Reader: I am a woman who works for a defense contractor in a fairly conservative state. We recently interviewed many candidates for a project management position. One young lady stood out, so we offered her a job.
For her interviews, she dressed conservatively in nice pantsuits. Not long after she started working, she started to show up in skirts and tops that reveal large tattoos on the front of her feet, her arms and her chest up to her collar bones, with cursive script that runs over the top of her breasts.
She is smart and can do the job. My only issue is that she will have to meet with our clients, including generals and admirals, some much older than I am. Some of them may not take her seriously if she dresses to show off all her tats.
Also, I was meeting with some other program managers today, all men in their early 30s, and said I was going to be meeting with “Lydia.” All the guys started to chuckle. Dumbfounded, I said, “Are you laughing because she has tattoos?” and they said, “Of course we are! We have a bet who can read the whole text across her breasts.” So you can see how her peers view her.
I am not her direct supervisor. I do not know her well enough to tell her that our customers might be a bit surprised at her tattoos.
Am I making too big a deal of this?
Karla: As a 40-something suburban mom with a belly ring and a number of tattooed associates, I’m inclined to say yes. But my declaring body art “mainstream” isn’t going to win over clients with strong preconceptions about people wearing as much print as a newspaper.
I’d be surprised if your military clients haven’t seen — even received — some ink during their careers, but they may still hold civilian women to different standards. Fortunately, that’s the concern of the young woman’s supervisor. If the supervisor asked my opinion, I’d recommend circulating a reminder that dress code for client interactions is business formal.
With the time and money she has invested in her appearance, Lydia probably has an inkling of how others may react. She may be underestimating how it will affect her professionally, but she clearly knows how to dress to impress when the situation calls for it. Among her colleagues, of course, the tat’s out of the bag; unless she’s violating the company dress code, talks with her should focus on her body of work, not the work on her body.
And next time her peers are snickering like doofy preteens with a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, you can remind them where the professional boundaries lie: “Ooh, careful — she may think you’re staring at her chest for the wrong reasons.”
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