Tattoos Job Interviews

Billboard, Guilin, China Photo: Michael Moffa

If you are over 18, under 29 and a recruiter or a job applicant in a recruiting interview with your counterpart, there is an almost 60% chance that at least one of you has one or more tattoos—that is, if we can believe oft-quoted telephone survey results from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, which reported that, based on its small sample, it estimated that 36% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 had at least one tattoo about six years ago. [I did the math: 60% is correct—59.04%, to be precise.]

Pew, Harris and other surveys offer different estimates, 36% for the 18-25 population telephone survey by Pew in 2006 and a reported 2008 Harris Interactive telephone survey estimate as low as only 9% for those 18-24 and 32% for those 26-29. My guess is that the actual percentages are likely to be higher than all of these. Maybe a lot higher. Why?

The “Dewey Effect”. In the now notorious last-minute telephone surveys conducted just before the 1948 Truman-Dewey presidential contest balloting, the trends suggested a runaway, landslide victory for Dewey—a prediction that became the basis for premature and very embarrassing headlines declaring a Dewey win election eve. How did the pollsters get it so wrong?

Simple: They phoned. In the late 1940s, most people with phones were Republicans, well-off Republicans—the kind of people who could afford a phone back in those days. Poorer welfare state-minded, liberal Democratic-leaning voters were far less likely to be contacted and were therefore under-reported in the survey. Ditto for tattoos.

All of the cited tattoo surveys were telephone-based. Do you really think that any heavily tattooed bench-pressing inmate—male or female—in any prison, any American Popeye “Aye-ayeing” sailor on a freighter or aircraft carrier, or any carpet-tattooed gang member—Russian, Hispanic, Japanese or “Other” is likely to have been reached for or participated in the survey on a landline phone? Or, in many cases, like the sailors at sea, on any phone at all? (Incidentally, it has been claimed that the association of sailors with tattoos stems from a reported bygone practice of tattooing mariners to facilitate their identification after drowning.) On the other hand, their contribution to a higher estimate and to applicant-interviewer dynamics probably can be disregarded, since few applicants and even fewer recruiters are likely to fall into any of those under-reported categories.

But what about the two of you sitting in your office? Not only is there that 60% chance that at least one of you has one or more tattoos, there is also a great opportunity for one or both of you to use any visible tattoos as a recruitment tool—a “tattool”, so to speak (a concept that, to my surprise, turned up zero results in a Google search, although, alas, has been taken).

Despite whatever may have motivated either of you to get a tattoo, or more intriguingly, in some cases because of whatever motivated you, these visible tattoos can be used to assess not only an applicant’s, but also a recruiter’s, attitudes, flexibility, priorities and the appeal of what each has to offer the other. As an example of the latter possibility, consider this: An applicant’s visible tattoo(s) can serve what for some is the all-important function of guaranteeing he or she does NOT get the job.

You think, “Stop. Who would apply for a job he or she doesn’t want?” Apart from those covered by the existentially deep and correct answer “probably most of us”, such an applicant might be one pressured by parents, professors, partners or peers to get a job, any job, or a job—however high-paid and prestigious—the applicant simply does not want, e.g., a job in a law firm after the applicant has been demoralized by all those great lawyer jokes. As for lower-end burger-flipping jobs, such self-disqualification in the form of a visible tattoo – even better, multiple visible tattoos — is an important tool for ensuring that one is not even tempted to apply for such a service job, no matter how otherwise desperate for work. Then there are those who prefer whatever unemployment benefits they can receive as long as they are “actively looking for” a job, even if they don’t get one.

A tattoo is a mostly irreversible version of the tradition in some Eastern cultures of keeping one or more fingernails extraordinarily long: visible proof of and disqualification for menial or any despised labor, often with assumed—by at least the owner—higher social status. However, use by an applicant as a tool of self-disqualification is not the only tactical application of tattoos. In the event you are a recruiter who has a visible tattoo, you too can put it to good use. Obviously, if you both have tattoos, you are very likely to have an unspoken bond and a wedge—unless, of course, yours is a Star of David and his is a swastika, or your girlfriend’s face or phone number is on his arm. Equally obviously, if you work in a tattoo-friendly office, you may be able to gauge the applicant’s (dis)comfort level in units of blinks at, glimpses of, or comments on your tattoo. But the most important applications of your or the applicant’s tattoo(s) involve the deep surmises and analysis that the fact, rather than the content, of the tattooing may facilitate.

That’s because tattoos are, for those who were sober and otherwise not high when they got theirs, colorful and variously-sized windows into their psyches. The bigger the tattoo, the bigger the window. Of course, the (initial) motivations for and the extent of the habit of getting tattooed vary. They can variously function as every complex language and uniform itself does—as a barrier to in-group penetration by outsiders and a sign and catalyst of in-group membership and solidarity, a ritual or rite of passage into adulthood, proof of devotion, a sign of atonement, an act of defiance, a badge of honor or rank, a deliberately created optical illusion to distract/attract/deceive attention, warning coloration and other forms of intimidation, dominance mimics (e.g., a fake Foreign Legionnaire tattoo), an aphrodisiac, inflicted marks of shame or subservience—such as tattooing or branding of slaves, and even over-compensation for bad skin, much as beards are not infrequently grown to conceal weak jaws or sagging necks.

Given this galaxy of possibilities, the way to use the tattooing as a tool is to figure out which of these are motivating the applicant—the chances being that, like almost all decisions, the decision to get a tattoo is over-determined by several factors and considerations. If you, as the recruiter, guess it right, you will be able to more accurately assess the candidate, and, even more importantly, gauge whether the tattoos are an asset, or a liability, for the position you are trying to fill.

For example, one applicant may, like a dear friend of mine who, inspired by Maoris and some Polynesian ancestry in her own makeup, get tattooed as a result of and for the purpose of a perceived connection and sense of belonging. The astute recruiter will then be able to extrapolate and explore the very real possibility that, despite the “outsider” vibe given off by tattoos to those who have none, being an outsider is the last thing the applicant may want. Instead, the tattoo may be a symbol and sign of the desire to be “a part”, not “apart”. The irony may be that the more tattoos, the greater the “outsider” impression conveyed, yet the greater the desire to belong. On the other hand, if the tattoo really represents a James Dean bad-boy defiance, the odds that this is a potential team-player dwindle to nearly zero.

Alternatively, if the tattoo serves a proof of toughness—physical and/or emotional—in being able to take the pain of electric and social needling, then the applicant may, in fact, have a valuable capacity for stoicism, courage and/or independence of judgment—qualities of which the applicant is likely to be proud and ready to demonstrate. But, if the tattoos are a dominance mimic, a badge of “wannabe” status, like the derigeur mud-flap sideburns of Elvis impersonators, as a recruiter, you may be dealing with a conformist, weak sheep, rather than a spirited, strong-willed bull—which is great, if the job requires a sheep.

Finally, if only one of you has a visible tattoo, both of you can use the same tattool strategy to create a bond with the other…..

…. Show the interview crib notes you inked on your palm.

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