Tattoos, body piercings, and accounting firms

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What do tattoos, nose rings, and CPA firms have in common? More than you might think. Millennials are expected to make up more than one third of the country's workforce by 2014 and, of that segment, 12 percent have a tattoo and 25 percent have a body part pierced other than earlobes.

For Generation X (now age 30 to 45), tattoos have been the body art of choice, which, depending on location, are easy enough to cover up with clothing. For Millennials (18 to 29), piercing is the thing; and let's face it, the only way to cover up a nose ring is to remove it.

Times are changing and within a few years, the buttoned-down CPA image might have to move over. The day is coming, but that day is not today. Body art exists even in the most staid CPA firms. It lurks beneath the Brooks Brothers suits and dresses. But you aren't likely to see much of it for a while.

Psychologist Daniela Schreier, a teacher at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, said that in the minds of the general public, tattoos were once relegated to those who were up to no good, steeped in rebellion against polite society.

"Modern body art came out of the prisons and from the gang world", she told, but that is slowly changing. Now, body art is more a matter of self-expression, she said.

Once called "poor man's art", tattoos are now darned expensive. That's why tattoo artists will tell you that some of their best clients are physicians, followed closely by attorneys, because they are the ones who can afford them. However, for most people who have tattoos or piercings and work in business offices or deal directly with customers, the body art is there, but discreet.


Written policy or unofficial?

In spite of a few well-publicized court cases, most major companies do not have policies that specifically address body art, preferring instead to trust the discretion of supervisors and managers.

One notable exception is global accounting firm KPMG, which leaves very little to chance when it comes to appearance. Its dress code provides details about what is acceptable, from the style of blouse or shirt to accessories to shoes. And, the firm adds",Please leave the metal at home."

FedEx Corp. requires that "tattoos must be covered if you are in a customer-facing position, but there's no hard and fast rule", according to spokeswoman Sally Davenport.

"Visible tattoos and body piercings, except for an earring in one or both ears, are usually prohibited in customer contact positions when wearing an appropriate company-issued uniform", Davenport said. "However, management has discretion to allow visible tattoos when they're not offensive, vulgar, sexual, have gang-related content, or are disruptive, distracting, or otherwise inappropriate. Basically, we trust our managers' judgment."

FedEx's approach might become more common, even for accountants and other professionals. It's a simple matter of statistics. A 2010 Pew Research Center study revealed the following:

  • Among Baby Boomers (now age 46 to 64), 15 percent have at least one tattoo. Only 1 percent has piercings other than ear lobes.
  • For Generation X, about one in three have at least one tattoo, and 9 percent have body piercings.
  • Among Millennials, body ink is not as popular a form of body art as the generations that preceded them, yet 12 percent have one tattoo and 26 percent have more than one. Approximately one in four have piercings other than the ear lobes, and name body metal as the body art of choice.

Joe Chernov is a public relations executive whose arms are tattooed from shoulder to wrist. He keeps his body art covered because of the professional nature of his job. He told that he owns a shirt with extra long cuffs to cover the flowers and waves that circle his wrists. Chernov is not unlike a lot of professional people who love body art, but are leery of the public's perceptions.

"Has it affected my career? Maybe", he said. "I don't know if I'd be in a different position if I didn't have them."


Supply and demand

As piercings become more common, employers who frown on visible body art likely will have to rethink their position.

"It's an issue of supply and demand", said Stephen Hirschfeld, CEO of the Employment Law Alliance, a global network of employment and labor law specialists.

"As you have more people coming into the workplace with piercings and tattoos, companies will have to start making compromises", Hirschfeld said. "I honestly don't think you need to have a policy to address this. It's a balancing act that should be decided on a case-by-case basis."

But, he added, a company might be able to avoid legal hassles if it can show there is potentially damaging effect on business it tattoos and piercings are allowed in the workplace. Still, he warns companies that, to some extent, they might need to face reality. If they need employees, they might have to bend. If they choose to prohibit body art, consistency will be the key.

In general, guidance counselors are still warning students pursuing professional careers to tread carefully when it comes to perception. Chernov pointed out that perception is changing as more professional people are indulging in body art.  

Until then, he's protecting his career by keeping his body art covered up. As a promotional T-shirt for a tattoo establishment puts it – ArtFreek Tattoo: Creating Tomorrow's Unemployed Today.

And, that's a chance Chernov and many others are not willing to take.

Tell us what you think in the Comment section below:

  • Does your firm have a policy that specifically addresses body art?
  • Would you trust a tax accountant if he or she crunches your numbers with tattooed hands?
  • Would you schedule surgery with a doctor sporting a nose ring?
  • If you are an employer, would you hire an otherwise neatly dressed individual to work your reception desk if he or she had discreet but visible piercings and/or tattoos?
  • Would you hire a college graduate with a high GPA, an exceptional record, and a prominent lip ring?

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