Even on the warmest summer days, Cheryl Koss wears slacks and long sleeves in the office to cover the fairies dancing around her ankles and the flowers etched on her left arm.
But to anyone who is curious, the clerk in the Manitoba Department of Justice in Winnipeg proudly bares her tattoos -- and makes no attempt to hide the sheaves of wheat that twine around the back of her neck.
"I say this is what I am. Accept it. It doesn't affect my effectiveness at work," the 33-year-old says.
Nor is she alone. Since she got her job in 2000, she says two other tattooed employees have been hired into her department. "By now, people can see it's not just a passing phase," Ms. Koss says.
Career advisers agree. So many people now have barbells sticking out of their eyebrows, labrets on their chin and tattoos exposed to public view that they aren't the interview-enders they were for recruiters just a few years ago.
In fact, recruiters say, body art is destined to become commonplace in the boardrooms of the future -- and employers had better get used to it if they don't want to lose out on talented employees.
"Most employers are saying they are more lenient about tattoos and piercings than they were a few years ago," says John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger Grey and Christmas Inc., an international career-consulting and outplacement company based in Chicago.
"Some employers are already having trouble finding skilled workers. They are not going to let some body art get in the way of hiring the best qualified candidate," he says.
"Plus, a growing number of employers recognize the benefits of diversity in all its forms, and are embracing the unique attributes that make people stand out from the crowd."
Mr. Challenger recently did an informal poll of recruiters from three dozen Fortune 500 U.S. companies and found that, invariably, they have softened their attitudes to body ink and studded skin.
"It's a case of sheer numbers," says Mr. Challenger, pointing to a poll by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota this spring that found 23 per cent of a sample of 2,000 U.S. university students reported having one or more tattoos, and 51 per cent had a piercing in some part of their body other than their ear lobe. Based on those results, the clinic estimates 20 million Americans have tattoos and twice that number have piercings.
It's not just a phenomenon of the young. In a 2004 poll, Harris Interactive found that 16 per cent of all American adults have at least one tattoo. Fully 36 per cent of Americans 25 to 29 sported them, as did 28 per cent of those 30 to 39.
And even older people are getting tattoos. Mary Hamilton Dynes, a former implementation project manager in the business travel department of American Express Canada, was 44 when she returned from a Mexican vacation in the winter of 2004 with a sunrise tattooed on her right shoulder. It "is very visible, which was the intention," when she wears summer dresses.
"Some people think I got this tattoo because of a mid-life crisis. However, I really got it because I wanted to," she says.
And a large number of people who have reached the management ranks have tattoos but aren't admitting it, says Kurt Wiscombe, a tattoo artist and owner of the Winnipeg parlour Tattoos for the Individual.
In his 16 years of tattooing, he says, "I have seen many tattoos on people you would never suspect would have them, including lawyers, doctors, teachers and CEOs of major companies."
He says business people generally put tattoos on locations that don't show in business wear.
But "tattoos become addictive," and, like his client, Ms. Koss, many people continue to add them, moving on to places that will be more visible, such as the arm, leg or neck.
Mr. Challenger says the employers he asked said they can't afford to let a nose ring put them off a talented candidate at a time when demand for college grads has been the highest it has been since 2000. "As employers make conscious decisions not to let this get in their way and as younger people get into hiring positions, any remaining bias will disappear," he says.
We're not there quite yet, however.
An on-line survey by the employment website Vault.com released in May found that 44 per cent of the 500 U.S. respondents who identified themselves as managers admitted to having either a tattoo or non-ear piercing. Yet, 42 per cent said their opinion of someone would be lowered if they showed up for a job interview with prominent body decorations, and 58 per cent said they would be less likely to offer them a job.
Attitudes remain conservative in most Canadian companies, so it's better to err on the side of caution, recommends Lynne Murchie, manager of the business careers program for the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver.
"Subtle and not totally wild is the key. An eyebrow piercing can be acceptable as long as the dress, the skills and attitudes portray what they are looking for," she says.
But for a first meeting, it's still a good idea to take out the stud and cover the tattoo, at least until you gauge the level of acceptance.
"You can't assume that, just because employers need employees to fill jobs, that they are just going to turn a blind eye to appearance.
"If you are going to work for a creative industry, like advertising, marketing, a gaming company or a software company, there may be more leeway, but not in accounting or banking," Ms. Murchie says.
"My advice is to go to an interview dressed conservatively, especially if you don't know the company's culture," she says.
Jeffrey Rosin, managing director for Canada for Korn/Ferry International, a recruiter for executive-level positions, says he has interviewed people applying for senior positions who had a telltale hole in their ear lobe that showed they once wore a ring, since discarded.
"Tattoos and earrings represent a phase in their life before they developed maturity and experience," Mr. Rosin says. "By the time they reach senior ranks, they will have covered their traces."
Even Mr. Wiscombe, who applies tattoos for a living, warns people to think twice about body adornments. "Because it is forever, it's not something anyone should rush into."
Companies tend not to have formalized policies on tattoos and piercings in their dress codes.
IBM Canada Ltd. of Markham, Ont., for instance, makes no mention of either in its code of conduct, says spokesperson Jennifer Ballantyne. It recommends only that employees "dress in a manner that is appropriate to their business area and the role that they are in."
"I know they are out there but it really is self-policing. People use common sense when they are deciding how to appear in the workplace," she says.
Even devotees of body art say they know there are limits. "I can see where it could be limiting to some careers, particularly if you had a tattoo that was so prominent it was a distraction," says Ryan Hanrahan, 23, a designated officer who works with Ms. Koss. "I wouldn't tattoo my hands for instance, but some of my friends have."
He wears long sleeves at work to cover a right arm completely encircled with tattoos, including a huge red heart inscribed "Mom" that he got when still living in his home town, New Glasgow, N.S., before moving to Winnipeg to go to the University of Manitoba five years ago.
But he can't cover his ear lobes which have been so stretched, they have holes in them the size of nickels, in which he wears plugs made of amber. The piercings have become a conversation opener when he interviews clients for his work in family law, he says.
A tattoo can break the ice with clients, but can also have a chill on co-workers, Ms. Dynes says.
"My co-workers were shocked. A lot of them couldn't understand why I got a tattoo at the age of 44."
But after the initial response, they accepted it when she wore clothes that showed it. Some of the younger employees said they "thought it was cool," she adds.
So just when will we start to see CEOs showing off their tattoos and piercings in the boardroom?
"In creative companies, I'd say about 10 years," predicts Sue Banting, a partner at Lovas Stanley/Ray & Berndtson Inc., an executive search company in Toronto.
"But will you see a bank CEO with a tongue stud? I'd say no." However, she acknowledges that anything is possible. "It's the brainpower, not the ring in the nose, that counts."
© 2005 Ray & Berndtson