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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Grocutt

Tattooed Workers’ Perceptions of Treatment at Work

Updated: May 31

Tews, M. J., & Stafford, K. (2020). Tattoos and unfavorable treatment among employees in the hospitality industryInternational Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 32(5), 1925-1940.

Tattoos are often considered a hindrance to employment, with negative attitudes and stigma towards individuals with tattoos, especially visible tattoos. As such, much of the research on tattoos in the workplace has focused on the impact of tattoos in the hiring process. While valuable, this research does not inform us of tattooed individuals' experiences within the workplace. Although there is bias against hiring individuals with tattoos, these individuals do still get hired. Also, some individuals get tattoos while being employed and, therefore, have experience being tattooed in the workplace without experience in the hiring process as tattooed individuals.


Drs. Michael Tews and Kathryn Stafford were interested in understanding how tattoo employees are treated. They were interested in understanding how different aspects of tattoos, namely number, visibility, and content, relate to employment outcomes and treatment of tattooed workers. Specifically, they were interested in annual earnings and tattooed workers' perceptions of discrimination, interpersonal fairness, and job overqualification.


This study differs from many other studies on tattoos at work in that it focuses on the tattooed workers' perceptions of their treatment within the workplace. In contrast, much of the existing research focuses on others' perceptions of tattooed workers, usually in the context of hiring.

AI generated image of a tattooed restaurant worker.
AI generated image of a tattooed restaurant worker.

The Study


This study focused on the hospitality industry, and all participants were employees in hotels or restaurants. A total of 162 employees with one tattoo or more completed a survey. On average, participants had 4.63 tattoos.


Tattoo characteristics of interest:

(1)  Tattoo number

(2)  Tattoo visibility

(3)  Dark tattoo content (e.g., intimidating, threatening)

(4)  Light tattoo content (e.g., friendly, cheerful)


Outcomes of interest:

(1)  Annual earnings (measured in thousands of dollars)

(2)  Perceived discrimination (i.e., whether participants had been discriminated against in the workplace for any reason in the past 12 months)

(3)  Perceived fair interpersonal treatment (e.g., being treated with respect)

(4)  Perceived overqualification (e.g., participants perceiving their education or abilities to be above what is required for their job)


*Note: controlled for participant’s age, education, ethnicity, gender, hours worked per week, and position (i.e., management or not)




Tattoo number: Interestingly, tattoo number was positively related to annual earnings; that is, the more tattoos, the greater annual earnings. Tattoo number was also related to treatment; the more tattoos a worker had, the greater their perceptions of discrimination experienced. However, there was no significant relationship between tattoo number and perceptions of fair interpersonal treatment. Finally, the more tattoos, the more these workers perceived themselves as overqualified for their jobs.


Tattoo visibility did not relate to any of the outcomes of interest.


As for tattoo content, the darker the content, the greater the perceived discrimination and overqualification, as well as less fair interpersonal treatment. There was no significant relationship between dark tattoo content and annual earnings. Light tattoo content was significantly related to perceived overqualification, with greater light tattoo content relating to greater perceived overqualification. However, light tattoo content was not significantly related to any other outcomes.


Key Takeaways: What does this mean for tattooed workers?


Workplace outcomes related to having tattoos may differ by the nature of the tattoo(s). Specifically, outcomes may differ by what is being considered: the number of tattoos, the visibility of tattoos, or the content of tattoos.


The findings from this study suggest that the number of tattoos and the extent to which the tattoo content is dark (intimidating, threatening, deviant) are related to the most workplace outcomes (as perceived by the tattooed workers).

In terms of treatment, tattooed workers are more likely to perceive being discriminated against the more tattoos they have and the greater their tattoos are dark in content, and they are less likely to perceive they are treated fairly the more tattoos they have and the greater their tattoos are dark in content.


Regarding feeling overqualified, tattooed workers are more likely to perceive themselves as overqualified for the work they do the more tattoos they have and the greater their tattoos are dark or light in content.


As for annual earnings, the only significant relationship was with the number of tattoos, and this was a positive relationship suggesting that the more tattoos, the greater the annual earnings, which is contrary to what would be expected given the stigma towards and bias against those with tattoos. It would be interesting to see if future research can replicate and explore this more.


Several non-significant findings are interesting and worth discussing...

  • First, the visibility of the tattoos was not related to any of the outcomes of interest. This is interesting because hand and face tattoos, the most visible and unable to cover tattoos, are generally considered "job stoppers." Yet, this study suggests visibility is not related to perceived treatment, perceived overqualifications, or earnings. This unexpected finding may be because these were all tattooed individuals who are currently employed, and it could be that visibility matters more in the hiring process.


  • Second, light tattoo content was only related to perceived overqualification, and the relationships with perceived discrimination, perceived fair interpersonal treatment, and annual earnings were all non-significant. These non-significant findings for light tattoo content suggest that tattooed workers with light content may not be stigmatized like those with dark tattoo content. Research exploring differences in the treatment of those with light vs dark tattoos more would be interesting.

TL;DR: Three main takeaways:
  1. Tattoo visibility may not matter as much as we think, given that it was not significantly related to any of the outcomes in this study. 

  2. Employment outcomes and treatment of tattooed workers may differ by tattoo content, with negative treatment for those with darker tattoos and the lightness of the tattoos not significantly related to outcomes in this study.

  3. More research on the treatment of tattooed workers would enhance our understanding of this topic 😊


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