Dress Codes, Tattoos and Body Mods

TechRepublic, an online resource for tech workers, has an interesting conversation going, about the legality of discriminating against a worker at Costco who had a nose ring and sued when she was fired, saying it was a religious issue, as she was part of a Church of Body Modifications of some sort. Here’s the gist of what I added to that conversation, which wasn’t well received by some of the people, but really says how I see it.

I am an executive recruiter with many years of experience, as well as a career and job-search coach. I have worked very successfully in the corporate world much of my life, and I have tattoos and piercings, and dreadlocks to boot, so this is a conversation I’ve been interested in for years.

The range of people contributing to this thread is obviously very wide, from all over the place, with different levels of experience and sophistication, from people who think that someone having a facial piercing is too dirty to bag their groceries (and here I thought that people get dirty because they don’t bathe ;^) to people who think that having a tattoo is the realm of rebels (the truth is that tattooing has been done for thousands of years, and for a great variety of reasons, very few of which have anything to do with trying to upset someone else), as well as people who wisely seem to understand that there is a difference between being professional and being traditional.

I am a professional — intelligent, articulate, educated, knowledgeable, honest, with a valuable expertise in the corporate world. I am also non-traditional in many ways. These things are in no way mutually exclusive to me.

I sometimes call people like me — those who have one foot in a nontraditional aesthetic, and who also have a solid professional career — pioneers of individuality. We are the girls who pushed to be able to wear pants in high school in the late 60s, the ones who wore the first high ear piercing 20 years ago, the ones who wore pantsuits when women in offices were supposed to wear skirts. We are the ones who, like me since 1971, have a visible tattoo, and still do a kick-ass job and produce quality work… so that now, half the people you see on the street have a tattoo somewhere, even that grandmother over there, and it really doesn’t even raise eyebrows any more.

The world is changing, as it always does. My father used to wear a hat and tie when he went to work, my grandmother wore gloves and a hat when she went to town, and when I was young and working in offices, women were required to wear stockings. Dress codes relaxed a lot in the 90s, casual Fridays got popular, workplaces became more diverse, and during the dot com boom, many of the rules were set aside entirely. As times change, styles change.

The reason some people prefer not to work for companies who want to control how they look is because it may be an indicator that they want to control how you think or what you believe. Sometimes the concern about appearance is about customer service, and that’s why dress codes are legal in most instances… because a company indeed has a vested interest in presenting a certain appearance to its customers. Disney is an example of that, with very strict requirements for their workers, because they are creating an illusion in their environment, and they want nothing to distract from that illusion.

And certainly, some employees can be astoundingly clueless about what is appropriate clothing for work, and what is not, something I learned at an early age when a secretary in my office came to work in a backless evening gown, having not made it home the night before. Her credibility in that office never recovered. And during the dotcom boom, there were times I had to explain to a young career-climber that they really did need to wear something other than a t-shirt with a funny saying on it and a pair of old jeans to an interview, even one with a casual company, and times when I told someone that their blue hair was going to keep them from being hired on the job they wanted, so they should choose whether the job or the hair was more important to them.

Usually, though, when someone asks me for guidance on how to dress for an interview, I tell them to present their very best self. Because if your best self isn’t good enough, or is the wrong style, then so be it, then that means that isn’t the best place for them to work. We all want to work somewhere we can fit in.

There is no right and wrong about it, really. To each his own, and everyone should seek out their people. If you are a conservative traditional person, then you are going to be happier working in a company that shares your values, whether it’s about how you look or how you think. And if you are less traditional, more creative or experimental, then you are going to be happy in a company that shares those values. That’s a basic for choosing the right place to work.

Fortunately, there are all kinds of companies out there. I have client companies where the CEO is pierced and tattooed, and it’s no big deal. Many tech companies have nontraditional people in powerful roles. It’s the 21st century, you know. Being able to be an individual is the future of our workforce, and while it might take a while for the old-fashioned companies to catch up, they will, just like they caught up when the discrimination was about race or gender.

And in the meantime, we get to choose whether to pretend to be something we’re not in order to have a job, or to find a place to work where we get to be ourselves. The former might gain you a job, and in some situations, it’s the only way to get the experience that you want to get. As a calculated strategy in a career step, it might be the right choice for you. But in the long run, being able to be yourself without hiding will give you a much happier life, and that’s really the grand prize.

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