Can visible tattoos overshadow your skills and experience?

As more and more ink finds its way onto the hands, necks, and ankles of professionals, many have become inured to its presence in the workplace. But what about clients and potential employers?

I’ve noticed several articles recently about how employers shouldn’t discriminate against job seekers with visible tattoos when it comes to hiring.

One article said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be expanded so that inked individuals are protected from workplace discrimination.

Huh? We inherit our race, gender and national origin at birth. The last time I checked, getting a tattoo is a choice.

Now before you go berserk and jump to the comments to rant about how you should be judged by your talent and skills, not your appearance, please let me explain.

Perceptions and first impressions

For the sake of clarity, visible tattoos are ones that you can’t hide—the ones climbing up your neck and chest or on your face and hands. I’m not referring to the ink that’s easily hidden by clothing or by rolling down your sleeves.

When it comes to first impressions, do you know how much your skills matter if you have visible ink?

I don’t. I do know that you can’t assume the tattoos won’t be distracting. More important, you can’t predict or control the biases and judgments that others may make about you.

I wanted to write this for the same reason I wrote this article telling women not to wear giant bling to a job interview. When you put yourself in a position to be judged by others, you give away your power to be noticed only for your skills and expertise. Instead, you risk harsh scrutiny from someone who doesn’t share your aesthetics.

There are jobs outside the corporate America office where it’s perfectly fine for workers to have visible tattoos—a physical labor job, work at home, or bouncer/security guard, just to name a few. I’m sure the music and art industry are fine with visible ink as well.

Body art and success

People get tattoos for various reasons. Whether it’s honoring a loved one or simply self-expression, it’s a personal decision—I get that. Though I believe we’ll see a shift at work toward tattoo acceptance, it’ll come slowly.

Even if the company you work for is cool with your ink, customers might not be OK with it—which adds another challenging layer to the issue.

One article I read was from a medical website, and a doctor said he believed that if he had tattoos and piercings that his patients wouldn’t take him seriously. Patients, he felt, are more apt to comply with the instructions of physicians who look professional, which leads to better health outcomes. He also said that your label—your brand—can affect your ability to get referrals for new patients.

In a perfect world, we’d all work in an environment where people don’t judge each other based on appearance and enjoy a culture that embraces diversity. But as long as we have humans at work, we can scrap the idea of ever having a non-judgmental workplace.

Kimberly Patterson is the founder of Unconventional HR, where a version of this article originally appeared. An HR pro turned consultant, she has 25 years of experience as a strategic HR and business leader in a variety of industries. Her hands-on and innovative approach allows her to create and deliver HR solutions to meet business challenges and needs by managing human capital, talent acquisition and technology. Connect with her on Twitter.

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