As body art gets popular, workplace dress codes get a second look

Colleen Harris certainly does not fit the stereotype of the buttoned-up librarian.

Her arms are covered with a pirate queen motif and black scrolling tattoos, which extend down the side of her body to her ankle. A black rose and the words "Dangerous Magic" adorn the back of her left hand, and the words "Anam Cara" (old Gaelic for "soul friend") letter her knuckles.

The 27-year-old who has multiple masters degrees and a job at the University of Kentucky's research library feels no pressure to cover up.

"It's not really possible at this point, unless I wore gloves," Harris said, adding that she thinks academia has been more accepting of her body art than the corporate world would be. "I think my qualifications should speak for themselves."

The face of the young American worker is changing, and it is increasingly decorated with ink and metal. About half of people in their 20s have either a tattoo or a body piercing other than traditional earrings, according to a study published in June in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. That figure, which is higher than the national average, is growing, said Anne Laumann, the study's co-author and a dermatologist at Northwestern University.

As a result, employers are finding that dress codes may need updating. In some cases, bosses are loosening up to attract young talent. In others, managers are adding new rules to keep body art covered up.

"In the past, there were very general dress codes. Now, I see dress codes that are five pages long," said David Barron, an attorney with Epstein Becker Green Wickliff & Hall PC. "Employers see a need to be very, very specific, and draw lines very clearly."

At the medication flavoring company Flavorx where the average employee is about 28 years old chief financial officer Woodie Neiss recently told human resources to add a body art section to the dress code, after an employee showed up to work with an eyebrow piercing.

A sizable portion of his 40 employees have body art, Neiss said. He knows it because he's seen them show it off to each other in the office.

"Do whatever you want to your body, but I don't want to be subjected to it in the workplace," Neiss said. He added that body art can be a distraction, and especially important to hide when investors visit the office.

Usually, it is a simple matter of discussion and compromise. Most piercings are on the face, according to the recent study, but they can be removed. Only about 15 percent of people with tattoos have them on their face, neck or hands, the study showed, so the rest can be covered by clothing.

Michael Sacks, 24, who works at the public relations firm SheaHedges Group in McLean, Virginia, has three tattoos: on his stomach, the initials of a friend who died; on his back, the word "Persistence"; and on his ankle, his fraternity letters, Phi Gamma Delta. None can be seen when he is wearing his work clothes, and he says that is intentional.

"It's a visibility issue. No one cares what you have on your body as long as you don't have to look at it," Sacks said. "I want to be perceived as a professional."

It all depends on the industry. Harris, the librarian, worked in corporate technology sales before her library science degrees and tattoos. Her only visible body art was a nose stud, but she voluntarily removed it while at work.

"It's a matter of catering to your clientele, no matter where you are," she said.

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