Reader: I work in a small office that's conservative but friendly. I always wear a jacket or long-sleeved shirt because I have many tattoos on my arms. I appreciate that not everyone may want to see tattoos or consider them appropriate in a professional environment. But when there is a social work outing, such as a summer barbecue at the local park for employees and families, should I continue to cover up? If the temperature is warm and it would be appropriate to wear short sleeves, should I still wear long sleeves? I think seeing my tattoos would shock my co-workers at first, and I wouldn't want my boss, who is very conservative about dress and demeanor in the office, to possibly think less of me.
Karla: For the record, “conservative” and “friendly” are not mutually exclusive. What you want to know is whether your colleagues’ conservatism ends where your epidermis begins, and whether seeing your ink will make them less friendly toward you. From your letter, I’m guessing that you aren’t quite secure enough in your position to flaunt your embellishments and let the jaws drop where they may.
Don’t be fooled by the promise of fun: Work-sponsored social events carry both rewards and risks. The reward is in getting to know your colleagues better off the clock. The risk is that your colleagues may not approve of what they see. As we learned earlier from the story of “Lydia,” the tattooed project manager at a defense contractor, that disapproval can make for an uncomfortable and unsupportive work environment. (Then again, it was Lydia’s revealing her tattoos at work that led to problems. If she had kept them under cover until the company picnic, would colleagues have been less judgmental — or more intrigued? And what if Lydia were Larry? Also, how much more mileage can I get out of that saga?)
Of course, there are times when being your authentic self outweighs the fear of judgment — especially when it involves your choice of partner, your heritage or the conventions of your faith. If you face social or professional repercussions from managers and colleagues because of those nonnegotiable parts of yourself, your paycheck may be coming at too high a cost to you.
Ultimately, I can’t make the call on whether you should assert your right to bare arms or keep this secret up your sleeve. But when you’re this deep in doubt, you’ll hardly ever regret erring on the side of discretion. Find a summery, lightweight long-sleeved top, and if anyone questions your fashion choice, simply tell them the truth: You have to be careful about exposing your skin.
Alternative response: “It’s okay, I have a concealed-carry permit for these guns.” Kissing biceps optional.
PRO TIP: There’s a line between “company picnic casual” and “county fair casual”: Save your Daisy Dukes and souvenir T-shirts with raunchy anatomical puns for the latter.