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Fashion Leads by a Nose
Piercings Are Pushing the Limits of Office Dress

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.

"It was a great thing to put on the cover of the magazine to say, these are the new federal workers. These are the people who are going to be managing the government in the future," Laurent said. "She personifies the new generation. To us, it was very uplifting."

As the younger generation trudges into the workforce with the boomers, of course there will be some battles over piercings. But for most 20-somethings, tattoos and piercings are as common as brown socks.

Veronica Hinton, 33, who works in human resources for the government, was thrilled by the magazine cover. Could her traditional workforce really be ready for something so progressive? "I was just curious that as more people enter the federal workforce, not only would it become more accepted, but would it change the culture so it's not even an issue?"

The issue isn't just a fiery one in the government realm. Scott A. Fisher, with the law firm Fowler White Boggs Banker, has recently counseled corporate clients about creating policies that outline appropriate dress at work, including piercings, tattoos and other body art. Many of these conservative clients, such as banks, say they want to "portray a professional image" to clients, and that can't happen if someone has a diamond stud in his or her nose.

"The general belief is these new type of piercings may offend or make people feel uncomfortable. The biggest point is from customer service and public image," Fisher said. "It goes back to the traditional coat-and-tie attitude."

Asked what it is about the nose ring that is so offensive, Fisher paused. And chuckled. There just isn't a great answer.

This is different than the issue of clothing. First, inappropriate dress can create an almost hostile environment, where indecency and sexual innuendo enter the workplace. The nose stud? It's a simple question of preference.

However, the nose stud decision is something to be wrestled with.

Nick Macri, a recruiter with Strategic Analysis, a defense and national security placement firm, said he was recently taken aback when a woman showed up for an interview with a small nose stud. "It didn't seem like it would be appropriate to wear for a conservative, government client," he said. She ended up getting the job.

"A nose ring doesn't mean you're not going to be put together, but it just doesn't seem appropriate, especially for a conservative client," said Macri, 36. And, he added, as far as styles go, the government "is among the last" to adopt any new trends.

But is that the way it should be? Shouldn't the government -- and other employers -- be willing (or downright smart) to welcome young, creative types?

"At the end of day, I hire these people myself and I think they're fabulous," Laurent said, of nose-bejeweled workers. "They challenge things in different ways than my generation challenged them. And they're just a fabulous, new, innovative, interesting, intriguing energy. Take them for what they bring."

Even if their appearance raises a few pierce-free eyebrows.

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