I have tattoos scrawled across my entire body, stretching from my fingers to my toes. My hair is long enough to touch my shoulders, where it commonly shrouds my pierced ears, except for on the days when I decide to wear it up in a bun. I frequently wear a mustache, too. I say all of this because, from past experience, I know that “professional” is one of the absolute last ways in which someone would be inclined to describe my appearance. Still, I have a job (at a grooming company, no less!) and am, by definition, a professional.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones, though. While anecdotal evidence and a couple of changes to certain company policies certainly suggest that workplaces are becoming more tolerant of tattoos, piercings and anything else that might be considered an alternative to suits and clipper cuts, technically speaking, you can still be fired or denied a job for the ways in which you modify your appearance, if your employer or potential employer chooses to be a total jerk.
To some degree, though, how much an employer may care about the way you look varies from company to company. “It largely depends on your industry, and it also depends on your seniority,” confirms Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and founder of Behind the Buckle, a company that aims to cash in on the widespread increase in dress codes that allow for jeans in the workplace. More creative businesses, for example, might be more accepting of alternative styles, whereas financial agencies might be more inclined to keep their workers looking buttoned-up. Lynn also mentions that workplaces toward the American coasts tend to be more tolerant of alternative styles than those in Middle America. All of which is worth keeping in mind if you look a certain way and want a certain job.
Now, while I loathe the idea of essentially toning down the way you look to appease some rich dude who underpays you anyway, because that is the world that we live in, I asked Taylor, as well as Sean Ryan, Hound & Hammer boots founder and Rag & Bone sales associate, for some tips on looking as professional as possible when you look, well, like me.
If you have a job interview coming up, keeping in mind that companies are very different in their policies and culture, Taylor recommends hopping on Glassdoor and social media before doing anything else to sneak a peek inside of the company doors and figure out how to dress appropriately. Ryan has the same suggestion, saying, “Try to look your best — that is, throw on your better clothes, avoiding anything that you might wear on a lazy Sunday. But avoid wearing a suit to a workplace that sports T-shirts and jeans. That would be a little much. Keep it clean and fresh without sacrificing your authentic style.”
If your tattoos and piercings are a concern, the extremely obvious solution is to cover them up and take them out before the interview — you can always have a piercer swap out your current, flashy jewelry for a clear piercing retainer, which will keep the piercing intact in a discreet way. If you end up getting the job (congrats!), consider doing the same for the first few months. “Wait until you get into the groove of the job before you push the envelope,” Taylor says — and by pushing the envelope, she means displaying your artwork and accessories. Obviously, for someone like me, who has hand tattoos, you just have to do the best with what you have (and no, I don’t wear gloves, since this would almost certainly look more disconcerting than my hand tattoos).
To that end, though, Ryan emphasizes the importance of being clean and well-groomed if you’re a person who has modifications that may lead your employer or potential employer to (obviously unfairly) stereotype you as dirty or incompetent. “Often, people already may have some preconceptions about you because of your appearance, so keeping tidy and smelling good can have a positive effect,” he says. “Hygiene is one of the most important aspects of professionalism in the workplace.” You can still keep your beard and long hair, but you have to take care of them, which means cleaning up your whiskers, getting a trim when necessary and possibly using styling products to keep your locks under control. Also, use deodorant, please.
As far as staying true to the way you want to look while also trying to blend into a professional atmosphere, maybe covering up a little, going hard on hygiene and showing the people paying you that your looks have nothing to do with how well you do your job are the best you can do. And if your employer or potential employer still refuses to accept you, do you really want to work there, anyway?