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Tattoos and Piercings: The Pros and Cons of Personal Expression

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR  9/12/2013
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A Pew Research Center poll reveals that 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds and 40 percent of 26- to 40-year-olds have at least one tattoo; 30 percent and 22 percent, respectively, have a piercing somewhere other than their ear. Body art is becoming increasingly prevalent. It’s also increasingly problematic for both job seekers and their prospective employees.

While some organizations in sectors like the entertainment industry embrace body art, many employers still believe such expression conflicts with customer and client expectations.

Constance Hoffman is a coach, speaker and author with Social and Business Graces in Chicago. “As a general rule, in the ‘corporate’ world I suggest to my job-seeking college seniors and older to remove multiple piercings and cover tattoos when possible,” Hoffman says. “Although body art is now commonplace, we are still a very judgmental society that makes first impressions within seconds. Those seconds of a possible negative impression take many attempts to undo.” Job seekers may not be given that second chance.

Since most workplaces are multi-generational, Hoffman recommends leaning toward proper and conservative attire. Ultimately, of course, the decision is up to the job seeker and will require finding that balance between wanting to “get the job” and the desire to “be themselves.”

Ellen Gorgon Reeves is a career and workforce advisor and the author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview? (Workman Publishing Company, 2009). Her response to the question raised by her book is this: “Go ahead, wear your nose ring or reveal some body art if it’s your intent and desire to do that every day—just understand that at least 50 percent of employers won’t hire you.” It’s OK to be “true to yourself,” she says, but there are consequences.

Proper attire really depends on the environment you’re seeking employment with, she notes. “Jobs in nonprofits and the arts are more likely to be receptive to piercings and body art than certain corporate environments.

“You can’t show up at an interview for a white-shoe law firm with piercings and tattoos and expect to be taken seriously,” she says. “I have heard that some hospitals won’t hire people with obvious piercings and body art if the jobs involve patient contact.” The same is true for certain restaurants and hotels, she adds.

Ibro Palic is CEO at in the Spokane, Wash.-area. He offers a few tips on how to gain insights into prospective employers’ preferences. “Analyze the job description, looking for terms such as ‘casual work environment,’ ” he says. And “look up various employees on LinkedIn—a simple search with the company name will show numerous people who already work there.

“If everybody is wearing a suit and tie, it’s probably a very formal work setting that most likely won’t be a good fit.” Or, he says, if you notice people who have piercings or tattoos, that “may be a great indicator that personality and expression are valued at that company.”

Importantly, Reeves notes, don’t attempt to bait and switch the employer. She tells of a friend who hired a “clean-cut” and “nice-looking” man for a position in an office that handled visiting dignitaries. After he was hired, “he showed up sporting a nose ring.” She approached the situation head-on, asking him “how, exactly, he thought the nose ring would help advance his career in that environment.” He got the point and took it out.

Ultimately, though, it’s up to each job seeker to make the determination, Reeves says. “What’s more important? Wearing and sporting your piercings and tattoos or getting a certain kind of job?”

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