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Can a Tattoo Really Cost You a Job?

Can a Tattoo Really Cost You a Job?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bridget Miller of the East Side Laser Center in Shadyside is a patron saint of sorts to those waking up with permanent souvenirs from drunken nights or doomed love affairs. Ms. Miller removes tattoos.

“Some kids call me within an hour of getting it,” she said.

About 12 percent of her business comes from clients removing a tattoo for professional reasons — “people who can’t get jobs because they made really stupid decisions,” she said.

It’s a decision that can be all the more stupid in a tight job market like this, experts say. After dozens of Air Force cadets were turned away from boot camp until a forearm tattoo ban was lifted last week, a new light was shined on a cultural phenomenon outpacing corporate policy.

Tattoos are more popular than ever – 14 percent of Americans, or about 45 million, are inked, according to a 2008 Harris Interactive poll. The percentage rises to almost a third of 25- to 29-year-olds. But human resources experts say the decision to tattoo can have consequences come interview time – especially in a fiercely competitive job market.

Companies either allow free rein or ban tattoos and piercings altogether, said Brenda Dare, president of the human resources consulting firm Dare Enterprises Inc. on the North Side.

“There’s a lot of gray in human resources, but this issue can be pretty black and white,” she said.

Whereas terms such as “business casual” can inspire countless interpretations, company policies on body art tend to be cut-and-dried, she said. “If they allow tattoos, they’re probably not going to regulate how large they can be.”

As a human resources consultant, Ms. Dare said regulation usually rests on the company culture, and she often suggests a body art policy to surprised executives.

“Oftentimes they don’t think to create a policy until they have an issue,” she said.

Policies can be pretty sweeping, so long as they don’t violate Title VII, referring to the portion of the Civil Rights Act that bans employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Employer responses can get dicey when tattoos signify a religious belief or homeland culture, said Marisa Kakoulas, the editor of NeedlesAndSins.com who’s also an attorney and author of the forthcoming “Tattoo Law.”

“Those factors are not going to give your tattoo a pass,” she said. “The courts will look for reasonable accommodation from the employer — did they ask about it or fire you outright?”

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal, who showed off a Steelers tattoo inspired by a brief stay in the city, may be on to something: His ink is temporary.

A one-time trademark of subcultures has given way to mainstream popularity, said Nick Bubash. He owns the Route 60 Tattoo in McKees Rocks. He said his customer base included teachers and doctors. “The taboo has been lifted,” he said. “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a tattoo shop.”

The Harris poll found that while tattoos have their advantages – three in 10 say their tattoo helps them feel sexier – about 16 percent regret the choice. Of that remorseful lot, 9 percent cite professional discomfort.

And for those who want to take that tattoo off, there’s a whole cottage industry of tattoo removal standing by.

Lasers are the most popular method of tattoo removal. The lasers transmit pulses of light that break tattoo pigment into smaller particles, which are then absorbed into the body.

Of course, most of the removed tattoos are on the most visible parts of the body: hands, arms, neck and face — anyplace not covered by a typical uniform.

For a 3- by 5-inch tattoo, it can cost about $250 for each of the 10 to 15 sessions needed for removal, said Ms. Miller. A typical tattoo rarely exceeds $200.

Still, removal is an investment that can pay dividends.

The tight job market has only amplified the dos and don’ts of successful interviewing, said Karen Litzinger.

Ms. Litzinger, who owns Litzinger Career Consulting in Regent Square and hosts business etiquette workshops, said body art must be factored into an interview strategy.

“Anytime the job market is this bad, it’s just so competitive that the candidate needs to do everything possible,” she said. “You have to play the interview game and cover up.”

Then again, a customer who chooses a face tattoo probably doesn’t balk at job difficulty.

“Those guys with tattoos on their face or neck, they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, man, I’m not going to get a job,’” said Sean McCarthy, who owns three tattoo parlors in Etna, the South Side and Oakland.

Mr. McCarthy has been in the ink business since 1992, and said he has seen a noticeable change in workplace acceptance in the past 10 years. “It’s not a situation where people are trying to hide it anymore,” he said.

Shakey James runs Deluxe Tattoo in Ross. He said the steady customer base includes “grandmas to 18-year-olds who have planned their tattoo for years.”

“I did a magistrate judge not too long ago,” he said.

A robe can cover up a lot of ink.

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