Branded in the workplace

Shoulder tattoos and pierced tongues may have gained acceptance - but not in the office, where firms say, 'Tone it down!'

Kristen Smith sells designer clothes at a Nordstrom store in Indianapolis. But you won't see her wearing a skirt straight off the Milan runway or a fashionable short-sleeve blouse. Ms. Smith is hiding something. Several somethings, in fact - colorful tattoos on her foot, arm, and back.

"They make me look a little harder around the edges than I am," says Smith, who's thinking of getting her tattoos removed. "When you're in the workplace, you're pretty conservative."

In the 1960s and '70s, men stopped wearing hats and women started wearing pantsuits. In the 1990s, "casual Fridays" allowed workers to show up at the office in khakis and sneakers. But the liberalization of workplace fashion hasn't quite extended to such body decorations as tattoos and piercings.

Some workers like Smith voluntarily cover up their tattoos and take out their tongue studs or nose rings. In many cases, however, they don't have a choice.

In July, the San Diego Police Department announced that its officers must cover "excessive" tattoos with their uniforms. Body piercings - except one earring in each ear for women - are banned, too. Many other workplaces have similar policies.

The rules remain in place even though tattoos have become more popular. "For a long time, tattoos were the province of sailors and 'ruffians,' kind of undesirables," says Joanne Eicher, professor of design, housing, and apparel at the University of Minnesota. "That's changed a lot."

Tattoos themselves have changed, too. Gone, for the most part, are the stereotypical hearts with the word "Mom" inside and the naughty depictions of scantily clad women. Now, tattoos run the gamut from Chinese characters to religious symbols.

Even older people are getting into the act. Ms. Eicher says she has an elderly friend who is proud of a flower recently tattooed on her instep. "There's not much distinction in terms of a lot of everyday clothes," Eicher says. "You get tattooed or pierced, and it gives you what you want to at least think of as individuality."

Body decorations certainly helped Rebecca Gamsby stand out in a crowd. Ms. Gamsby, a junior account executive at a public-relations firm in Upper Montclair, N.J., has seven tattoos, rings in her navel and eyebrow, and a metal bar in her tongue. They help identify her as quirky and don't bother her current employer, although she'd expected they might be a problem.

"It made me really sad to think that to get into corporate America I'd have to conform," she says. "I was surprised and happy when I got this job and was accepted for who I am."

But others like Smith, the Indianapolis saleswoman, come to regret their tattoos, often because of their impact in the workplace. Unlike body piercings, which can be removed easily, tattoos are hard to erase, and hiding them isn't always feasible.

Smith, for one, worries about someday attending an outdoor work retreat where everyone wears shorts and short sleeves.

"I don't want my co-workers looking at me like, 'She's wild,' " she says. "I honestly regret 90 percent of my tattoos. I was young and stupid and having fun, and now I'm in a different place. That part of my life is over. It wasn't a bad place, it just doesn't reflect who I am or who I want to be."

Advice from an artist

Dennis Dwyer, a tattoo artist in Tucson, Ariz., warns his customers about the effects that tattoos may have on their careers.

"Most of the people getting tattoos are in an age group from 18 to 25, and they're not looking at all the complications that go along with it," he says. "They don't care. They flip from one job to another. But the consequences are there. Not everyone is going to approve of tattooing, nor will it ever get to that status."

Workplace experts agree. Most workplace dress codes have become stricter in recent years, says Diana Saiki, professor of fashion merchandising at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Businesses - from retail to healthcare and manufacturing - now ban tattoos.

"Since the whole dress-down concept has come in the last 10 to 15 years, people are confused by what they should wear to work," she says. The result has been a backlash against loose dress codes.

No I in workplace?

Clothing conformity, she says, brings workplaces together. "When you look similar to people around you, that helps to create empathy with them," she says. "In essence you're relating to them in a sense other than verbal."

Workers who want to stand out should do it on their own time, professor Saiki says. "If you're smart about it, you'll put your tattoos in areas where people don't see them, or make sure you're able to take the nose ring out," she says. "If you're going to do it, you have to figure out how to cover it up."

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