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Tattoos in the workplace

Some employers might frown over what Rob Morris wears to work. Like the tribute to his late mother on Morris' left forearm, the Chinese characters on his neck and various other tattoos adorning his chest and upper body.

"I like the artwork," the employee of the 12th Street Diner in downtown St. Louis explained this week.

His employer is not quite as enthusiastic about the manner Morris has chosen to express himself artistically.

"I'd prefer that they were covered up, but I wouldn't discriminate against someone for having (a tattoo)," said Kathy Garger.

But she agrees with a leading management firm that the popularity of tattoos has led to greater acceptance of body art in the workplace.

"Even in this tight job market, most companies are not going to view tattoos too harshly," John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in a release addressing the issue.

"One reason is that with everyone from soccer moms to MIT computer science graduates sporting tattoos, preconceptions about tattooed individuals are no longer valid. Secondly, and more importantly, companies have a vested interest in hiring the most qualified candidate."

Challenger is correct.

The body art today is a far cry from our (sailor) father's tattoos.

And there's no denying — as anyone who has been to a public swimming pool or beach recently can attest — that millions of people have one. Or two. Or, in Rob Moore's case, 17.

According to a Pew Research study, 36 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 sport body art, a percentage that jumps to 40 percent among 26-40-year-olds and drops to 10 percent in the 41-64 age group.

Overall, the Food and Drug Administration estimates 45 million Americans have taken the plunge and visited a tattoo parlor.

Not that you would ever notice.

Pew, in its study, determined that 72 percent of tattooed Americans chose to be needled in an area of the body mainly visible to loved ones.

In other words, unless you work side-by-side with Angelina Jolie, you're probably unaware of what body art lurks beneath the clothing of your co-workers.

Employers say that's a good thing. The folks signing the paychecks, in fact, clearly prefer employees tattooed in places where the sun don't shine (pools, beaches and French Riviera vacations excepted).

Schnucks is typical.

The supermarket chain is not averse to hiring applicants with exposed tattoos.

Still, company policy has been "very consistent over the years," said spokeswoman Lori Willis: Schnucks employees need to cover 'em up when they're on the job.

"The idea is that when you are in (a Schnucks) uniform you are conveying a message that is very hard to craft," Willis explained. "A tattoo can distract from that."

The human resources director at another St. Louis firm says her company, too, has a fairly liberal policy about extensive body art.

But it comes with the tacit understanding that long-sleeves are to be worn when a customer or distinguished guest visits the building — no matter the outside temperature.

Challenger points out that some professions are far more likely to tolerate exposed tattoos than others.

Advertising, marketing, sales and technology fall into the former category, he said. Bankers, lawyers, accountants and clergy the latter.

'Old school' BiAS

Woe the tattooed job candidate, however, that runs across St. Louis management consultant Russ Gall.

"Maybe I'm old school, but I have a certain bias against tattoos," said Gall, who figured prominently in hiring decisions during his days as a pharmaceutical executive.

"I believe in a professional environment, especially if you're dealing with customers. And if you're going to do something to draw attention to yourself then I think it goes directly to the question of competence. It reflects on personality and judgment."

A small and unscientific survey indicates that the area's school districts hue closer to Challenger's contention that "times have changed."

Not to worry: It isn't likely your kindergartner's first lessons will be delivered from a teacher with a tattoo on the right biceps proclaiming she was BORN TO RAISE HELL.

Teachers are contractually obligated to project a "professional image" in the classroom.

The policies, at least in the schools contacted for this column, don't specifically mention body art.

"But an inappropriate tattoo would probably be addressed and (an employee) would be asked to cover it up while on duty," said Paul Tandy, a spokesman for Parkway School District.

In the eight years he has been employed at dining establishments throughout downtown, Rob Moore cannot recall one instance in which his tattoos have been an issue for employers or customers.

"Nobody ever said anything, because I'm a good worker," he said.

And the fact that body art is only skin deep, say Challenger and Moore's boss, is what really counts.

"Everybody on the job seems to have one now," said Kathy Garger.

"I don't care, as long as they work well."

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