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Tactful tattoos

Blanca Torres Baltimore Sun

Seth Ciferri has counseled many zealous teenagers against permanently marking their bodies with tattoos. “How will it affect your career?” asks the Baltimore tattoo parlor owner.

Ciferri is especially cautious when fielding requests for large or highly visible pieces such as a dragon on the back of a hand or a boyfriend’s name on a neck.

“I try to reserve that kind of work for people who are in the tattoo business, are already covered or are independently wealthy and don’t need a job,” Ciferri said. “I hope my kid never gets his neck tattooed.”

Body art — from tattoos to lip and chin rings — has long been seen as unacceptable in the workplace because of the image it conveys and because it can distract customers.

Many companies and workplace experts warn against it, but body art is starting to make more frequent appearances among workers as the practice has become more popular and corporate policies have become more relaxed.

One workplace expert said that because body art is becoming more mainstream, employers will have to learn to drop misconceptions and learn to be more accepting.

With unemployment remaining low, employers have to be less selective about “surface” qualities if they want to hire the right people, said John A. Challenger, chief executive of the outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. of Chicago.

“Older managers need to stop and open up their eyes,” Challenger said. “This is not just a once in a while kind of thing.”

A study by the Mayo Clinic found that 23 percent of college students had one to three tattoos and 51 percent had one or more piercings other than women’s ear piercings.

Other experts said that although tattoos and other body art are not as taboo as in years past, workers should keep them covered or out of sight.

“People need to be able to express who they are, but they need to understand it might impact getting hired or moving up,” said Marjorie Brody, founder and chief executive of Brody Communications, a workplace consulting firm in Philadelphia.

“What is the message you’re sending when you’re flaunting the big tattoo or piercing? … Is it saying I was 17 and drunk and went out with my friends and got a tattoo, or I think it’s a beautiful piece of art or all my friends are doing it?”

At Hire Sales Pros Inc., a sales staffing firm in White Marsh, Md., employees are asked to use “common sense,” when it comes to body art, said president and owner Michael Tich. His rule of thumb is that when workers are not meeting face-to-face with clients, a nose ring and flip-flops are fine. But when they’re seeing customers, neither is acceptable.

“We tend to talk to our candidates about not going overboard,” Tich said. “We want to be professional when we meet clients. Body art would be crossing the line of being professional.”

Tattooing is used in many cultures for rituals or to mark significant occasions such as coming of age, said Sharlene Hesse-Biber, a sociology professor at Boston College and an expert on body art. And for many people, a tattoo marks a transition or achievement in life.

“A tattoo is an extraordinary means of self-expression, and that means more to me than where I work,” said Carolyn Crabtree, a psychiatric nurse who lives in Baltimore. “I would cover them if asked, but no one has.”

Crabtree, 32, has five tattoos and expects to get at least two more. “You’re always planning your next tattoo,” she said.

Crabtree’s left arm features a red cross as a symbol for giving blood. The date of her grandfather’s death is written in Russian on the right side of her ribs. The phrase “will you cry for me” — a lyric from a song by the band A Fire Inside — is inked along the left side of her body, starting below her arm.

When she sees other people with tattoos, Crabtree said, she thinks they are probably less rigid, more open-minded and creative.

“I’m not discounting that I’m a professional, but my tattoos are truly a part of me,” Crabtree said. “If my financial planner had a tattoo, I’d love it.”

What look is appropriate for work depends on the job and the employer, Brody said. More conservative workplaces such as banks and law firms might frown on pierced eyebrows or a display of flames tattooed on a forearm.

Other workplaces, such as behind-the-scenes departments, start-up companies or restaurants might have more casual or relaxed policies, she said.

Body art is a personal choice, Brody said, but workers need to think about how much risk they’re willing to take to show off their individuality.

“You don’t want to be too outrageous as opposed to too different,” she said.

Companies with employees who deal with the public often have strict dress codes, but there must be a business rationale behind any guideline, said Jen Jorgensen, spokeswoman for the Society of Human Resource Managers. She advises bosses to evaluate their workers case by case.

“Companies have to decide: Is the blue hair really hampering their business?” she said. “The last thing you would want to do is discipline an exemplary employee for something that has nothing to do with their job performance.”

Even so, most experts said workers who want to advance with their company should know its culture well and be comfortable in its environment.

“If you don’t like the uniform,” Brody said, “stay off the team.”

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