Tattoos and Ties: The Intersection of Self-Expression and Workplace Etiquette

With the recent dismissal of three Garda trainees on the basis of their tattoos, the place of tattoos in a professional environment has once again come into the spotlight as body art grows seemingly more popular than ever

Following last month’s decision to send home three Garda trainees due to their tattoos, the conversation about the place of tattoos in the workplace has exploded once more across Irish headlines. The Garda handbook states that “Body art [tattoos] on the face, or visible above the collar, are not permitted. All other tattoos will be covered at all times while on duty, whether in uniform or plain clothes.” In the midst of a shortage of Garda recruits, the decision to dismiss these trainees based on the strict dress code has come under serious scrutiny, with many calling for it to be updated. With the government currently not expected to reach its goal of 1,000 new Garda recruits this year, a sizeable proportion of the public has criticised the dress code as outdated, and are calling for a revision of the policies. 

Tattoos have existed throughout history, and have been of great cultural and religious significance across the world. This includes right here in Ireland, where the Celts would use tattoos in various different ways, such as symbols of protection, rites of passage, and to intimidate enemies on the battlefield. Fast-forward to the present day, their popularity is actively increasing, particularly among Irish youth. Tattoos are trending on Irish college campuses, and have become a well-accepted form of self-expression and individuality amongst students. According to a 2020 LinkedIn article, the popularity of tattoos is higher amongst college-educated individuals globally, with 32% of students and graduates having at least one tattoo.

Only 22% of people aged 18-25 agree that tattoos should not be visible in the workplace, while approximately 63% of people over 60 thought the same”  

Unless a tattoo is offensive, a large number would agree that it has no impact on how effectively one can do their job. Still, others maintain that tattoos are unprofessional, regardless of how well a job is done. Common workplace dress codes ask for tattoos to be covered up and for certain piercings to be removed on the grounds of maintaining a uniform and professional appearance within the workplace. Opinions on whether or not visible tattoos are unprofessional seem to vary in different industries, and depend heavily on the age of the individual being asked. As stated in a TeamStage article, only 22% of people aged 18-25 agree that tattoos should not be visible in the workplace, while approximately 63% of people over 60 thought the same.

The placement of a tattoo is also a vital factor in limiting job opportunities. The tattoo placements that reduce the chances of getting hired the most are on the face, neck, and hands, according to a survey conducted by YouGov in 2018. 60% of employers surveyed said that they were “substantially” less likely to hire an individual with face tattoos. Perhaps surprisingly, however, 70% of the same pool stated that an upper arm tattoo would make “no difference” when deciding whether to hire an individual. This statistic stands in stark contrast to the result of an earlier 2015 survey from employment agency Peninsula Ireland in which a whopping 76% of employers surveyed by Peninsula Ireland, an employment agency, claimed that they would not employ someone with a visible tattoo. Overall, while it would seem that certain tattoos may negatively impact one’s job prospects, this trend is quickly shifting.

Given these statistics, and a general trend of increasingly relaxed working environments across industries as an older generation ages out of the workforce, it would make sense for the rules around tattoos and piercings in the workplace to gradually become more relaxed. Yet, while it may seem odd for an open-minded employer in other areas to be strict on tattoo and piercing guidelines, their concern seems to lie more with the attitudes of their clients, as opposed to their own biases. 

If a large portion of a company’s clientele continues to be of an older generation, or a more conservative audience, the professionalism of visible tattoos will continue to be called into question. The Irish Sun compiled a list of jobs that prohibit tattoos, or require them to be covered up. These professions include law enforcement officers, healthcare workers, and front office administrators – all public-facing roles that require the trust and comfort of their clients to work effectively. After all, a surgeon with a neck or hand tattoo would be a surprising sight in an Irish hospital, and it is easy to envision an increase in distrust   amongst elderly patients in particular should this become the norm. 

“…the attitude towards tattoos and piercings in the office was “surprisingly relaxed”

Speaking to Trinity News, Adanya Hott, a 2022 Business and German graduate, discussed her experience in the workplace as a professional with tattoos. Having first worked in a recruitment firm with six tattoos in total, majoritively found on the arms and one on the ribs, Hott explained that the attitude towards tattoos and piercings in the office was “surprisingly relaxed.” Tattoos were permitted to remain visible around the office and were only covered up as a professional courtesy when meeting with important clients. However, in her recently accepted position as a sales engineer, covering up her tattoos will be mandatory due to the nature of the job. When asked if the post-college job hunt ever influenced where she placed her tattoos, Hott said that it certainly played a role: “When I got my tattoos I was aware that people would have certain views and opinions about them. I knew I may have to cover them up in certain professional roles, so I chose to get them in places that I could easily hide if need be, such as my arms and side.” She added that she believes the attitude towards tattoos in the workplace is becoming gradually more relaxed, especially as the popularity of tattoos increases among younger generations.

Hott, like many across the country, is optimistic about a future where visible tattoos will not influence employment prospects. As she and so many see it, this form of self–expression should not be an obstacle to a successful career.

Abby Cleaver

Abby Cleaver is the current life editor at Trinity News, having previously served as comment editor, and is a final year English literature and philosophy student.