This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: ‘Are tattoos acceptable at work?’

Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It from the Financial Times.

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I’m Isabel Berwick. A little while back, my colleague Pilita Clark wrote a column about tattoos, and she argued that body markings, once considered unprofessional, were now seen as acceptable in the workplace. A lot of our readers didn’t agree.

Reader 1
Most people with tattoos are impressionable sheep. Well done you with your originality, just like everyone else and your misdrawn kanji, ethnic tribal, lifestyle Tweety pie cartoon devil, whatever.

Reader 2
I don’t have a problem with tattoos but can’t help but be a little judgy if I see tats on someone’s arms in a professional setting.

Reader 3
Last week I was interviewing a lady for an entry-level job. She was early twenties. It was a hot day and she had bare arms showing poorly executed tattoos: geometry, dumb messages from fortune cookies, carpe diem, etc. It certainly jarred against her efforts to look professional for the meeting.

Isabel Berwick
I was a little taken aback by the responses to Pilita’s column, if I’m honest. Not all the reader comments were that negative, but lots of them were. And all the vitriol kind of surprised me, I guess, because I like tattoos. But clearly not everyone agrees. There’s a lot of prejudice and it dates back a long way. Many people won’t say this out loud anymore, and our FT readers are hidden behind pseudonyms. I wanted to go deeper and find out whether visible tattoos really affect what an employer or colleagues might think of someone. I’ll speak to Pilita a little later to get her view. But first, I want to hear from someone who’s just starting out in the workplace. Lucy Snell is a student at London Goldsmiths. She interned at the FT Group earlier this year and she’s got several visible tattoos. I asked her if she’d ever worried about how they might make a potential employer feel.

Lucy Snell
I definitely was very apprehensive at first to show off my tattoos because I wasn’t sure about how the older generation workforce would react, because I feel like there is a lot of stereotypes and stigmas behind tattoos. I think with my tattoos in particular, they’re quite like artistic and fine line, so they’re not too in your face. However, I still definitely felt quite anxious to go into a workplace and have them on show. I had covered them up if there was like an interview or like my first day, and then once I got more comfortable with the team, that’s when I just wore like short-sleeve tops or something like that.

Isabel Berwick
Did you feel comfortable being yourself, you know, showing your body art off?

Lucy Snell
It definitely took days or even weeks. I just felt like deep down that people would be judging me because of my tattoos. And especially when you go into a place where not many people have them or have them on show. That kind of can be a bit nerve-racking.

Isabel Berwick
So, Lucy, when you talk about worrying that you might be judged when you went into a workplace, what was your specific worry? What did you think people might think about you?

Lucy Snell
I think growing up I was always told like, oh, tattoos. They show, like, unprofessional or not classy or things like that. And they kind of relate to maybe, like, bad behaviour and, like, gangs and stuff like that. So there is some, like, harsh stereotypes on that. So that’s probably why I did think that, because that’s something that I’ve been told, like, throughout my life.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah. So when you go into the workforce permanently full-time, would you look for a workplace where you felt accepted from the time of the job? And I mean, how would you know or would you cover up when you first went in?

Lucy Snell
I think I definitely saw a cover up, mainly because the national, like, outfit for an interview isn’t really, you don’t really have a lot of skin showing and stuff like that so that would mean also my tattoos would be hidden. I don’t think I’d wanna work in a place where they would create stereotypes and have opinions of me just because of tattoos that I got because I wanted to express myself. I think a lot of the time workforces have more nuanced opinions about self-expression, and they want people with personalities and, like, individual and diverse group of people. So that’s why I’m thinking towards like the future.

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Isabel Berwick
Lucy, thank you so much for coming in.

Lucy Snell
Thanks, Isabel.

Isabel Berwick
I thought it was really encouraging that Lucy felt she could show her tattoos at work and be comfortable in her own skin. But that comfort is in stark contrast to the fiery comments we heard from our readers. I wanted to know more about how senior staff view tattoos so I sat down with two colleagues — Isabelle Campbell, a vice-president in the FT’s product and technology department, and someone who does have tattoos, and Pilita herself, who doesn’t. For her column, Pilita had spoken to major corporate employers, including the law firm Slaughter and May and HSBC. I asked her what she’d learned about their attitudes towards ink in the workplace.

Pilita Clark
Well, interestingly, none of them had a prohibition or a ban on tattoos. You know, they all basically told me they expect their staff to dress in a manner that’s kind of appropriate for all sort of business situations. But when it came to whether you had visible, invisible, any types of tattoos, none of them were able to point me to any rules that limited such things.

Isabel Berwick
Do you think there might be a disconnect here between what some employees are saying officially and what they might actually feel about tattoos? And bearing in mind here, some of the comments I’ve read under FT articles on tattoos, your article Pilita had a lot of readers who were very angry about tattoos in the workplace.

Pilita Clark
They were, I would say, mildly outraged, actually (laughter) like something. But, you know, a number of people did say to me afterwards, you know, it’s all very well not having any sort of formal ban. But the truth is that if you rock up to an interview at some of these firms with your very visible tattoos, then you may expect to be weeded out at that stage of proceedings. And so there may be other sort of more informal ways that firms like this take steps to try to limit the number of inked employees. But there’s no real evidence for that, I have to say.

Isabel Berwick
No. It’s interesting. Isabelle, you’ve worked in financial services and you’ve worked, I presume, in lots of big client-facing roles. Would you say there’s a sort of silent prejudice against tattoos or have things changed?

Isabelle Campbell
I think what’s interesting is whether firms say anything or not about dress code. So if you’re client-facing, it’s quite common to say, you know, we would expect you to dress as the client dresses; if you’re working with, you know, law firms, for example, we used to have to wear suits when I was in audit. But actually, do we say anything about piercings, tattoos, etc? I’ve not come across any policy, but what I find everywhere is can you see what you are? You know, can you see the sort of person that you are in that environment? And therefore do you feel comfortable? And I certainly would not have felt comfortable or confident enough to display any sort of piercing, tattoo in a client-facing, sort of more corporate environment.

Isabel Berwick
And did you have tattoos at that point?

Isabelle Campbell
I did, but none that you would have been able to see. You know, were I not in on the beach, shall we say. I had nothing visible, no, but I did have piercings which I removed when I started work.

Isabel Berwick
That’s interesting. So Pilita, I think you’ve actually looked at some hard data about how tattoos might affect us in the workplace.

Pilita Clark
Yeah. So I was really intrigued to see that there’s actually a professor at the University of Miami who’s done a lot of work on the employment impacts of tattoos. The very interesting work that he’s done basically show that in the US at least, people with tattoos are just as likely to be employed and to earn as much as people without them. And in fact, men with tattoos, according to his research, are 7 per cent more likely to have a job than men without tattoos, which is super interesting. I mean, it doesn’t, you know, we’re talking correlation, not causation. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that all men should be racing out to their nearest tattoo studio. But the interesting thing is that, you know, even though a tattoo won’t necessarily boost your salary, it certainly isn’t likely to harm your job prospects.

Isabel Berwick
I wonder if it’s because tattoos are expensive. (Laughter) Isabelle, how do you feel? I mean, do you think things have changed since you started work? What are you seeing? Have you got tattooed colleagues?

Isabelle Campbell
Yeah, I think they changed hugely, absolutely. I think there are biases in different industries and different cultures and different organisations. I certainly think I’ve witnessed people with tattoos that have covered them up because they feel that it’s not acceptable to show themselves. Whereas what I see now in the department I work in, you know, it’s quite acceptable to just be who you are, whatever that is, however you’re showing and displaying that. And I love that. But I think that has changed hugely. Yes, absolutely. I think when I first came into the world of work 17 years ago, I would have felt uncomfortable being honest about tattoos, piercings, that sort of thing, because I would have felt judged.

Isabel Berwick
Pilita, do you think if we’re coming into an economic downturn that might affect employers’ willingness to employ people, you know, is it something that they can screen out when talent is more plentiful?

Pilita Clark
I suppose so. Although I’m not entirely convinced that too many of them would really want to do that, you know, and Goldman Sachs, until relatively recently, had a CFO, chief financial officer, who had really large tattoos. Admittedly, he didn’t last that long, but nonetheless, that certainly having tattoos didn’t impede his progress. You know, as Isabelle was just saying, the way we think about tattoos has really changed. In fact, this University of Miami professor told me that they’ve developed this ink that is much easier to remove after you’ve had a tattoo, so you can change your mind more easily. And he says the take-up on the part of not just the artists who don’t like the idea of their work being easily removed anytime soon, but also people getting tattoos don’t want that. They really like the idea of the permanence of it. So when you look at the stats of the percentage of the population that now has at least one tattoo, it’s become completely mainstream in a way that it never was before. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Isabel Berwick
No, that’s interesting about the temporary thing because I have a tattoo and I’m really glad it’s permanent. Although a lot of people said to me, What if you regret it? I said, Well, I’ve already got a five in front of my age. So it’s sort of limited time left to get upset. Pilita, do you think we’re past the point where employers have a say in how their staff look?

Pilita Clark
No, I don’t think that, actually. I do think there’s been a marked shift towards more casual wear. But, saying that, you know, clearly there are some workplace environments, courtroom being the most obvious, probably a lot of corporate boardroom meetings and other and elsewhere where, you know, you do know what the expected attire is and people who stand out dramatically in that sort of situation, I suspect, are going to be marked down in some ways. Unfortunately, that is a reality.

Isabel Berwick
So, I got my first tattoo when I was over 50, and so did my husband and Isabelle, I know that you’ve, you know, become more tattooed as you’ve got older. Is there something about having the confidence in our careers to carry that off? You know, I realise a lot of millennials and Gen Z have tattoos because that’s part of their identity. But for us, that wasn’t something I would have considered when I was younger. Do you think there’s something about having confidence that allows us to go for it?

Isabelle Campbell
Absolutely. I mean, my first tattoo was when I was 14. And, you know, a key aspect and a key element of where it was placed on my body was that my parents wouldn’t be able to see it, of course. But yes, absolutely. Had I had any more visible tattoos, it would have been long sleeves at job interviews. But I think people drew clumsy conclusions about what it means about your value and what you can bring. But I wasn’t willing to take that risk as a more junior, you know, earlier on in my career, I wasn’t willing to take the risk that someone might look and think, Oh, she’s got her nose pierced or she’s got a visible tattoo, therefore I don’t want her. So I was happy to well, happy, maybe not happy, but I was willing to cover that up for the sake of ensuring that I secured a job that I wanted. Later on in life I very strongly feel that if you don’t want me for who I am and you can’t see the value I can bring to your business, then it’s not a place I want to work.

Isabel Berwick
Love me, love my tattoos.

Isabelle Campbell
Certainly.

Isabel Berwick
Pilita, if someone close to you was going to get a tattoo, how would you feel about that?

Pilita Clark
Well, I would never say not to, and I wouldn’t say anything, actually. In fact, I have very close relatives who have a lot of tattoos and I haven’t seen them because they’re in Australia. But I’m willing to bet that they got even more since I saw them a year ago, because that’s what happens. It hasn’t held them back. They’re doing work that where it’s never going to. If someone wanted to get a face tattoo, then I would because even though organisations like the US Air Force, London Metropolitan Police and many others have eased up their restrictions on tattoos, even they tend to draw the line at really sort of very, very visible face tattoos, you know. So I wouldn’t advise that. But I think really no, I wouldn’t advise against it now.

Isabel Berwick
Isabelle?

Isabelle Campbell
Well, my husband has gone for full sleeve, but post the age of 50 and I love it. I don’t love every element of it, but it means something to him. If you’re talking about my children, however, that might be a different story, although they’re 12 and nine, so I’m hoping not to need to have that conversation. Mind you, based on when I had my first tattoo, I’m hoping not to have that conversation for a little while. But I think I would, you know, share the regrets such that I have about the earlier ones and otherwise, just, you know, no, it’s your body. Go for it, but just be aware of the consequences.

Isabel Berwick
I mean, we are all relatively in accord here. But, you know, the amount of vitriol that I’ve seen in the comments both on LinkedIn where I posted Pilita’s column — and it went pretty viral for LinkedIn — and also on the FT. You know, there are a lot of people who are very angry about tattoos. I’m just wondering, is it generational, Pilita, do you think?

Pilita Clark
Oh, it really is. It really is. I mean, the stats show that in the UK, I think basically 14 per cent of people aged 55 or older have got at least one tattoo. But I think 30 per cent of people aged between 25 and 54 have got a tattoo in the UK and the numbers are even, the share’s even larger in the US. I think it’s about 30 per cent of Americans or up now have a tattoo and that skews overwhelmingly towards younger people. So you know, we’re basically, but there’s no way of knowing from FT comments how old a reader is, but I am willing to place a large amount of money on the idea that most of the most virulently opposed were probably over the age of 50.

Isabel Berwick
Isabelle, do you think all this opposition to tattoos is just a question of age?

Isabelle Campbell
Age, yes. But class as well, which is a tricky thing, but I definitely think there’s a bit of a class divide there when it comes to tattoos.

Isabel Berwick
Yes, I think you’re right, especially with the older generation.

Isabelle Campbell
With the older generation and an assumption that if you’ve got tattoos, you must somehow be stupid. Hence the anger, I think, on, like, real anger. Like, how could you possibly have an opinion if you have a tattoo? Because you must be stupid.

Isabel Berwick
I don’t know. I find this an endlessly fascinating subject and I’m intending to get very much more inked as I get older. So let’s return to it another day. Thanks so much to Isabelle Campbell and Pilita Clark.

Isabelle Campbell
Thank you.

Pilita Clark
Thank you.

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Isabel Berwick
The whole issue of tattoos is extraordinary. Clearly, a lot of people have very strong views, even if they’ll only oppose them in private and in the comments. But I’m really hopeful we’re making progress. People like Lucy will be coming into the workplace, and I think they have little reason to be apprehensive about how their tattoos might be seen at work. It’s completely, I think, a generational issue. I think there is some boundaries here. You know, be respectful, cover up where it’s appropriate. But face tattoos, I think, are always gonna be problematic. For those of us who like body art, who think it’s a beautiful thing, often, I’m really pleased that things are changing.

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Thanks to Isabelle Campbell, Pilita Clark and Lucy Snell for this episode. If you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up to the Working It newsletter. We’ve got the best workplace and management stories from across the FT plus the Office Therapy advice column. Sign up at FT.com/newsletters. This episode of Working It was produced by Mischa Frankl-Duval and mixed by Simon Panayi. Manuela Saragosa is the executive editor and Cheryl Brumley is the FT’s global head of audio. Thanks for listening.

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