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More Employers Clamping Down on Visible Tattoos, Piercings

By Winthrop Quigley
Journal Staff Writer
    Somewhere on Jeff Parker's back— he doesn't say where and certainly won't show it to you— is a 13-year-old tattoo of a dragon.
    It went on his back for a reason. "When I was 18, I already knew I was not going to mark up my body in a way that would prevent me from advancing in my professional life," said Parker, who is area manager of Manpower New Mexico.
    Parker's job is to help people get jobs, and he sees a lot of young people with body art.
    "I don't think the generation entering the work force currently is as conscious" of the ramifications of tattoos and piercings as he was when he put his tattoo out of sight, Parker said.
    That could be a problem for today's job seekers.
    Parker and other local human-resources experts say the ultra-casual look, begrudgingly accepted for the last several years in many workplaces nationwide, is losing favor.
    Even in New Mexico, more local employers are insisting on what they describe as a professional look, said Teresa Fineo, president of Symbiosis Consulting.
    "Albuquerque and the whole nation are becoming a lot more conservative" in attire, Fineo said. "Among my clients, I see a lot more formal dress than I have in the last couple of years."
    Added Parker, "I really do see the workplace changing as more medium and larger companies come to Albuquerque. I'm seeing a definite shift in expectations as to professionalism."
    It's a simple matter of supply of and demand for labor, Fineo said. Technology companies, once famous for their casual, worker-friendly environments, are still recovering from recession. Those and other companies have found good, less expensive labor outside the United States. The unemployment rate, while improved since 2003 when it reached 6 percent, is still higher than it was in the late 1990s and in 2000, when it fell to 4 percent.
    "The attitude used to be, 'If you want my skill set, you'll take my tattoos and the earring in my eyebrow,' '' Fineo said. "(Employers) were desperate and said OK. Now they say, 'I have five other people standing in line who will play by my rules.' ''
Declining interest?
    Some local data suggest the body art trend may have peaked locally. While a sampling of tattoo and piercing shops contacted by the Journal reported that business remains good, the number of licensed body art facilities declined 21 percent from 33 last year to 26 this year, according to the city Environmental Health Department, which regulates the industry.
    Meanwhile, business is brisk at Lauren Chavez's tattoo removal clinic. Chavez is the physician behind the billboards around town offering to "erase your past."
    She said she sees about 15 patients a day, about 75 percent of whom need tattoos removed for professional reasons. The rest, she said, usually just don't like the tattoo they have.
    "Most of these are people who, when they were 15 years old, thought it would be cool to have dots on their fingers or (a common two-word obscenity) on their knuckles," Chavez said. "They didn't think that when they were 25 years old they'd be wanting to get a job and couldn't cover it up."
    Chavez has a host of customer stories. A bank employee passed out drunk and woke up with a tattoo that his boss demanded he lose, or lose his job. An attorney's wife felt she couldn't accompany her husband to firm functions wearing anything but slacks because of the tattoo on her ankle.
    "But by far the most common is someone who is now a professional, either sales people, attorneys, accountants, people who got a job in the bank and worked up to management," she said.
Covering up for work
    Joe Chavez (no relation to Lauren Chavez) knows the problem firsthand. He is general manager of Sachs Body Modification, a tattoo and body-piercing shop in the Nob Hill area. He sports facial piercings and has several tattoos on his left arm and on both legs.
    While living in Sacramento, Calif., he worked for a leasing company, showing property to prospective tenants. The company's summer uniform was a short-sleeved polo shirt and shorts, for everyone except Chavez, that is.
    "I was the only one excluded from it," he said. "I was in long sleeves with a nice collar."
    Joe Chavez is also a certified nurse anesthetist and once worked in a hospital in Clovis. He removed his piercings and dressed to cover his tattoos while on the job. The patients, who tended to be older and more conservative, believed "boys don't wear earrings," Chavez said.
    One of Joe Chavez's clients at Sachs refused to be discreet. He was a conservative-looking guy who one day showed up for work at his medical supplies distribution job with a piercing in his eyebrow, Chavez said. The guy was fined a week's pay. He showed up later with a second piercing and was told to remove it. He quit instead.
    "He said it was his body, his choice and in good taste," Chavez said.
    Customer response has sometimes dictated how Jen Cunningham, a hair stylist, has chosen to display or not display the elaborate tattooing that nearly covers her right arm. Even though hair salons are often more casual, and her current employer loves her look, some have a conservative clientele, she said. Cunningham has covered her body art at some salons where the customers are more conservative.
    Even now, at Alchemy, which is a more free-spirited salon on Menaul near Pennsylvania, "I have occasional new clients. You can see the fear in their eyes" when they see her tattoos, Cunningham said. They calm down when they see her work, she said.
Expressing yourself
    In today's environment, even T-shirts and jeans "are pushing the boundaries of expression" on the job, Parker said.
    For pretty much any interview, Parker asks job-seekers to remove visible piercings and cover up tattoos. "I haven't ever had someone say no," he said. "Usually, they're extremely understanding."
    "You want to make a good impression by your performance in the interview and not leave any room for discussion among the hiring managers among themselves: 'Have you seen that tattoo?' '' said Markus H. Fraund, career development facilitator at the University of New Mexico office of career services.
    The job-seeking students who Fraund helps usually ask his advice about tattoos and piercings. He always suggests removing the metal and covering the ink.
    "They don't regret the body art," Fraund said. "They're proud of it. I can see how this is part of their self-identification. But they also know this doesn't belong in the workplace."
    "In some cases, when people choose an image to present to the world, they're choosing a way to limit their career," Parker said.
    Even the business-casual look— a casual, open-necked shirt and slacks, say— isn't as acceptable as it once was, Fineo said. The wise job applicant, she said, male or female, will wear a suit to the interview, remove the piercings and cover up the tattoos.