Ink @ Inc? How Your Appearance Affects Your Career

I just want to be me. But, I also want to eat. Let me clarify that: I want to eat food from a refrigerator plugged into one of four adjoining walls that are capped by a roof. On one of these walls I want the 1970’s poster of the kitten clinging to a tree branch, encouraging me to “hang in there!”

Wanting this makes me human; having it makes me luckier than most on the Big Blue Marble. Unfortunately, the packet of money tree seeds I sent away for never arrived (although the Sea Monkeys did). As you can see from the pictured advertisement, I added water and now I have a tiny plastic castle mortgage and a family of four sea monkeys to support. This means I work for a living; sometimes at places completely the opposite of my personality and political leanings.

In these instances, how much self-expression should I suppress for job security and professional acceptance? Could Kat Von D climb a conventional corporate ladder? Am I board room material with a ring in my nose?

My tattoo runs the full length of my forearm and 98% of my clients don’t know it exists. I wear long sleeves to onsite gigs year-round. The only clients who know about my tattoo are the ones that pay for happy hour—they’re also the clients who know my work produces positive results and trust my professionalism. But what would my bank account look like if I didn’t keep it covered? Finance, healthcare and government are the majority of industries I create content for. Anything outside of Ann Taylor’s closet is considered subversive. I wonder how many of my colleagues in these industries suppress parts of their personalities for a paycheck?

Nicki M. worked for the Bush Administration in the Department of Homeland Security. She says, “I got my belly button pierced because I was a boring auditor and wanted to spice things up.” It’s like a tiny act of rebellion beneath our Brooks Brothers blazers. We keep the permanently placed dolphins, butterflies and names of exes safe beneath our Victoria’s Secrets.

I talked to Craig Cohen, Co-Founder, President and CEO of, about body art and other ‘alternative’ forms of self-expression within his company. is unique: a classic Silicon Valley-based start-up going strong since 1995. West Coast open-mindedness goes a long way when it comes to tattoos and piercings. However, is an online food ordering and delivery service from hundreds of restaurants to mostly companies and professional organizations with large group food ordering needs in six metro areas across the United States. Would you want your delivery drivers walking into Apple, a huge law firm or any other multinational corporation looking like they got off the Lollapalooza tour?

Craig says,

“As far as tattoos, our overall policy is nothing visible. Since we have long sleeve uniforms, this is typically not a problem (though we have turned away candidates with neck tattoos, that could not be easily covered).

Our sanity check with the driver employees is really this: Would my Mom be comfortable receiving a delivery from this driver? Would she think highly of our company? While our focus is primarily corporate delivery, we also do some home delivery, so it’s imperative that our customers are comfortable with our drivers entering their homes.

As far as piercings on drivers – similar to restaurants – we ask for anything very flashy (eyebrow, nose piercings) to be removed during work hours. Earrings can be worn by men or women if they appear reasonable.”

I asked Craig if his appearance policy differs from his in-house employees to his drivers. He elaborated,

“Our standards are a bit higher for our customer facing employees. For our in-office staff, we’re looking for generally acceptable casual office dress and have rarely had an issue in this area. I do recall a temp employee we had – who interviewed clean cut – but subsequently showed up to work with bright, dyed-carrot-orange spiky hair and a fresh chin piercing. Of course that was the day one of our investors chose to visit.”

When asked if, on some level, is less likely to bring someone on board with visible tattoos or piercings, Craig stated,

“We look at the whole package of a person. Does the candidate show up to the interview on time? Do they reek of smoke or too much perfume? Are they dressed inappropriately? Do they leave their blue tooth headset in the ear during the entire interview? I think smart candidates would tone down any piercings and cover most tattoos. If we can see them, that potentially means poor judgment, which is a critical skill. I’m always surprised at company parties (where the dress code is more relaxed) to find out which employees actually have tattoos and I never knew it.

I do think your appearance matters for growth. It is one way to show you take your work seriously. A visible piercing or a tattoo may be a distraction for your boss or co-workers – so an employee should weigh the relative importance of whether they really want to show off their “flare” at the office – or whether to save it for their personal life.”

I asked another friend, Kim Kenny, about her take on the subject. We’re a lot alike in some ways: by day we’re mild-mannered professionals; by dusk we’re inked up musicians and surfers with the potential to bring down your property value and make your mother consider your future in a convent. Kim is a human resources executive at a Bay Area pharmaceutical company and has a full leg sleeve.

Me: Has anyone senior to you at work seen your ink?

Kim: I kept it covered at first. Religiously. Then my Vice President walked in while I was meeting with an outside vendor who has an enormous and beautiful back piece. She had her shirt up and I had my skirt up and we both got caught. The only thing my very conservative VP said was, “I don’t have any tattoos to share.”

Me: I feel like we’re talking less about tattoos and more about the plot to a Cinemax movie after 11 p.m. For the sake of my straight male readers, my non-straight female readers and those in between, can you give me more specifics about your skirt being up and the other woman getting shirtless in your office? Was there guitar music incorporating a lot of wah pedal in the background?

Kim: I’m going to hang up now.

Me: I’m lonely and don’t have cable.


Me: So, uh, ok. Were there any ramifications to your Vice President “discovering” your full leg tattoo?

Kim: At that point I said, “F*ck it.” I don’t broadcast it now – have never worn a skirt without boots or some kind of hose. But even in boots, you can see it clearly – it goes up to my knee and is about to start climbing up my thigh. My view of professionalism has never altered. My work speaks for itself. I’ve made tremendous gains in my job here and have a lot of feathers in my cap. Anyone who wants to knock me down based on my body art rather than my body of work can kiss my a**.

Me: You make me want to tryout for roller derby and rent Thelma & Louise on Netflix.

Kim: I’d rather not work at a place that would judge me like that anyway. I am charming, talented and very, very resourceful. I will find a way to make a living. That is what accepting my tattoo and requiring others to do the same has brought me. No one defines my success but me. Get on board or get the f*ck out of the way.

Me: If we were in prison I’d totally want to be in your gang and give you my cigarettes. I’d also get another tattoo.

Here’s what I’ve decided: until the Sea Monkeys move out and get jobs, or Oprah decides that my manuscript must be made into a movie, I’ll keep my ink discreet when it comes to life down on the cube farm.

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 Post Tags It ain't pretty, but they are! *** I shot out of my mother's womb ready to write The Great American novel and then its screenplay adaptation. Beyond that, I'm all about seeing the world from the saltwater, one session at a time. I also like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens... and not because they taste like chicken.


  1. Rondal on the 25th November

    An excellent article, Michelle, but I’d have to disagree with you on some levels. Although I can understand the concept that employess or even business professionals convey an important aspect of brand awareness, people shouldn’t necessarily be ashamed of their tattoos. Why else would they get them done at all?

    I currently have two tats, but on the most visible parts of my body (face and neck). They are both expressions of particular events in my life and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. I will admit that first impressions are a little intimidating (especially because I work in the South), but for those who are willing to look past my appearance and into my work ethic and portfolio are always pleasantly surprised. These are not subversive clients, either, they run laundry mats, trendy clothing boutiques, advertising companies, etc.

    I think it boils down to being able to craft your own subculture around your actions, ideas, and ethics. Would Kat Von D ever be a Vice President at Ann Taylor? Maybe not, but you’d be surprised to see some of the names on her client list.

  2. dava on the 25th November

    I can appreciate the tatoo question, but am also intrigued by what happens when you spend hours surrounded by people who are totally different than you politically, socially, economically? How many people can suppress their natural personalities day in and day out for months or even years?

    I’m not in exactly that situation, but it’s close! In some ways, it would be easy to hide a tatoo if there were other common factors…

  3. Michelle Burleson on the 25th November

    Hi Rondal- Thanks for reading the article and taking the time to comment! I appreciate your point of view and agree. I definitely don’t have shame when it comes to my tattoo (especially since it takes up most of the real estate on my left arm) but for most of the industries I serve (government, finance, healthcare) it’s not an embraced part of dress code and appearance– although I do think it’s changing. The minute I’m outside their building, with or without the client and their clients, I have no problem reverting back to my rules. It’s a fine line and I think it’s different for different industries and career paths. I work on the East and West Coasts and things in the Bay Area are definitely more relaxed.

    • Rondal on the 25th November

      That’s why I’m so glad you wrote this article. Its always surprising to me just how strong the social stigmas that surround subversive culture (piercings, long hair, tattoos) are inside the work enviroment and out. I hope that many of the other “awesome workers” and their employers can take something away from this article as well.

      Oh, and Bob… awesome quotation!

  4. Srinivas Rao on the 25th November

    Interesting article. I don’t have any tattoos but have contemplated getting one. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have to hold off on it.

  5. Bob Bessette on the 25th November

    Hi Michelle,

    This is an interesting take on tattoos, piercings, etc. I am wondering what a Human Resources manager would say about the visible existence of a tattoo on an applicant for a job. Would it make any difference to them? I think that maybe it would be a positive for some jobs and a negative for others. Going in, I would assume that the applicant would evaluate that and dress accordingly.

    I have no tattoos and the interview process is daunting enough without having to worry about that issue at the same time I’m trying to say the right thing.

    This post reminds me of a song called “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band when I was growing up and here are the pertinent lyrics:

    “And the sign said long haired freaky people need not apply
    So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why
    He said you look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do
    So I took off my hat I said imagine that, huh, me working for you ”

    So you can certainly see how the times have changed. Those days it was long hair. These days it’s tattoos and body piercings.. 🙂


  6. Erica McGillivray on the 25th November

    While I don’t have any ink myself, I do think things are changing. I have a friend who’s a kindergarten teacher in public schools and she’s pierced (nose) and has several tattoos. She does not take out her piercings for her job, and while all her tattoos can be covered with clothing, she does wear short-sleeves and skirts to her job. When asked about how her ink and piercings affect her job, she says that she looks like the parents of the kids, that most of them have have ink/piercings and wouldn’t think twice about her having them.

  7. on the 25th November

    I always tell people that they should perform their job as if it was a performance. Act like you should act.

    This also applies to how you dress. Dress in character. If your role requires a suit and tie, where a suit and tie. If it is more dress casual, where dress casual clothes.

    I think the best way to determine what to where is looking at what your boss wears. Make sure that you look at least as good as him. But, if you think that your boss doesn’t do a very good job in dressing the part, step up your game.

  8. Wordsmith on the 25th November

    Since it’s an article about the workplace, I’d draw the attention more on the correct use of terms. I think the title should be “How Your Appearance Affects Your Career”. Effects: belongings; Affects: have an effect upon; “Will the new rules affect me?”, or affected – influenced or changed by something; simulated in order to impress.

    I do think your appearance affects your career, and communication is one of the elements of appearance, and as such it dictates and is attached to your appearance, and it very likely has at least some impact on the authority of the person presenting an argument.

    • Joel Falconer on the 25th November

      I published this post with the word “Affects” in the title and upon arriving at the office and looking again it seems some “helpful” but a-little-less-than dim-witted soul has changed the title. Have reverted it back.

  9. Juliet | Careers Made Easy on the 25th November


    It is a great pity how one is judged by one’s appearance.

    I once saw a documentary where they sent actors into job interviews. They took really good-looking actors and those not so great in appearance; prepped them for the same job interview where they had the same backgrounds and would give the same responses to typical questions. Guess what? The good-looking actors always got positive responses and possibly through to the next stage while the others were immediately shown the door.

    If you think about, it even starts at the resume stage. You haven’t even set foot in the door! Why is including one’s interests in a resume so often discouraged? Because it influences the way you come across, the way you “look” to the company.


  10. Steve Boese on the 25th November

    I enjoyed the post and ensuing discussion. To me, it is all about fit and compromise. Are the positives that any job may contribute to your life (money, challenge, prestige) so strong that you are willing to cover tattoos, remove piercings, and tone down your personality to fit in. Sometimes, especially early in your career, that is the right choice. But eventually, one of two things happens. You either start to ‘rebel’ and your true self starts showing, and that either flies with your company or it doesn’t. Or you cover up for so long and so fully, that that part of your personality takes a permanent back seat. Good article!

  11. Kelly on the 26th November

    Tattoos and piercings aren’t the only things to consider while working in the office. How you dress can have an affect as well. I’ve always heard the phrase “dress for the position you want.” For me, that means dressing like a successful person in nice clothing instead of going casual. This even holds true in a business that allows for a daily casual wardrobe. If everyone else is wearing jeans and you’re coming in in slacks, that says something about how you prefer to be perceived and treated.

    I could gripe about how people should just “get over it” and not judge others by their appearances, but that’s the reality of the world we live in. People ARE judged by their appearance whether people like it or not. So I take that into account with how I present myself on a daily basis.

    I personally love dressing professionally. I like the clothing and I like how I feel in it. Jeans, t-shirts and sweatpants are reserved for my weekends and weeknights.

  12. nyxmoxie on the 26th November

    This article just makes me thankful that i never got a tattoo…I’m not against them but they’re not for me. Even in creative industries where things are more open, it seems that appearance still counts for a lot.

  13. Chloe Walker on the 2nd December

    Wouldn’t a ‘full leg sleeve’ more accurately be described as a ‘full leg pant’?

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