Tattoos are peeking out in (some) workplaces

New York Times News ServiceApril 18, 2013 

TATTOOS WORKPLACE 5

Iman Thomas keeps her arms covered when she's working at an insurance brokerage in Florham Park, N.J.

CHAD BATKA — New York Times News Service

Iman Thomas would be the first to say that she is just not a cardigan kind of person.

Nonetheless, her dresser drawers bulge with those demure long-sleeved sweaters, in colors ranging from rainbow to black.

Even in the most torrid weather they're part of her workday wardrobe in the employee benefits office at a Florham Park, N.J., insurance brokerage. This is how Thomas hides her tattoos: the inked images of the Virgin Mary and a dead girl crying bloody tears that fight for space on her right arm; the spider web that encircles her right elbow; the butterfly at rest on the inside of her right wrist; the rose in bloom on the inside of her left wrist.

"There are parts of my body I wish I could get tattooed, but because I work in a corporate setting I have to keep them on a wish list," she said. "This is a pretty buttoned-up company."

Thomas, 30, wore a cardigan to her job interview - pre-emptively and perhaps prudently - seven years ago, and remains grateful that the human resources manager never panned down to her right ankle, which bears a tattooed sword with a banner reading "Daddy" (when she meets with clients, on go Thomas' black tights). "Nothing has ever been said, but you just kind of know what would be tolerated," she said.

Merely by glancing around, it's clear that tattoos are no longer the sole province of gang members, garage mechanics, guys who are admirably confident that they will have the same girlfriend forever and Hollywood outliers like Angelina Jolie and Lena Dunham. Twenty-three percent of Americans have a tattoo, according to a Pew Research poll from 2010; 32 percent of those are aged 30 to 45.

But, like Thomas, a certain number of the tattooed work in sectors where it is considered undesirable, if not downright inappropriate, to wear your art on your sleeve.

The warmth of the welcome depends on the nature of the job in question and the company ethos. When Jakob Hunt worked in human resources at the clothing company H&M, "they cared about people being stylish," he said. "They saw my tattoos as a plus."

Elana Goldberg, 22, a human-resources manager for Quantum Networks, an e-commerce firm, said she personally found tattoos objectionable. "But my company has a very open culture," she said, and as a consequence, she recently hired a graphic designer with several tattoos. "When you're introducing an employee to a client and you say 'This is our designer,' it's assumed that that person may be a bit more artsy or free-spirited."

"My boss is very interested in a hipster environment," she added. "He would never turn someone away because of that physical mark. If anything, it would make him even more attracted to the person."

Sixty-one percent of human-resource managers asked last year in an annual survey by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania said a tattoo would hurt a job applicant's chances, up from 57 percent in 2011.

Suing over such a rejection is a dubious option. "No federal law prohibits employers from making a hiring decision because of a tattoo," said Marc J. Scheiner, a senior associate specializing in employment law at Duane Morris, a law firm in Philadelphia. "But clearly you can't discriminate on the basis of religion, so if someone has a religion-based tattoo, that may call for different analysis."

"When people ask, I say there's a mix of legal and business considerations," Scheiner said. "Sure, companies can have a dress-code policy of no tattoos. But I tell them to consider recruitment and retention issues."

Amy L. Hayden says that no one in a human-resources department has ever said anything to her about the elaborate floral design that starts at her collarbone and goes from shoulder to shoulder, the bird tattoo on her left wrist, the names of her two children inked on her inner left arm just below the initials of her late fiance, and the Mayan-like etching that covers her right arm from shoulder to elbow a bit above a rendering of the flag of Chicago.

"But I'm concerned and wonder if they play a role in my not getting hired," said Hayden, 39, a writer and editor who moved to New York from Chicago last June. She said she had networked vigorously, applied for two to five jobs a day, and has had "a lot of first and second and third interviews - sometimes, it was down to me and another person, but I never got it."

Just before Thanksgiving, Hayden applied for a job as an editor at MarloThomas.com, a site on The Huffington Post. "I went through a phone and in-person interview with the staff, and then I had a meeting with Marlo," she said. "I did cover up most of my tattoos but a few were visible. She didn't say anything or give me funny looks, but I have a feeling that her seeing my tattoos had an impact, though it could just be that she clicked with someone more." (Emails to The Huffington Post about hiring and tattoos were not answered.)

Hayden now has an unpaid internship at a small book publisher. She said that during her interview she was advised that her tattoos might be an obstacle when she started looking for a full-time position.

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