5 On Your Side

Are tattoos still taboo at work?

Posted February 18, 2013 5:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 19, 2013 12:12 a.m. EST

— Surveys show more than 1 in 5 people has at least one tattoo. Nearly half of 26 to 40 year olds have one. Another survey found 45 percent of law students have one by the time they graduate. But when it comes to the workplace, are tattoos still taboo?

Celebrities, professional athletes and hair stylists are some of the professions where tattoos are generally accepted and sometimes expected. But would the same hold true for doctors or financial planners, for instance?

"I have a college degree. I've worked in the health care industry for seven years. I have a house. I have a family. I'm just like everybody else … and I have tattoos,” said Gretchen Sutton, an IT professional in the medical field.

Sutton says she got her first tattoo on her ankle, then one on her back and then a half sleeve on both arms.

"I have six tattoos and plan to get more,” she said.

Considering her job requires her to sometimes meet with office managers, doctors and hospital executives, Sutton says she is cognizant of making sure that her tattoos are covered if she does an interview or meets a client. However, when she’s in the office, her tattoos are sometimes visible to coworkers.

“Typically, I get double-takes, and they're like, ‘I didn't know you where that type of person,’” Sutton said. “As I told my mom, I like tattoos, but I like money more. I want to make sure that I have a good job and get paid well, and I can get tattoos in other parts of my body.”

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison says complaints from the public about a tattoo-covered deputy who appeared in news coverage of a trial prompted him to move forward with a new policy on tattoos. If their short sleeved-shirts don’t cover their tattoos, deputies have to wear long sleeves year-round.

"I don't think it looks professional in our type work,” Harrison said. “We just try to get them where we can't see them."

John O'Connor owns Career Pro Inc., a career counseling company in Raleigh. He warns, especially with traditional jobs, that visible tattoos can have an impact.

“Yeah, it’s an issue,” he said. “Privately, employers have told me it does affect their decision … It only takes a pause, when there are that many candidates for each job, to potentially reject you."

In a recent poll, 42 percent of hiring managers said their opinion of someone would be lowered if they had visible body art, and 76 percent believed visible tattoos were unprofessional.

O'Connor admits he was caught off guard when his assistant, Amanda Septien, came in with a small tattoo on her wrist.

“Wow, why did you do that? How might it affect people's opinion of you? The perception of the business,” he recalled thinking.

Polls say most people have no regrets in getting tattoos. However, in a study by The Patient's Guide, the majority of those getting them removed, about 40 percent, cited employment reasons as their motivation for having the procedure.

In addition to possible workplace stigma, experts say people who get tattoos should research the risks and be careful about who does the artwork and how.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a warning about infections from contaminated ink, and 5 On Your Side found there's little state regulation or oversight of tattoo shops.

Unlike hair stylists or nail techs in North Carolina, tattoo artists only need a $300 county-issued permit to get started. After that, a health inspector visits annually to make sure tattoo shops are "really neat and organized (and) everything is right at their fingertips," said Lisa McKoy, a health inspector for Wake County. 

But their inspections are scheduled in advance, and even tattoo artist Steve Wetherington said the rules could stand to be toughened. 

"What they do after the health department leaves, who knows?" said Wetherington, who works at Mad Ethel's Tattoo in Raleigh. "They only come once a year and you know they're coming."