Life at Work

Fashion Leads by a Nose

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

Like many readers in Washington's federal sector, one woman who wrote to me recently said she dresses to fit the part. "Nothing but Ann Taylor suits and sweater sets for me," she wrote in an online discussion. She's a budget analyst, so that wasn't much of a surprise.

But this woman has a burning desire to get her nose pierced. "Nothing obnoxious, just a teeny, tiny diamond stud," she said. Her worry was that this might have an adverse impact on her marketability. "I'm not sure if people would take one look at me and say, 'Not a chance.' "

My take? Work can't dictate all, so go for it. If she is nervous what people will think when she shows up for interviews, she can take the stud out. Not only are nose studs becoming more common, but they are the norm for some cultures. I wrote that if you want to get something done to your own body and it doesn't interfere with work, what's the problem? There is no way that smart employers think brains leak out when a nose stud enters.

Naturally, the hounds (my chat hounds, that is), had different opinions.

"Unless the piercing is cultural, I'd say no. I'm pretty conservative but I'm guessing the people doing the hiring in the chatter's field are too. You don't want to give them anything that would raise questions or distract them from your stellar résumé, good work history, etc.," wrote one.

"Sorry, Amy -- I must disagree with you," wrote another reader, who asserts that no matter what people might think, piercings and tattoos are just not the norm. "If you want to stand out in your office and be perceived as someone who is totally unprofessional, go ahead and get the nose ring. However, be prepared to be passed over for the interview and for the promotion. It is the unspoken law of the workplace -- look, act and be professional and conservative or you will not be welcomed."

Sure, in some workplaces, a nose stud, tattoo or other body art is part of the norm. (Check out any graphic design shop/architecture firm/ad agency.) But is this reader right? Will a nose stud really keep one from being promoted? What if that man brings in more revenue than anyone else on his sales team? What if that woman brings clients back time and again? What if that person is an invaluable employee in procurement for the government?

Yes, even a conservative government job.

Check out the December 2006 issue of Government Executive magazine. On the cover is a young female civil servant, conservatively dressed, with nose and ear piercings. The title of the article? "Generation Passion."

The story is about young government employees who have a passion for their work as the government is desperate to attract and retain younger workers. After all, it -- like many companies -- is facing the prospect of thousands of baby boomers retiring.

The magazine's executive editor planned to run a cover illustration that month about big technology deals -- until she saw the photo that became the cover. "She looks like a young woman on a mission. She looks professional, dedicated. It was a great portrait shot," said 51-year-old Anne Laurent. She said she didn't even notice the nose piercing until she was looking at the page on an art director's computer screen. And then? "I said, 'Oh man, we're really going to get some mail on this one.' "

Laurent was right. That teeny, tiny nose stud caused a maelstrom that went on for two issues, starting with a retiree who wrote in to complain that the photo was offensive and embarrassing to civil servants.

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