – or 25% of the nation’s population.

So why is 25% of the population being subject to hiring and workplace discrimination?

Before we discuss that, let’s look at what discrimination is:

Discriminate: (verb, used without object) – to make a distinction in favor of or against a person or thing on the basis of the group, class, or category to which the person or thing belongs rather than according to actual merit.

I have a legal background so allow me to explain this somewhat stilted language. What is means is that the person who intends to discriminate against another doesn’t bother to determine if the target of the discrimination is talented or untalented, energetic or lazy, conscientious or unprincipled, brilliant or mundane, experienced or inexperienced, etc. (Aren’t these the kinds of things you’d want to know if you were going to hire someone for a job position?) Instead, the person bent on discriminating sees something about the person – black skin, Hispanic sir name, Star of David on a necklace, tattoos, etc, and automatically, without any rational thought process, simply lumps that person into a group that he has pre-labeled in his mind as “bad” or “undesirable”.

The critical factor here being there is zero evidence that the “group” is bad or undesirable, or that the person being lumped into the group is “bad” or “undesirable”. The person’s discriminatory decision is merely the result of baseless prejudice and/or mindless hate.

In 1964 Congress passed a law that forbade discrimination in the workplace based on race. The day before the law took effect it was just hunky dory in America to refuse to hire a thoroughly qualified job applicant for no better reason than he was black (or any other racial minority). And discriminating based on race was a rather commonplace occurrence at that time (hence the need for the law). The day the law went into effect that form of discrimination became a federal offense. Though it took almost a decade of prosecutions for the law to have the desired affect, today it is the exception, not the rule, for a person to be turned away from a job because of the color of his skin.

In 1964 the primary race Congress was stepping in to protect from hateful bigotry was black Americans. Interestingly, the percentage of black Americans has stayed relatively constant over the years, at about 13% of the population. Today few Americans fail to recognize the positive changes in employment, and our culture generally, that were created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Since the national legislature saw it as unacceptable for 13% of the population to be discriminated against, should we ask why it is acceptable for 25% of the population (i.e. those with tattoos) to be discriminated against today?

Having posed the question let me now adjust some of the numbers downward a bit. While approximately 25% of the nation’s population has tattoos, not all of them are being discriminated against in the workplace. This is for several reasons.

First, not all employers practice discrimination against people with tattoos. Notable major employers who do not discriminate are companies such as Walmart (which includes Sam’s Club), Home Depot, FedEx, and many others.

The second reason is that a lot of people with tattoos had them placed so they are not visible when the person is wearing long pants and a short-sleeve shirt. Those who are discriminated against are generally people with visible tattoos (though some employers will ask if you have any tattoos – visible or not – and if you answer ‘yes’ you will not be hired).

But the question is, why is any company permitted to discriminate against those with tattoos?

The answer comes in two flavors; legal and cultural.

The legal answer is that the act of discriminating against those with tattoos does not meet the legal definition of “discrimination”. In other words, it is discrimination in the moral sense, but (at this point in time) not discrimination in the legal sense. Each form of moral discrimination must be added into the legal definition of “discrimination” by the legislature before the courts can acknowledge it as discrimination.

The first object of the anti-discrimination laws was race. Several years later “gender” was added. Until gender was added, discriminating against women in the workplace was not legally cognizable “discrimination”. Once the legislature added “gender” to the definition, discriminating against women became a violation of law. Several years later “religion” was added; then “national origin”. After that, came “age”, making it a violation of law to refuse to hire a qualified applicant simply because he was older than a firm might prefer. As you can see, defining what legally constitutes discrimination has been an evolutionary process.

As things stand currently, to deny a man a job – even one for which he is more eminently qualified than any other candidate – because he has a tattoo (seen or unseen) is not a violation of law. Legally speaking, it is not “discrimination”.

Culturally, the spectrum of why companies discriminate against people with tattoos is wide and varied. That said, two things are true of every act of tattoo discrimination.

1) It is baseless personal prejudice and/or mindless hatred. In this regard it is no different than saying “Niggers can’t work here.” The object of the discrimination may be different; black skin versus inked skin – but the mindset of the person discriminating is exactly the same.

2) Like all bullies, the person discriminating will only do it until a more powerful force stops him. In America’s history that “more powerful force” has been government. When a bully realizes that men with guns will come and drag him into court and pain will be put on him for being a discriminatory douchebag, the bully stops discriminating.

Make no mistake; psychologically speaking, whether an employer says “I don’t hire niggers” or “I don’t hire people with tattoos”, it is an act that feeds an emotional need of someone with a sense of deep-seated inadequacies. Such people feel powerless in their day-to-day lives. Denying someone something he truly needs (such as a job), without a valid reason, and without the victim having any recourse, makes the person with deep-seated inadequacies feel powerful.

Keep in mind that we are discussing a deep-seated emotional issue. Many of the people exhibiting this behavior are not self-aware enough to be in touch with what it is driving their actions, and they may seem like wonderful happy people on the surface.

It is important to note that if the reason for denying a job is valid, such as the person not being qualified, the person with deep-seated inadequacies would not experience the sense of power they seek. Turning job applicants down for routine reasons does not offer the feeling they crave. But being able to harm an innocent person without a valid reason, with the victim not being able to fight back, brings a tremendous feeling of power to such people. (It is important to note that there is no amount of the petty illusion of power that will ever fill their emotional void or resolve their feelings of inadequacies.)

Once you understand that their need to feel powerful is the driving force behind their discriminatory acts you can better understand why only something like the threat of government-inflicted pain can deter them from committing further discriminatory acts. It is not a matter of “logic” or “education” or “maturity”. The need to discriminate comes from damage deep in that person’s psyche.

Those who wish to hide their feelings of inadequacies from others will claim there is some legitimate “business reason” for their discrimination. These claims come in two flavors and both are nonsense arguments meant as red herrings to keep you from seeing their true (ugly) motivation.

The first – and most easily disposed of – is that their actions aren’t actually “discrimination” because tattoos are a “choice.” Really? How odd. In America we don’t allow discrimination based on religious beliefs, which is also a choice.

“But wait!” some will say. “Freedom of religion” is a deeply enshrined right in this country’s national ethos. It is our deep reverence for freedom of religion that is the foundation of not permitting workplace discrimination because of a person’s faith. And right you are! Freedom of religion is deeply enshrined in our vision of liberty. In fact, it’s right up there with “freedom of expression”!

Yes my friends, tattoos are “freedom of expression” as that term has been used for 230+ years in American jurisprudence. Freedom of expression is an unalienable right and it is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as part of the First Amendment. (Courts have consistently held that the phrases “freedom of speech” and “freedom of expression” are synonymous for First Amendment purposes.)

It might interest you to know that the Arizona Supreme Court held that tattoos are “pure speech” protected under the First Amendment, and that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has held tattoos to be “Pure expression” protected by the First Amendment. Is it not strange that we do not allow discrimination based on freedom of religion, but we do allow discrimination based on freedom of expression? (More on this on a shortly.)

This leads us right to their second fabricated justification to deny tattooed applicants a job – that visible tattoos are bad for business; customers will go elsewhere. This is such a ludicrous argument that it’s hard to know where to start refuting it.

First off, we should note that this is the exact same argument put forth by racists who opposed the 1964 Civil Right Act. They claimed that “hiring niggers” would be bad for business and their customers would go elsewhere. As I said earlier; same sick mindset – just a new group for them to target.

Secondly, there is zero evidence to support their contention. What I mean by that is there is not one single study in existence, or any other form of evidence, that supports such a claim. While I would not represent my own efforts as a formal poll, I have sought out the views of quite a number of people on this subject. My question has been:

“If you were assisted in the business/professional environment by a person with visible tattoos who treated you in a respectful and professional manner, and he was excellent at his job, providing you with exactly what you hoped for or expected, would you use another company next time because the person assisting you had visible tattoos?”

The most common response I’ve gotten is being asked to explain the question. Not because the question is unclear, but because the person hearing it thinks they must have missed the important element that would lead them to use another company. The overwhelming consensus has been that visible ink would not be an issue – at all.

Thirdly, contrasting the complete lack of evidence to support their lame contention we have demonstrable evidence to the contrary in the form of major U.S. companies, such as B of A, Target, Whole Foods, etc., permitting visible tattoos. Does anyone in their right mind imagine these billion dollar companies would permit visible tattoos if their research showed a loss of customers, which would translate into a loss of revenue?

A tangential argument sometimes attached to the nonsensical “It’s bad for business” claim is that the courts have ruled employers have a right to significantly limit an employee’s freedom of expression while at work. What these less than candid folks don’t tell you is that the limiting of freedom of expression is tailored to a reasonably objective business concern. In other words, the courts have granted business significant latitude to curtail free expression at work, under the presumption that there is a legitimate business concern associated with the curtailment. No court has ever granted employers unrestricted power to curtail all free expression in the workplace.

What is free expression in the workplace? Is it the clothes you wear? Of course! (Unless you wear a company uniform.) How about your hairstyle? Yup. The car you drive into the employer’s parking lot? Yes! How about the manner in which you engage co-workers? Indeed. How about the discussions you hold with fellow employees in the lunchroom. Of course. And the non-business conservation you might have with a customer/client? Yes. These are all examples of free expression. And unless one of them is such that it has an arguably adverse affect on business, it is beyond the scope of the employer to restrict it.

Can you imagine the outcome if an employer insisted employees not speak in the company lunchroom – and then fired employees for breaking that policy by saying things such as “Please pass me the salt”? The point being that employers are not free to do whatever they want. If they were, some companies would still say “We don’t hire niggers”, they’d have employees engage in unsafe work practices, they’d force employees to engage in humiliating conduct for the personal pleasure of the owner, etc. We don’t allow those things in this country, so do not buy into the myth that employers can do whatever they want.

As an example, if a black employee wears a multicolor blouse conveying pride in her African heritage, or an employee wears a shirt with the crest of the Knights Templar, possibly conveying an association with Christianity, it is beyond the scope of the employer to ban their personal attire unless it can objectively be seen as adverse to the business.

Let’s go further, because existing law prohibits discrimination based on national origin, there is likely nothing the employer could do about the “African pride” blouse, short of mandating company uniforms for all employees. If the employee with the Templars shirt is working in an accounting office, having no contact with customers, and no co-workers have complained, the employer would be hard pressed to ban a shirt that hints at a religious affiliation (absent a company-wide policy against all attire with religious meaning).

Let’s change the situation a bit. What if the employee with the Templar shirt worked directly with customers and many of those customers were Muslims? The Templars were involved in the Crusades and fought against and killed Muslims in the Middle East for hundreds of years. Might that shirt arguably have a detrimental affect on the business in that context? It might indeed. The employer may now choose to enact a company-wide policy that items of personal clothing worn at work may not have any symbols that could be construed as telegraphing any religious affiliation or ideal. (Note that the employer can ban all religious symbols but he is still not free to ban the symbols of one faith while allowing the symbols of others. That is discrimination.)

So…now let’s bring this back to tattoos. The vast majority of tattoos are simply “art”. Even tattoos that have a “message” (as opposed to “personal meaning”) do not necessarily telegraph that message to the casual observer.

In theory, as well as in real world application, there is zero difference – concerning any possible harm to the business – between a woman wearing a blouse with a beautiful artistic pattern and a woman with a beautiful artist pattern on her arm. Both represent freedom of expression and both do not harm the business in any way.

Most businesses do not prohibit shirts with colorful graphic designs on them. (In fact, I don’t know of any that do.) Yet many of these very same companies feel it is just fine to have a policy against colorful graphic design on your forearm. It seems hard to imagine how owners/managers could justify such an inane and inconsequential distinction. And in fact they can’t because it is “a distinction without a difference”.

With that said, since discrimination against tattooed people isn’t (yet) legally recognized “discrimination” the owner/manager feels free to impose inane restrictions, based on ridiculous non-factual fantasy distinctions, that are clearly discriminatory.

Another of the seemingly countless ludicrous contentions thrown out by those who want to engage in discrimination is that tattoos are a “distraction” in the workplace. I’m sure you immediately grasp how inane that claim is, but I’ll cover a few points anyway.

The question is not whether tattoos (or anything else) are a distraction. Life – including the workplace – has many distractions. The question is the level of distraction. If we say tattoos are a distraction – and thus not acceptable in the workplace, then we must also say that men over 6’5” cannot be employed because such extraordinarily tall men garner quite a bit of attention when they walk in a room. Likewise women with very large breasts (whether real or augmented) also create a distraction. One (cough, cough) “business professional” told me that women with large breasts can be asked to dress discreetly. Really? So a set of “EE” breasts isn’t going to grab the attention of every man in the room (and perhaps the women as well) – even if the lady is wearing a burlap sack? It’s complete nonsense, but it is one more contrived desperate argument to support doing something for which there is no credible justification.

We see the same tattoo discrimination in the public employment sector as we do in the private sector, and for no more credible reasons.

I’ve heard a number of public agency managers claim that “it’s different” in the public sector because they “serve the public”. That is a brainless argument. 25% of the public is tattooed. What happened to the long-standing principle that government agencies should reflect the communities they serve? Oh…well…that apparently only applies to race, gender, religion, age, etc. Makes sense. NOT!

Public agency managers also push the same non-credible manure about the appearance of tattoos making the public (it’s “customers”) uncomfortable. Is that true? All available evidence says it is absolutely false! It is merely a convenient myth used by those who want to substantiate a position they hold without any credibility.

Interestingly, when an agency manager says “We don’t want to the public to feel uncomfortable by our people having visible tattoos” he is making the very same argument that was made several decades ago in an attempt to stop blacks from being employed by public agencies. Agency managers back then claimed that their “customers” (i.e. the public) didn’t want to be served by “niggers”.

How do we know the “reasoning” of these agency managers is nonsense? We know that because agencies that do not have any tattoo restrictions (except about tattoos that are considered obscene), report no feedback for the public that visible tattoos bother them!

In fact, public agencies should follow the lead of private sector corporations such Walmart, Home Depot, and Bank of America. These companies determined that excluding tattooed applicants was hurting their business. And whether the job is private sector or public, good applicants also have little interest in being forced to wear long sleeves every day.

I had a deputy sheriff recently tell me that visible tattoos must be covered up in law enforcement because police must portray a “professional image” for the public. Again, that argument fails in light of the experience of law enforcement agencies that have no tattoo restrictions. Agencies without restrictive tattoo policies do not receive complaints from the public about their officers looking “unprofessional”. Or phrased another way, agencies that have done what other agencies refuse to do, do not experience the consequences that the refusing agencies cite as their justification to refuse! It would be interesting to ask an agency manager why his agency would want to force its tattooed employees to hide their tattoos if – as the evidence confirms – the public doesn’t care about visible tattoos!

(You may wish to also read my article on tattoos in the “professional” work environment. It can be found at

You can tell when an agency doesn’t care about the truth, or the public, if it refuses to engage in a trial program in which some officers, perhaps in certain geographic areas, or working certain patrol shifts, will be permitted to display their tattoos as a gauge of the public’s reaction. I should tell you that “trial programs” are a tool used often in law enforcement. So an agency that refuses to engage in a trial program for visible tattoos almost certainly already knows the truth, and doesn’t want it confirmed by a trial program. In other words, they intend to continue telling you the lie while making sure the truth remains hidden. Not much of a “public servant” if you ask me. Seems like they’re “serving” their own prejudices, not the public interest.

Since public agencies exist for no other reason than the good of the public, if the public has no issue with visible tattoos there can be no credible or supportable position to insist the agency’s employees cover their tattoos.

Those who want to discriminate will say any ridiculous thing in an effort to gin up some false credibility they hope will justify (in the minds of others) harming innocent people through discriminatory conduct.

I’ve made some pretty harsh statements about the underlying psychological reasons that people feel compelled to discriminate against others – whoever “others” may be at any given moment. There’s no need to take my word for it. Ask a psychologist. The psychologist will tell you the underlying emotional dynamics I’ve described in this article are correct.

With that said, these observations are generalities. Something can be considered a generality if it is true of most people or most of the time. In this case, most people who discriminate do so for the reasons stated here. This can be hard to swallow if someone close to you engages in discrimination. Or perhaps you do. Whether it’s you, your parents, your friends, or your spouse – the reason stated here is the most likely explanation for their actions – by far. Remember, whatever “reason” they give you for their decision to discriminate, it is the “cover story” they give hoping the cover story will keep their true reason obscured and unnoticed; the true reason being the need to victimize innocent people who cannot fight back, so that they can feel powerful.

In closing, do not expect to be able to win an argument with those who wish to discriminate. They have a damaged psyche. I know from experience that when you ask them questions about their positions, the answers to which put their irrationality and lack of credibility on display, they get angry. Their end of the conversation will become insulting. And finally they will take refuge in “I can do anything I want. It’s my business!” You and I know this to be false, but as far as discriminating (i.e. committing a harmful act) against people with tattoos, they are – at this time – free to do as they please.

Perhaps it is time we legislatively removed from them the option to harm the innocent.

If I could leave you with one truth that would stay with you from this article, it would be that saying “I don’t hire people with tattoos” is no different (from a psychological perspective) than saying “I don’t hire niggers.” It may not (yet) be “legal” discrimination, but it is neither tolerable nor permissible if we reject the notion of mindless prejudice in the workplace.

Copyright 2013 – Dave Champion

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