Several years ago I spoke in front of a college audience and got what has since proven to be one of the most interesting questions I've had as a speaker-Tattoos. Students were wondering how employers felt about tattoos and male/female multiple piercings when conducting job interviews.
I can understand that it's difficult to figure out how to handle the situation. On one hand, you want the ability to express yourself, and you know that any physical adornments will not get in the way of your ability to do your job. On the other hand, you know that some people are offended or feel uncomfortable around them, and you don't want to turn off a prospective employer the minute you walk into their office.
The problem is not with the tattoos or piercings themselves, but with the stereotype of the person that goes along with them. They mean different things to different people, but for the sake of discussion, let's take one stereotype (often incorrect) of the tattooed and pierced person as a heavy partier. The problem with being a heavy partier is that you may not show up to work on time, or while you're partying, could say some things about the company or people that should not be said. Again, that's a stereotype-an impression-that someone could get from you before they get to know you as a responsible, mature person. So going into an interview with tattoos or multiple piercings could put you in the position of not only having to prove to an employer that you can do the job, but to combat any stereotype they could have of you because of your appearance.
Is this problem limited to tattoos and piercings-nope! Think about your everyday interactions with people. As you're standing in line at the supermarket, and you see a woman ahead of you with two kids, both of whom are wearing shirts with stains, and she's carefully watching the cost of all items as they are rung up. What guesstimate are you going to make as to her home life? Now switch it up and assume that the stains are from a juice box that exploded when they popped the straw into it, and watching the register receipt is because as she opened her purse she realized that she left her credit cards at home, and has only $20 in her wallet, but plenty of money in the bank. You made a preliminary assumption based on how she and her kids were dressed and were acting in the 2 minutes that you were watching them. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong.
Employers do the same thing. They take the information you present in terms of your dress and mannerisms and make an assumption about the type of worker you will be. Some people's stereotypes are more inbred than others, so you may have to work harder to change them. It's just a fact.
My advice? Look for positions with younger, hipper and anti-establishment companies. Advertising agencies, internet companies or in bigger cities for example, and avoid--if you can--financial services and retail (among others) that tend to be more conservative. Your other option is to go through the interview process without the piercings and putting makeup on the tattoo and receive an offer from the firm. At that point, you will have been at the company for several in-person interviews and can get a feel for the other people who work there, the dress code, etc. You want to work where you'll fit in-just like they want you to fit in where you're working. Before you accept the offer, you can say that you do have a piercing/tattoo and would it be OK if you started showing it once you started working. You can also ask this question after you accept the position if you really want the job, don't want to risk turning off the employer, and if the answer is no you can resign yourself to wearing/showing them on the weekends.
I know it stinks. I know it isn't fair. You should be judged based on your accomplishments rather than appearance. I agree wholeheartedly. However, just as in the example I noted above, we all make judgments about people-no matter how innocent they are, and until you have a solid work reputation to back you up you need to be mindful of how your appearance is coming across to others.
Melanie Szlucha has been a hiring manager for over 15 years and a career coach for over 4 through her company Red Inc. She writes resumes, coaches clients for job interviews, and works with them to strategize networking opportunities and job search tactics.