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Professional Ink: Employers, job-seekers talk tats

By Lauren Wilson / Staff Writer

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Decorations of love might be sweet, but affection etched into your skin could turn employers sour. 

While tattoos are commonplace in American culture, spirits toward skin modification in the workplace aren’t as bright as the hues embellishing inked-up arms. About 76 percent of participants in a 2014 Salary.com survey felt bearing a tattoo during a job interview was a deterrent to getting hired, and 42 percent aren’t in favor of visible tats at work. 

Companies can impose dress codes, according to the federal law, but they can’t violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits less-favorable treatment based on national origin or religious practices. Employers also must make exceptions or amend the dress code for employees with disabilities upon request. 

Some Pittsburgh locals, many of them with tattoos  and others who oppose ink in the workplace, weighed in on whether or not they think employers should allow tattoos beyond the borders of work uniforms.  

James Fabrizio, a career consultant at Pitt’s office of Career Development and Placement Assistance, said he expected unfriendly tattoo policies when he decided to get multiple tattoos. 

“While my tattoos are occasionally visible while in my office, I have made a point in my career to keep them covered in professional or public settings,” Fabrizio said in an email.

True to his expectations, some of his previous employers have required him to cover tattoos.

“I don’t believe it is discriminatory any more than telling someone to wear a tie is discriminatory; it is a rule that applies to everyone,” Fabrizio said. 

An advocacy group in Pittsburgh has made it its mission to end restrictions against people with tattoos and piercings in the workplace, which they, unlike Fabrizio, view as a form of discrimination.

Support Tattoos and Piercings at Work advocates for reform in hiring and dress code policies through petitions and awareness events. Nathan Madden, STAPAW’s communications director, said professionalism is about attitude, not appearance. 

“I’d much rather have an employee that treats people with respect and honesty. I think that speaks more to professionalism than someone who just looks the part,” Madden said. 

At Pitt, there is no tattoo policy for employees, though they must dress in a professional and appropriate manner to perform their job, according to spokesman John Fedele. 

“The University of Pittsburgh believes that a person’s physical appearance is not an indicator of talent. As such, the University does not have a specific policy regarding tattoos in the workplace,” Fedele said in an email.  

A Pitt English writing professor, Peter Trachtenberg, currently has 10 tattoos and a memoir, “7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh,” documenting his body art and the images’ meanings. 

The first chapter of his book is about the tattoo on his collarbone, he said, a traditional indigenous design from Borneo. The tattoo represents a trip he took to Borneo in 1991, where he participated in a death ritual, and also commemorates the death of his father. 

“I guess in certain professions that require interacting with a larger and maybe more socially conservative public, a ban on visible tattoos may make sense,” Trachtenberg said. “On the other hand, I’m not sure what those professions would be. I’ve seen cops and E.R. nurses with full arm sleeves.”

Whether it’s a tattoo sleeve or an ink butterfly, some Pittsburgh companies, like PNC Bank, forbid all visible tattoos. 

“In our bank branches for example, visible body decorations, body piercing other than on the ear and other similar adornments are not permissible except for religious and medical purposes,” Fred Solomon, PNC’s director of external communications, said in an email. “Body tattoos should be covered whenever possible.”

Trachtenberg acknowledges that restrictions like these might be reasonable for some companies but also feels as if some may be going too far with these policies.

“My gut feeling is it’s an unnecessary intrusion,” Trachtenberg said. “And considering that, I think there’s a huge proportion of people under the age of 40 who have tattoos, so why impose these exclusionary rules?”

When Trachtenberg got his first tattoos, there was only a small subculture that had them, which he says were “bikers, convicts, punks and hippies.” 

In 2012, a Harris Poll surveyed 2,016 people and found that 21 percent of American adults have tattoos.

However, some of these American adults are looking to shed their tattoos. 

Tattoo removal has become a multimillion dollar industry. MarketWatch found that, in 2014, revenue for tattoo removal has risen to an estimated $75.5 million in the past 10 years.  

Wesley South, a laser technician at Disappearing Ink in Pittsburgh, said clients, many of them government employees, come to his shop in Penn Hills to remove their tattoos that are visible in uniform. 

“A lot of what I do is for the military, and they also changed the laws on the police force. They now have to cover up below the elbow,” South said.

Sonya Toler, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Safety, confirmed that the department typically does not allow tattoos to peek out of employee uniforms. 

“For the most part, [tattoos] cannot be exposed while in uniform,” Toler said. “However, we do have undercover officers and [for them] that policy is relaxed.”

Regardless of profession, Trachtenberg said people should consider tattoos’ permanence. Although tattoos fade over time as new skin cells grow, according to mayoclinic.org, tattoos are permanent because the needle on the tattoo machine punctures the top layer of skin, so the ink lingers under the skin’s surface. 

“The thing is, it is a big deal. It is this thing you’re going to wear for the rest of your life, unless you get laser procedure, which is not necessarily reliable, and it’s expensive,” Trachtenberg said.

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Professional Ink: Employers, job-seekers talk tats