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'Body art' gains acceptance in workplace

Some managers look past tattoos and piercings – but not if they distract customers.

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Marty Kotis, president of Kotis Properties, a real estate development firm in Greensboro, N.C., does not have a strict policy against body art. For employees who do not interact with the public, where a good first impression is important, he takes a laissez-faire approach. His test is: "If it negatively impacts our business, it's not a good thing."

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He interviewed one job applicant who wore a large nose ring. "I found it kind of distracting talking to her," Mr. Kotis says. "If a prospective client is sitting there and instead of hearing the pitch about our company is thinking, 'That must have hurt,' or 'Why would she have that?', that would be a concern."

Before Kinder had her nose pierced, she checked with the human resources director, who did not object. Kinder finds that the small ring has had "no negative effect" on her work environment. But a major fitness club where she holds a second job does not allow nose rings. She covers it with a band-aid while she works there.

Michelle Clark, creative director for a public-relations firm in Atlanta, keeps her tattoos concealed at work. "In the summer, I can't go sleeveless," she says. When she attends business meetings, she hides an infinity symbol on her wrist with a big bracelet. She also wears just one pair of earrings to work, despite having seven holes in one ear and three in the other.

"I prefer people to remember me for my work and not to be distracted by my tattoos or piercings," Ms. Clark says. "A friend insists it is her right to show off everything under the sun. She has a lot less respect in our business."

Even so, attitudes are changing, says John Putzier, author of "Weirdos in the Workplace: The New Normal." He describes the process as "more of an evolution than a revolution," adding, "Eventually, what's avant-garde today is more common tomorrow." He defends the right of managers "to regulate, dictate, and prohibit."

Mr. Putzier expects managers to evolve. "As baby boomers retire, Gen X and Gen Y will be doing the hiring," he says. "The standard of decorum for appearance will change and is changing." A shortage of skilled workers will also encourage companies to look beyond externals.

One heavily tattooed professional, Todd Dewett, is an associate professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Although the stigma is softening, he says, most people still "stereotype anyone with a lot of ink." He adds, "The belief that tattoos will slow you down professionally in some fashion is not irrational." Mr. Dewett is the author of a forthcoming book, "Leadership Redefined."

Yasko-Magnum, the corporate-training consultant, advises those considering a tattoo to reflect on whether their profession will accept it. "When you are in an office, do not expose your tattoos, because you can lose your credibility. I hear people say, 'That's my personal expression.' But when you're working for a company, you have to conform."

She adds that she has seen clients, now in their 30s and 40s, who wish they had never gotten tattoos. That regret sends some professionals to dermatologists for laser tattoo removal.

In the long run, greater workplace acceptance will depend on whether tattooing is simply a trend or a lasting part of American culture, says Bob Kustka, a human resources consultant in Norwell, Mass.

For now, Clark takes a sanguine approach. "You have to take into consideration that not everybody likes what you like," she says. "You have to have some respect for what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable if you expect them to work with you."