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Written by Patrick Shea
Published: August 3, 2021

Stop Giving Ink the Stink

Evidence of early tattooing is seen as far back as the fourth millennium B.C.E., and possibly was in use long before then. Its original use was to symbolize momentous occasions, religious meanings, personal pride, and much more. How can it be that, after thousands of years, perceptions of tattoos have become so misconstrued and demonized?  Most often when people get inked, their artwork is of great personal importance and may depict something that has shaped the course of their life.  

I do not personally have any body-art but I do know quite a few people in my close circles who do and potentially see myself adorning some in the future (please do not tell my dad). I am aspiring to become a police officer, which is a profession that for a long time has frowned upon tattoos.  In fact, tattoos have for some time been a hotly discussed topic in the professional world and workplace. The primary reason for tattoos not being suitable in the workplace appears related to the stigma they possess from coworkers and customers.  Is it unethical for businesses and leaders to let this stigma live on? Does it diminish the intrinsic value of individualistic expression that is a birthright to all?  I believe it is time for this stigma to be put to bed and the leadership within countless organizations has the power to do it.

Duty of Leadership

Why does this responsibility to change this stigma fall to organizational leadership?  Every day as people go out into the community and business settings they are being marked and judged by others. In a climate where corporations and workforce leaders are being encouraged to be more socially responsible, it only makes sense that they strive to make a more pleasant and open-minded experience not only for their customers but also for their employees.  

Advocate for Freedom of Expression

The primary path which this conversation must take is in regards to the freedom of expression.  In the U.S. alone 21% of people have one or more tattoos; 30% of college graduates have at least one tattoo and 32% of people with higher education are more likely to get a tattoo as compared to 28% of people with lower education (Comparecamp, 2020). These numbers make it clear that the popularity of tattoos among Americans is high, and that people with college degrees are slightly more likely to have a tattoo than those without a degree. 

As tattoos are increasing in popularity, especially among younger generations entering the workforce, the value of leaders being able to eliminate this stigma is increasing! With the popularity of tattoos increasing it will make it more difficult for organizations with a policy against tattoos to effectively hire new employees, since the policy alone will immediately disqualify one of every five potential candidates.   

Be Willing to Make Changes

To make progress toward a more equitable future, people and organizations must be willing to make changes.   In his book about developing personal and organizational leadership, Maxwell states that “many people are holding on so tightly to what they have that they are willing to forgo gaining anything - even progress” (Maxwell, 2018, p. 74). Our business leaders have the opportunity to step into progress and show people that organizations and society, in general, are missing out if they choose to judge someone based on only one aspect of who they are, such as a tattoo. 

According to Greenleaf, “the great leader is seen as a servant first” (Greenleaf, 2008, p. 9).  Of course, leaders must obey and follow the values of the organization they work for but, in the case of turning away from inked employees, this could come at a great cost to success.  Employees work better for companies that align with their values and leaders that have their back. If something as petty as a tattoo of a rose on your ankle can cause a big fuss, then who isn’t to say that any other infinitesimal detail may be blown out of proportion?

Show Respect & Consideration for Everyone 

Deontological ethics specifically--Rights theory, Libertarianism, and Kantianism, back the argument that leadership has to protect their followers’ freedom to express themselves however they choose.  Rights Theory states that it is an individual's right to express themselves, and this is frequently the goal of an individual’s donning body art. Rights Theory tells us that it would be completely unjust for anyone to deny someone their freedom to be employed for an issue of personal preference.  According to Sandel, “respecting rights is not to respect the person holding them but to make things better for everyone” (Sandel, 2015, p. 103).  As an example, if someone had a Swastika or Ku Klux Klan symbol tattooed in a visible spot this would infringe upon numerous people’s rights.  This is because these types of symbols illustrate ideologies founded on the belief that selected members of a society have fewer rights than others.

On the opposing side of this argument, Libertarianism theory maintains that people should respect that everyone has a right to do whatever they please so long as they can do the same in return.  This theory would argue that a person should be able to get any tattoo of anything they want.  However, this makes it understandable that employers may not want to hire a particular individual because of a specific tattoo.  It is ultimately up to the person that is getting the tattoo to choose whatever they want, but in a case where it is offensive to a group, there is a sound argument concerning mutual respect for excluding them in business operations. The justification in this instance comes from the Kantian Ethics premise that one must show respect for all persons, even if that action results in a loss of pleasure to some (Sandel, pp. 104-106).  An example such as the previous is an ethically justifiable argument for zero tolerance.

True leadership bears the burden of making all their employees feel comfortable and safe.   As I have stated, some tattoos have the potential to cause discomfort for people, but this threat needs to be seriously considered as offensive or dangerous.  In other words, organizational leadership should not dismiss tattooed individuals for reasons of personal distaste, there must be a REAL issue with a particular piece.  Not discriminating against people who have tattoos brings us closer to a world where all are accepted and respected; a better world if you ask me.

How to Eliminate the Stigma (personally and on a broader scale)

If you find yourself or your business hitting a wall in an attempt to be more accepting of tattoos here are some practices that may help:

Realize the issue

Try to establish an understanding of how judging someone by their chosen exterior appearance is unacceptable. It is their inalienable right to express themselves however they wish.

Understand the meaning

Every person that has body art has it for some reason or meaning.  That reason or meaning could be of a significant moment or factor from their life, religious practices, self-confidence, and even just that he/she likes the way tattoos look.  Ask someone why they got a tattoo, it could be a cool story.

Pretend everyone you know has hidden tattoos

Pretend everyone you know has one or more—maybe even covered by tattoos that are all hidden under their clothing.  Would you judge them any differently?  Maybe unrealistic to some but it illustrates the point that body art, whether you can see it or not, does not define the character of a person.


Whether it be in the hiring process, or upon later discovery, that a current employee has some tattoos, there should be an open line of discussion between both parties regarding how and why this possesses a real or potential issue.  If the tattoo does possess some type of ability to inflict discomfort for customers or coworkers, it should be made known. Ultimately, if there can be no resolution it probably was not a great fit.


Not everyone likes tattoos. Some people within business organizations and their leadership may be included in that group.  The notion that people with tattoos are less competent or are of bad character is dated and unjustified. Justification for the progressive idea that no business should judge an employee based on a tattoo is clearly illustrated through the revered works of Kant and several guiding principles in deontological ethics. The corporate playing field is changing.  There is more demand than ever for corporations that show that they are willing to charge forward toward creating a better workplace and existence for employees and potentially a better relationship for us all.  Eliminating the stigma around tattoos in the professional world falls to those with good leadership skills and a vision for a world that cares for all as unique individuals.


Greenleaf, R. K. (2008). The servant as leader. Westfield, IN: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership.

History of Tattooing - View of Tattooing History. (2020). Retrieved December 07, 2020, from http://www.historyoftattoos.net/tattoo-history/history-of-tattooing/

Maxwell, J. C. (2018). Developing the leader within you 2.0. Nashville, TN: HarperCollins.

Sandel, M. J. (2010). Justice: What's the right thing to do? New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Zuckerman, W. (2020, May 13). 38 Tattoo Statistics: 2019/2020 Industry, Trends & Demographics. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://comparecamp.com/tattoo-statistics/

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Leading Edge Culture

Patrick Shea

Written by Patrick Shea