Diary of a Tatted Professional

Diary of a Tatted Professional

May 4, 2022 | Simone Sawyer

Simone Sawyer in her office showing off her many tattoos.

Who decided tattoos, piercings, and colorful hair aren’t acceptable in professional spaces? Why should I cover up my tattoos, remove piercings, or tone down my hair to work with a client population that often looks just like me? Even at the executive or administrative level, why should my appearance have to be altered for me to do my job properly and be respected for it?  

These questions may sound trivial to people who don’t have tattoos or piercings, but for those of us who do, they’re legitimate. I’m glad to see people making strides to stop judging people based on their skin color and other characteristics, but there is still so much bias and unspoken judgment associated with tattoos, piercings, and hair style and color.  

For years I worked in places where I received signals and unsolicited advice to tone down my appearance to be accepted by leadership and promoted. My first job after graduation was as a juvenile supervision officer in a detention center. I didn’t have as many tattoos as I do now, but I used to hide the little ones I had. Fresh out of college, I was trying to figure myself out while simultaneously trying to position myself to eventually be promoted. This was also when I started exploring different hair colors. (Looking back at it now, I see how contradictory it was for me to hide my tattoos but show up to work with purple, blue, or red hair.) 

One time when I was meeting with the facility administrator, he asked if my hair color was in line with department policy. Mind you, my hair was not impacting my work in any way: The kids I was working with loved it, and none of my coworkers or supervisors ever complained to me either. With this in mind, and being the nonconformist that I am, I found the policy about hair and showed him that nothing was written that said certain hair colors weren’t allowed. I “won” the battle to show up as myself, but the whole situation left an impression on me. If people in leadership question me for my appearance, will they also deny me promotions because I refuse to fit the mold they have created?   

People are quick to share a company’s “no discrimination” policy, but they still make decisions and create policies based on their own personal biases and stereotypes. They want everyone to know that race, gender identity, age, and other identifying qualities will not impact their chances for success in the company, but underneath the surface they still do. Someone who is qualified—even overqualified—may not get the job because they don’t fit the established, yet unspoken, image desired by leadership and our society’s underlying white supremacist culture. 

When companies avoid hiring people with diverse appearances and experiences in favor of those who will maintain the status quo, they perpetuate a glass ceiling for people who could potentially take the company to the next level. Creative solutions to age-old problems remain unspoken, left in the minds of those who aren’t seated at the table. This also affects new workforce members; if they don’t see people who resemble them in positions of leadership, they will assume that advancement only comes from conformity or that it just isn’t possible for them.  

Thankfully, everyone at Evident Change has accepted me as I am: tattoos, crazy hair colors, and all. Evident Change is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The organization’s expected “professionalism” has to do with job performance and commitment to our mission, rather than being code for looking or presenting yourself a particular way.  

Sadly, not every workplace offers that experience. But if you feel discriminated against for any reason, there’s hope! Solutions include speaking to HR, starting a conversation with leadership and being the change you wish to see in your company, or pursuing new employment opportunities. These options are easier said than done, but once you set your mind to it and put in the work, new doors will open. You will find a space or new company that celebrates and appreciates you exactly as you are. I am a living witness to this one.  

If you’re thinking of starting a conversation to shift the company culture and/or change policies, I highly suggest you do it. Make space for diversity at the leadership table: diverse appearances, experiences, and personal expressions. Not only will this improve company culture, but it could potentially help combat staffing shortages. Don’t get me wrong—increasing starting salaries and benefits are an important consideration, but company standards and culture also have a lot to do with staff retention and overall morale. There is nothing worse than needing to code switch or tone yourself down for 40-plus hours a week. When people have the space to show up authentically without fear of retribution or judgment, they can focus on what really matters: helping clients and building community.  

Simone Sawyer is a program associate at Evident Change, working with the Correctional Assessment and Intervention System™ and Juvenile Assessment and Intervention System™