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No body art allowed?

By Terry Nisbett

The police department of Trinidad and Tobago held a recruitment drive and one thing stood out. All applicants with tattoos were turned away, even when the tattoo could be covered by clothing. According to the Trinidad Express, Michael Seales, secretary of the Police Service Social and Welfare Division, said that the police have always had a policy of "no tattoos, no insignias." Meanwhile, the coffee shop chain Starbucks is considering changing its policy which required its coffee makers called baristas to wear clothes that would cover their tattoos. An applicant for a position in a graphics design firm used her tattoos as part of her design portfolio. These are three different attitudes to tattoos but all show that tattoos have an impact in the job market.

Many employers include their rules on tattoos in their dress code policy. But as the experience of the Trinidad Police Division applicants indicates, the tattoos can prevent one from even getting a foot in the door. In their case, it did not matter whether or not their tattoos were covered or could be covered by clothing. The truth is that, in some occupations and industries, having a tattoo can adversely affect your chance of being hired. As a result, jobseekers often scan the websites of their target employers or try to get the dress code manual to discover the company policy on tattoos. This gives them an idea of how best to dress at an interview if they have tattoos.

Trinidad's police department is not the only employer who wants employees without body art. Those who do not hire an applicant with a visible tattoo are often concerned about the image of their company and the reaction of their clients to tattooed employees. Commercial banks and investment banks want to portray a professional atmosphere and would have stricter dress codes than say a website design firm. Customers want their bankers to look polished and trustworthy. Unfortunately, some customers do not associate tattoos with trustworthiness and professionalism. For these reasons, strict guidelines on tattoos are included in the dress codes of most banks. The clear message is to hide them if you have them. Regions Bank in the United States instructs workers that whether or not they meet the public, "visible personal decorations such as tattoos or body piercings (except for non-distracting earrings) should be covered or removed." Wells Fargo brokerage dealers are advised that tattoos should be appropriately covered and UBS prohibits tattoos.

On the other hand, there are other occupations and industries which have a more tolerant attitude to "personal decorations." In occupations where there is little personal contact with a customer, such as remote technical support, they are more acceptable. Usually, workers in the creative industries such as entertainment and graphic and other designers are able to show their tattoos. In those cases, their clients and customers probably consider the body art an expression of the workers' creativity; and while customers may not prefer a banker with a dragon swirling up his neck, they may feel reassured by the scrolling artwork on the biceps of their website designer. Tattoos certainly enhance the appearance of professional wrestlers and lend something to their charisma. But not all creative occupations accept tattoos easily. Dancers, especially ballet dancers, often have to cover up their tattoos so as not to provide a distraction from their costumes and performance. Whether or not tattoos have become more common and less associated with rebellion perceptions have not completely changed and even in the expression of creativity, they may be out of place on occasions.

But where does Starbucks fit in the continuum? It is neither a conservative banking firm nor a design firm. But they serve a beverage and they are a recognisable brand. In asking workers to cover visible tattoos, are they looking for a uniform, professional image, perhaps? Actually, giving the title of barista to employees who prepare the coffee meant that Starbucks was imbuing the position with a level of professionalism. Clearly, they preferred to be cautious than offend the customer. So how do we interpret the consideration of a change in policy? Perhaps the demographic of their customers fits right into the segment of those who have a different attitude to tattoos – the younger crowd. Maybe, after all, their major customer base would not mind having their coffees made by tattooed baristas. It may even add some glamour to the Starbucks experience. The change, if it comes, was prodded by a petition from workers. But petition or not, the change would only be considered if it suits the brand image of the company.

One cannot escape the consequences of having a tattoo in the workplace. No arguments about self-expression and your right to do what you wish with your body will change an employer's dress codes. In the world of work, the employee fits in if he or she wants the position. Actually, even self-employed persons have to be careful about when to display their body art. It depends on the line of work and the particular client at the time. Basically, a tattoo will not pay the rent or buy food, so a common-sense decision is best. Some discretion is advised regarding the size and placement of tattoos, bearing in mind that usually a person wants to choose a job he'd like rather than be satisfied with the job that tolerates the tattoo. Sometimes that could mean having no tattoo at all.

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