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Looking for a new job — and worried about your tattoo? A UM study has a new answer

Mitchell Jarrell, right, inks a tattoo on the arm of Lissette Davila, on Saturday, June 18, 2016, in Orlando. Tattoo artists from Stigma Tattoo donated their time and skills as part of a fundraiser to benefit victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre.
Mitchell Jarrell, right, inks a tattoo on the arm of Lissette Davila, on Saturday, June 18, 2016, in Orlando. Tattoo artists from Stigma Tattoo donated their time and skills as part of a fundraiser to benefit victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Contrary to popular belief, tattoos don’t have an effect on job prospects or salary, a new study from the University of Miami finds.

The result counter earlier research indicating that tattoos make potential employees less appealing. The researchers tout the study as more accurate than those in the past. Co-author Michael French, a UM professor in health economics, chalks it up to methodology.

Past studies relied on small groups and direct interviews, where researchers would ask hiring managers or customers their attitudes toward tattoos. His research, published in the journal Human Relations, uses a fairly large sample size (2,058 people representing all 50 states) drawn from an online academic survey portal called Mechanical Turk.

The survey asked for — among other things — income range, employment status, level of education, whether or not one has a tattoo, the number of tattoos and tattoo visibility.

But online surveys aren’t bulletproof. The program used to gather responses requires respondents to sign up online, which can skew the results. For example, 64 percent of the study’s respondents were women.

The study also doesn’t take into account specific industries. It’s possible, French said, that white-collar workers are less tattoo-friendly than blue-collar counterparts. But he still has overall confidence in his findings.

French and his co-authors didn’t explore causality, why there is no effect, but a look at other research and conversations with students and academics has left French with a few ideas.

His biggest hunch? Tattoos have simply become less taboo with time. The amount of households with at least one tattooed person has grown from 21 percent in 1999 to 40 percent in 2014, according to other research. Many of the previous tattoo studies are 15 to 20 years old.

“The popularity is forcing employers to accept tattoos,” French said. “Tattoos are so common that if you disqualify candidates because of them, you’re going to be in a worse position because you’re missing out on talent.”

French also looks at the gap between perception of reality, an explanation backed up by a large body of work. He points to studies showing that college students overestimate the amount of alcohol and drugs their peers consume. He also points to research that found people overestimate the risk of crime around them relative to actual crime rates.

French, who has four tattoos, isn’t done with this line of research. He’s got some ideas already working.

One study will look at whether or not tattoos have any bearing on morality. His gut reaction says it doesn’t.

“In the past, tattoos signified rebellion or gang membership,” French said. “More and more people seem to be getting tattoos for sentimental reasons, like a parent passing.”

Another potential study will use cutting-edge technology that can track a survey respondent’s eye movements and reactions. The structure is in the preliminary stage, but French wants to use this technology to gauge inherit bias by showing pictures of people with and without tattoos and studying their reactions.

UM professor Karoline Mortensen and University of Western Australia professor Andrew R. Timming were also co-authors of this study.

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