Question: Over the years I've gotten a number of tattoos, and they've really become a part of my identity. Most of them are not visible when I'm in work garb, but some of them are, especially when I roll up my sleeves. My boyfriend says I should cover them up when I start job interviews next month. I say an employer shouldn't care about my body art. What do you suggest I do?
Answer: Do what your boyfriend says and cover them up. That's my short answer, but I also have a more nuanced take.
As a rule, you don't want the first impression you create to be the reason you don't advance to the next level. You want to sell yourself without distraction, and without a hiring manager making a conscious (or unconscious) judgment about your professional skill set based on some ink.
I know that you're objecting vigorously, saying that your tattoo is "part of your identity" and that there are all sorts of negative and untrue stereotypes about those who sport them. You're absolutely right, of course, but please take heed of a recent Careerbuilders study in which 42 percent of managers said their opinion of a job candidate is lowered by visible tattoos. Three-quarters said tattoos are unprofessional. Remember, you're choosing this job because you want it, right?
Having said that, though, much depends on what kind of job you're applying for: Are you an attorney seeking an executive position with Exxon-Mobil? A software developer interviewing with Google? An actor auditioning for a barista role at Starbucks? Ideally, you'd check out the company beforehand to see how folks dress in general, and for your position specifically. Look at the company's website: How are folks dressed? Do you see any visible tats (or body piercings)? Is there a posted dress code? (Yes, many companies and municipalities still have these.) For instance, the U.S. Postal Service, Starwood Hotels, Geico Insurance, and Denny's won't hire those with visible tattoos, according to their dress code policies. Knowing what kind of work environment you're interviewing in will give you a major clue about whether, and how much, to cover up.
In fact, there are times and industries where visible tats are actually a selling point, especially at companies looking for creativity or individuality, or trying to attract younger workers. A recent Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology article reported that about half of people in their 20s have either a tattoo or a body piercing (not including traditional earrings) and the percentage continues to rise. Fortunately, dress codes continue to evolve.
So have I persuaded you to cover up, at least for the first interview? And after that you can let it all hang out, right? On my Facebook page, one poster suggested that covering up "shows adaptability and maturity, but then once you've got the job go ahead and let your freak flag fly." A gay PR professional in Los Angeles agreed, adding, "I always cover my ink for new business meetings. Once I've had a chance to prove myself for my skills and experience, then I feel it's OK to discuss the [art] work, or have my sleeves rolled up for a meeting."
Alas, not so fast. I wish I could tell you that, once hired, you'd be judged for the work you do, the attitude you bring with you, even your network, and not for your appearance. If only life were like that.
Let's say you're at a company picnic in a tight-fitting T-shirt, revealing that beautiful ink work that crawls down your shoulder and forearm. What happens if your manager (or hers) is one of the Neanderthals when it comes to visible tats? Because most of us are "at-will" employees, you could be fired as a result, with no legal recourse. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allows employers to impose dress codes as long as they don't discriminate against your race, color, religion, age, national origin, or gender. Visible body art is not delineated, and you are not protected.
Sure, you say that's not likely to happen (and you're right), but it has. Or you could find yourself unexpectedly fired for another reason. Personal use of email at work is one of the most common excuses these days. Even if you don't get fired, you could find yourself slipping in your manager's estimation, which could stunt your job growth.
If it's crucial to you to show off your ink, then be prepared for any possible consequences. That may be OK with you, as this Facebook poster wrote, "I personally never want to work for a company ... that wouldn't accept me for the work I do rather than the work I've had done on my body. I know that that might be a bit idealistic, but it's just the way I think about it."
Or you could take your boyfriend's advice (and mine) and cover up until you're sure the coast is clear, if it ever is, saving the tat display for your personal time.
Got a question? Email Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Advocate.com.