PIVOT: Valuation column: What to Think about Ink

Regardless of any evidence about impulsivity or short-term thinking, tattoos don’t seem to hurt. Across employment, wages and annual earnings, researchers found no sign that a tattoo was associated with negative outcomes. (Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

What to think about ink

Tattoos make it harder to succeed, right? New research says it’s not so simple.

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Tattoos were once a reliable way to spot pirates, convicts and Maori tribesmen without having to look at their resumés. Today, they’re so common your mother could show up for a job interview with a tat in sight. As tattoos go mainstream, what should employers think about ink? 

According to a recent Harris Poll, 47 per cent of American millennials have at least one tattoo, and more than one-third of that group have four or more. (Canadian numbers are not available.) Despite their growing popularity among younger generations, however, tattoos still trigger a variety of negative responses from the job market. In one survey of human resource specialists, conducted by York College of Pennsylvania, 60 per cent agreed that having a visible tattoo is “the best way to not get hired for a job.” So while tattoos may be routine among the under-40 crowd, they’re far less popular among middle-aged hiring managers. 

Two new academic studies throw some much needed light on the complicated issue of what tattoos mean and how they might be affecting the job prospects of those who have them. Anne Wilson, a social psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and her co-author, Bradley Ruffle, a Laurier economist, used a series of online experiments involving trade-offs between short-term and long-term rewards to see if people with tattoos think differently than those without when planning for the future. It seems they do. “People with visible tattoos, particularly men, show a tendency to be more impulsive and short-term oriented,” she says in an interview. It’s a result that seems to confirm the stereotype.   

Another study published this summer, from researchers at the University of Miami and the University of Western Australia, looks at the actual performance of tattooed workers. And regardless of any evidence about impulsivity or short-term thinking, tattoos don’t seem to hurt. Across employment, wages and annual earnings, the researchers found no sign that a tattoo was associated with negative outcomes. “Having a tattoo does not appear to be associated with disadvantage or discrimination in the labour market,” the paper reports. 

This new data doesn’t come as a surprise to Wilson, despite her own findings. While impulsivity is often considered a negative trait, she points out it can also be a sign of attributes like creativity, unconventional thinking or the ability to make quick decisions. “Having a tattoo may be a signal of positive characteristics for some industries,” she says, especially when people sort themselves into careers that match their personalities and characteristics. Plus, there’s a big difference between a tattoo that lingers after a regrettable Spring Break debauch, and one that’s a carefully thought-out memorialization of a loved one. Finally, Wilson points out that as those well-tatted millennials progress into management, negative preconceptions about tattoos will inevitably fade into irrelevance over time. If everyone has one, no one will care.