Social Work

Can Social Workers Have Tattoos?

Can Social Workers Have Tattoos?
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) doesn't consider visible tattoos to be non-professional in appearance nor does it recommend prohibiting them. Image from Pexels
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella May 26, 2022

As in many occupations, whether social workers can have visible tattoos, facial piercings, and other body modifications depends on the dress code established by their employer.

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While visible tattoos have become more widely accepted over the past several decades—around 30 percent of the US population has tatts—they remain controversial in the workplace. A Salary.com survey revealed that 42 percent of respondents feel visible tattoos in the workplace are inappropriate, 39 percent believe that they reflect poorly on their employers, and 76 percent think that visible tattoos negatively affect one’s chance of being hired for a job. Age affects attitudes: only 22 percent of people between 18 and 25 believe visible tattoos in the workplace are inappropriate, while 63 percent of workers over 60 feel so.

Despite high-profile stories of greater corporate acceptance of tattoos in the workplace—such as Disney allowing its “cast members” at their theme parks to have visible tattoos or the employee at a private equity firm who was encouraged to show her tattoos in her company head shot—there are no federal laws prohibiting tattoo discrimination in the workplace. Accordingly, all employers are free to determine their employee workplace (and hiring) tattoo policies in any manner they like according to their image, values, company culture, clientele, and mission (though all tend to forbid offensive tattoos, including those that are racist, violent, homophobic, and misogynistic, and face tattoos are a tough sell).

Some industries do tend to be more friendly to tattooed workers; these include agriculture/ranching (22 percent of workers are tattooed, according to Salary.com’s survey); hospitality, tourism, and recreation (20 percent); and arts, media, and entertainment (16 percent). And you can find tattooed individuals in more “conservative” work environments like law enforcement and among healthcare professionals. Employers whose professional appearance policies permit visible tattoos often do so to promote employee individuality, creativity, and self-expression; foster diversity; and appeal to a wider pool of job applicants.

The social work field certainly values diversity and individuality—and needs to draw as many qualified professionals to its ranks as possible. So, can social workers have tattoos? This article explores this question from a variety of perspectives, offering examples about when they may or may not be acceptable.

Can social workers have tattoos?

The Council on Social Work Education’s first competency states that social workers must “demonstrate ethical and professional behavior regarding professional appearance.” While the Council has many guidelines regarding the values and standards of the profession, this directive regarding professional appearance is fuzzy at best and completely open to interpretation. (It then should come as no surprise to learn that the Council on Social Work Education doesn’t have an official stance regarding social workers’ professional appearance and offers no guidance regarding tattoos and body modifications, including facial piercings.)

As well, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) doesn’t consider visible tattoos to be non-professional in appearance nor does it recommend prohibiting them. However, in its “Guidelines for Social Work Safety in the Workplace,” it does advise in the “Risk Assessment for Field Visits” section that when social workers are assessing their vulnerability in the field, they should be aware that tattoos that cannot be covered “might attract/increase attention” in potentially unsafe situations.

The NASW also recognizes that the acceptance of tattoos in the workplace often is a generational trait. It has developed an “Assessing Agency Readiness to Engage a Multigenerational Social Work Workforce” toolto assist in managing workplace expectations among Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y. Since whether to permit visible tattoos rests in the discretion of each nonprofit social work organization and agency, one of the questions NASW poses is whether an organization has established a policy “to address appearance in the workplace (e.g., tattoos, dress, etc.)” to ensure that expectations are clearly defined and well-established, regardless of their disposition.

Is there a place for tattoos in social work?

Many contributors to a social work message board on this topic remarked that their tattoos helped their clients relate to them. One frontline social worker noted how their tattoos help them establish a rapport when working with people with criminal records. Another discussed how their nose piercing and tattoos helped them spark conversations with children suffering from mental health issues, though this social worker also keeps a long-sleeve sweater around in case a situation arises when it’s better to cover up their body art.

One social worker on a Quora message board did suggest the kind of tattoo may matter, especially if you’re working with children. The commenter noted, “No parent would want you to work with their child if you have ‘Satan’ tattooed across your face.”

A recent piece in Social Work News featured social workers’ thoughts on tattoos in their profession. It offered almost uniformly positive viewpoints on the subject. Tilia Lenz, a Senior Lecturer at Bournemouth University in the UK commented, “As a social worker, the ‘use of self’ is the most important tool in practice, and my appearance has opened more doors than it’s closed.” ​​Another social worker agreed with a caveat, “I never had any issues with them whilst working in social care, however, when I worked in a school there was some negative reaction from management.”

Whether visible tattoos, like hand tattoos, are accepted as part of a social worker’s professional appearance largely depends on the employer, work setting, and population served. If you have visible tattoos and are seeking MSW job opportunities, you’ll need to check to see whether your potential employers have a public-facing professional appearance policy and, if not, have direct conversations with the hiring managers about their dress code and tattoo policy during the interview process.

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