STYLE

As more workers get inked, some companies are easing rules around visible tattoos

10/07/2014 08:00 EDT | Updated 12/07/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - When Rob Dale decided to wear a short-sleeved dress shirt on a warm fall day, his choice of clothing didn't cross his mind until he arrived at a business breakfast event — and then he suddenly felt uncomfortable.

"I was conscious of the fact that my arms were covered in tattoos," recalled the Ottawa-based Dale. "You didn't see any other tattoos. Most people were in some form of semi-casual business attire.

Dale had recently finished training to become a business coach and was attending a monthly breakfast hosted by the Orleans Chamber of Commerce.

"I was a new face in a room of about 80 owners. ... With all of these tattoos, (I) felt quite like I was standing out."

As it turns out, Dale's inked arms were a point of interest for a tattooed gym owner attending the event, with whom he booked a meeting.

"He said: 'Well, actually, to be honest with you, the reason I decided to sit down with you is because I saw the tattoos and I knew you wouldn't be the normal, kind of cliched business coach. I knew that there would be something unique about you.' And so in his case, it opened that door to having that conversation about coaching and all of that."

Dale, 47, said he has never had anyone tell him that they have an issue with or are uncomfortable with his tattoos.

"When I'm coaching a client and I'm meeting with them regularly ... they see such value in the coaching, the personality is what has connected us in that environment," he said. "When I go in a short-sleeved shirt ... it's not even brought up. Or somebody will say: 'I didn't know you have tattoos — don't they ever look great' and ask me about them."

Still, Dale has made a conscious choice when meeting a prospect for the first time to wear a dress shirt and jacket — thus keeping them covered.

"I typically will do that with people, not because I think they'll have an issue with it, because 99 per cent of the time my experience has been that people don't really care," Dale said. "But often times, first impressions go a long way, and I'm trying to establish trust. I just don't want it to be a hindrance."

As individuals from all walks of life get inked on conspicuous parts of their bodies, some companies are loosening the reins when it comes to workers keeping tattoos under wraps.

Tim Hortons recently announced a revision to its dress code policy to allow employees to have "visible, non-offensive tattoos" at the discretion of management. The move came after research started in the spring of 2013 to get a sense of workers' values and thoughts about the company. Focus groups were conducted with employees in Canada and the U.S., in addition to interviews with restaurant managers and owners, said Stephanie Hardman, vice-president of organizational development and Team Tim Hortons.

"We got a lot of messaging about upping our cool factor. We got things that said: 'Let's allow for some self-expression.' Our owners said: 'We want to be sure we're attracting from the greatest pool of applicants that we can so that we can, in fact, attract the best to serve our guests that we possibly can. And one of those constraints we felt was our policy on tattoos," Hardman said.

The previous policy regarding keeping tattoos covered is a "fairly standard practice" in the industry, she noted.

"I think it was seen as something that could potentially offend ... the guests. But what we're seeing is it's much more mainstream now, especially with youth, and that's certainly a huge demographic for us," said Hardman, adding that 45 per cent of their current workforce is under 24.

Hilary Predy, an associate vice-president with recruitment agency Adecco, said some organizations are being a "little more liberal " about accepting minor facial piercings, but many companies still have policies surrounding visible tattoos.

"We suggest that until you know what the acceptable standard is within that company, particularly for your interview, go with them covered. When you can see what's acceptable with other employees, you'll be able to judge what you'll be able to reveal. But for your first impression, you may want to be neutral," Predy said from Edmonton.

Ultimately, Predy said people should be hired based on what they can bring to the company based on their skills and experience. "It is a partnership between the employee and the employer to find a median ground that is acceptable for both."

Danny Kastner, a lawyer who specializes in employment, labour and human rights law at Toronto firm Turnpenny Milne, said he'd advise companies against creating policies surrounding visible tattoos for a few reasons — the first being the potential screening out of "a whole host" of qualified candidates.

"Visible tattoos are ubiquitous these days, and there's an enormous part of the population — especially the younger population — who you are arbitrarily deciding you can't hire. And that's a great way to miss out on potential talent," he said.

"It may well have been the case... that 25 years ago, having someone with a visible and unusual piercing would scare off potential customers in a retail business, for example. That's simply not the case anymore. And therefore, what the company would be doing is unnecessarily limiting its talent pool, unnecessarily causing potential conflict with current employees all in pursuit of a policy that is extremely unlikely to actually advance its own business interests."

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