CHICAGO – Nora Flanagan’s first tattoos hid strategically under her clothing. An aspiring teacher, Flanagan worried the ink could cost her a job.
“There was definitely an idea of what a teacher should look like,” Flanagan, now 42, recalls of her early career in the late 1990s. Teachers wore long, wholesome floral skirts, not child-corrupting body art.
But several years into her job at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep High School, Flanagan got a teaching award, tenure and greater confidence. She shed the floral skirts, slipped on her Doc Martens and accumulated more tattoos, letting them creep visibly down her arms.
Now chair of the English department at Northside College Prep High School, Flanagan is covered in tattoos from her knuckles to her collarbone, and she wears them proudly.
“I’m the tattooed teacher,” said Flanagan, adding that she has gotten no complaints from parents or administration. “It’s a big deal to the kids for a day and then I start to give them grades like everyone else, and no one cares.”
A new study on tattoos at work has come to a similar conclusion: No one seems to mind.
The research, published this month in the journal Human Relations, surveyed more than 2,000 people and found that the inked were just as likely to be employed and to earn as much as the uninked, regardless of the number, visibility or offensiveness of their tattoos.
That was a surprise to the study authors, as previous research has found that hiring managers widely perceive people with tattoos to be less employable than those without, even in recent years when the popularity of tattoos has surged. That negative perception is driven in part by other research that has found customers frown upon being served by or buying from people with tattoos, which years ago were associated with countercultural delinquents.
“We thought with this new information we are certainly going to uncover some discrimination,” said lead author Michael French, professor of health economics at University of Miami Business School.
But the study found no adverse employment outcomes for the tattooed, regardless of whether they were men or women, blue-collar or white-collar workers, in management or not. In fact, having one or more tattoos was associated with slightly higher employment and more hours worked, the study found.
The results suggest negative perceptions of tattoos don’t play out in actual hiring decisions, or that workplaces are embracing tattoos’ evolution from symbols of rebellion to expressions of creativity and commemorations of life events, French said.
Tattoos have become much more prevalent and visible in recent years: Thirty percent of Americans had at least one tattoo in 2015, up from 20 percent four years earlier, according to the most recent Harris polls available. Seventy percent of people with tattoos had more than one. Nearly half of millennials are tattooed, compared with 13 percent of baby boomers, the poll found. A third of 40-somethings had tattoos in 2015, up from 14 percent in 2003, and Republicans are as likely as Democrats to be inked.
To be sure, some buttoned-up employers and customer-facing companies are still cautious about body art.
“Know your audience,” said Michael Erwin, senior career adviser for CareerBuilder.com.