Working with ink

Tattoos, body piercings may still raise eyebrows among some employers, survey shows

June 21, 2014
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Photos by Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter
Sierra McConnell’s current employer at Southpointe doesn’t enforce any rules about covering up tattoos. When McConnell worked as a barista, however, she had to wear a wristband that covered up her tattoo. McConnell got her “ink” in honor of a deceased friend who had the same tattoo. Order a Print
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Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter
Sierra McConnell’s current employer at Southpointe doesn’t enforce any rules about covering up tattoos. However, when McConnell worked as a barista, she had to wear a wristband that covered up her tattoo. Order a Print

Sierra McConnell sports a 2-square-inch heart tattoo on the underside of her wrist, but when it comes to describing how she feels about artwork, or “ink,” on people’s skin, she wears her heart on her sleeve.

The 28-year-old Southview resident, who works in media production for a Southpointe company, said her employer doesn’t have a problem with her tattoo, but in an earlier job as a barista, she was asked to cover it during working hours.

“As long as it’s not an offensive tattoo, I don’t think you should have to cover it up,” she said last week. Because she was once asked to conceal her decoration, McConnell said she’s now curious when she visits a restaurant and sees an employee wearing a Band-Aid.

Ditch the cover-up, she said. “I’d rather see their tattoo.”

But those with tattoos or piercings looking for work may find some employers who take a less colorful view of their personal expression.

A Robert Morris University poll released in late May on employers’ expectations for new employees noted most employers – 70 percent – indicated they seek applicants who project traits of reliability, dependability, intelligence and a willingness to learn.

But another section of the poll on an aspect of personal appearance showed a deeper divide of opinion.

While 46.9 percent of the 1,004 people sampled said they would be “very” or “somewhat willing” to hire a job candidate with a body piercing or tattoo, another 38.3 percent said they wouldn’t.

The findings, which show there remains some resistance to tattoos and piercings at work, were also interpreted by McConnell and 21-year-old Molly Diethorn of Coal Center, who also sports some visible tattoos, to mean times are changing about skin art: It’s not the shocker it may have been a decade ago, they said.

Both women, who have also had body piercings in the past, agreed the decision to wear a tattoo “is a generational thing” whose acceptance by others, including employers, has grown over the years and will continue.

“As the years go by, a lot more people will be deciding to get them and will have employers accepting them,” said Diethorn, who works part-time as a student employee in the advancement and finance office at California University of Pennsylvania.

While stating there has been no resistance in her office job, she said her other part-time job in food service for a family-owned business is somewhat more guarded about tattoos, although there is no written policy regarding it.

Interpreting image

The beauty of an employee is more than skin deep. Tattoos and piercings do not connote inefficiency or lack of production in workers, and are openly allowed in many industries – but certainly not all.

Image often is vital in many professions – particularly when employees deal directly with the public – where companies and corporations may establish on-the-job sartorial standards that include covering of tattoos and removal of piercings.

“We’re obviously trying to present a professional appearance,” said Chris Martin, southwest region president of Northwest Savings Bank, which has six branches in Washington County.

“To present that appearance,” Martin continued, “we believe tattoos must be covered and piercings removed during work hours.”

Northwest branch employees have a dress code that is updated annually. The policy on piercings and tattoos, he said, is explained to candidates during job interviews.

“Most say, ‘No, that won’t be a problem,’ but we don’t hear from some who elect not to pursue employment.”

Washington Hospital has a dress code, largely to define job functions.

“Certain positions require uniforms,” said Gary Weinstein, president and chief executive officer of Washington Health System. “We try to make it as clear as possible to patients who is coming into their rooms.”

The hospital’s policy requires everyone to cover tattoos and take out piercings – with one exception.

“An employee can have two earrings in each ear – maximum,” said Barbara McCullough, vice president of human resources. “That does not extend to lips, eyebrows, nose or tongue studs, all of which need to be removed during work time.”

McCullough likewise said the tattoo/piercing part of the cosmetic equation is outlined during interviews.

A similar facility – Southwest Regional Medical Center in Waynesburg – has a similar policy.

Senior public affairs officer Joy Eggleston said tattoos cannot be visible during the workday, and while a worker is permitted two earrings per ear, no other piercings should be seen.

Employees of Greene County have no official guidelines related to piercings and tattoos. Neither is addressed in a policy book that applies to them.

Jeff Marshall, chief clerk for the county, said, however, that employees are expected to “look appropriate” to perform their job. He said any issues related to what would be considered inappropriate body ink or piercings would be addressed administratively or by direct supervisors.

Several large employers in the area contacted for this story regarding their policies on tattoos and piercings declined to comment.

As owner of a venerable Italian restaurant, Michael Passalacqua understandably has concerns about items his employees might wear at Angelo’s.

“Excessive jewelry, anything loose, hanging or facial pins – anything that could be hazardous or a food-safety issue,” he said.

But thus far, said the North Franklin Township restaurateur, nothing has happened to validate those concerns.

“I haven’t had an issue with anyone coming to work for me with excessive piercings and I’ve not had a problem (with tattoos not being covered),” Passalacqua said. “If (a job candidate) has facial piercings, it might hamper the hiring process. Clientele coming into the restaurant may not want that.”

He added with a mild chuckle, “Everyone under 25 seems to have tattoos nowadays.”

Being upfront

Tattoos are among Izzy Martini’s areas of expertise. He owns Studio 3 Tattoo on North Main Street in Washington, and has had some interesting clients. He said they include Washington police officers and a dentist in the city.

“The tattoo industry is booming,” said Martini. “Since we started about 10 years ago, (tattoos have) become more acceptable.”

He acknowledged, though, some employers are turned off by applicants with artwork on certain regions of the body.

“Most places,” Martini said, “you can’t get a job with tattoos on your hands, face or neck.”

That restriction is one followed by the U.S. Army, which revised its policy on tattos earlier this year.

In addition to banning extremist, indecent, sexist and racist tattoos, soldiers now are prohibited from having tattoos on their head, face, neck, wrists, hands and fingers.

The new policy also limits soldiers to no more than four visible tattoos below the elbow or below the knee, and they must be smaller than the size of the wearer’s hand.

Regardless of shape, size or placement, Diethorn said job applicants should be forthcoming about their body ink.

“You should be upfront about it,” she said. “You could have a boss who’s really cool about it.”

But at least one person posting on the Observer-Reporter Facebook page seeking comments on the issue, said consideration of one’s surroundings should be key for those with piercings or tattoos.

“There is a time and place for everything and the workplace just isn’t that place,” wrote Richard Lee Ike. “I understand it’s about ‘personal expression,’ but there IS this thing called ‘Free Time’ where you can Be ‘Free to Express Yourself.’”

Michael Bradwell has been business editor for the Observer-Reporter since 1995, and was named editor of The Energy Report in 2012. He joined the newspaper in 1990 as a general assignment reporter in the Greene County bureau and has also worked as a copy editor. A 1974 graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a degree in English, he began his career at the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette. Prior to joining the O-R, he served as public relations director for Old Bedford Village, account executive at two Pittsburgh public relations agencies and copywriter for the country’s largest wholesaler of mutual funds.

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Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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