Invisible Ink No More

By Julie Knudson

Almost four in 10 millennials have a tattoo and a similar percentage have a piercing somewhere other than an earlobe, according to the Pew Research Center. And the increasing number of Americans with visible body art means more and more of them are entering workplaces—including many banks—with policies that frown on ink and piercings. But while some institutions remain on the conservative end of the spectrum, others are responding to a changing workforce—and a changing customer demographic—and reassessing their guidelines.

Recognizing the growing prevalence of body art among the younger generations, Bradley J. Ruffle, a professor of economics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, co-authored a research paper that touched on the notion that tattooed individuals “may face discrimination in the labor market,” among other potential negative repercussions. The paper notes that while the under-40 crowd is more likely to have tattoos than the generations before them, those in the 40-plus demographic often occupy the positions of power. The result, he found, is that “tattooed individuals’ economic outcomes rest with those who regard them negatively and with suspicion.”

Many banks have historically expected workers to cover their ink and remove any “non-traditional” piercings. Some hiring managers choose to pass on candidates who arrive at interviews with tattoos and other body art showing, even if they’re otherwise well qualified. It can be a touchy subject in some institutions. Just initiating a discussion around the logic behind existing policies—and whether it’s time to make a change—might prove difficult.

One community bank marketing executive, who didn’t want to be identified in part because her opinions on body art run contrary to her bank’s no-visible-tattoos policy, believes overly restrictive rules will make it more difficult to recruit and retain good employees. A rethink may be needed, but this leader said there are obstacles there, too. “Somewhere along the line our institutions need to make a judgment call and limit the hiding to tattoos that are offensive, obscene, rude or otherwise gross,” she says. Because people are often afraid to step up and define what’s acceptable, banks simply adopt an all-or-nothing approach.

At the three mutual savings banks affiliated with New Hampshire Mutual Bancorp, based in Concord, New Hampshire, employees are allowed to have tattoos below the neck, and they can be uncovered as along as they’re smaller than two inches by three inches—meaning that a small single tattoo is OK, but a tattoo sleeve along an arm would need to be covered. “Right now we think this would be acceptable to our customer base and reflect the fact that tattoos are more common than not among our employee base,” says Gregg Tewksbury, president and CEO.

Even when formal policies don’t prevent employees from showing body art, hiring managers and other banking leaders sometimes follow their own personal preferences and preconception. However, it seems those may be changing, too. In just the past five years, Laurie Stewart, president and CEO of Seattle-based Sound Community Bank, says she’s seen a shift from hesitation around hiring someone with visible tattoos to more acceptance. She believes that relaxing long-standing hiring policies that strictly forbid the display of body art could make a community bank stronger in the long run. “We’re a better organization when we’re inclusive of a broad variety of team members and we get more than we give, because often we get a different perspective from the younger folks with tattoos,” Stewart says. She points to the many headwinds that already exist for community banks, chief among them finding emerging talent. “If we make our candidate pool so small because of a bias against some of these things, we’ll be going nowhere fast.”

There are other reasons banks with no-tattoo policies may find their requirements difficult to support in the years ahead. Issues around physical appearance can quickly become a much larger conversation. One risk is that other subconscious biases, such as those dealing with body weight or headscarves worn as part of a religious practice, just to name a few, may also find fertile ground. “I think it’s fraught with peril to begin making hiring decisions around that issue, because I think it’s a slippery slope,” Stewart says of the potential to evaluate, either inadvertently or by design, candidates based on physical appearance. As the workforce continues to evolve and become even more diverse, these concerns are likely to become more prominent.

Today’s low-unemployment environment may also be impacting the way bankers feel about tattoos and piercings. In markets where community banks must compete with what Stewart refers to as “big, sexy employers”—in her area that’s Amazon, Starbucks and a slew of technology powerhouses—the tight labor landscape means that excluding tattooed candidates would leave them with few options. “I wouldn’t be surprised if half the workforce has a tattoo somewhere,” she says. “In fact, we just hired an SVP of HR who has a tattoo.” Because employees today are often more willing to pursue job opportunities outside their current position, banks risk losing good workers no matter their role. A teller or loan processor today could easily land a completely different job tomorrow in a market where well-funded startups and global players alike are hiring like mad.

When it comes to making hiring decisions, Ruffle’s advice is simple: “Ignore the tattoo,” he says. While his research did find that visible tattoos are correlated with impulsivity and a preference for the present over the future, he stresses it’s a noisy measure of those traits. “If you’re interviewing someone, you can create better information—their experience, their education—and those are going to be more informative.” Hiring managers will garner far more useful data about a candidate’s skills and personality during a face-to-face interview, and a tattoo or piercing shouldn’t distract them from the process.

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