It’s Not About the Tattoos

Photo by cottonbro on

“When you dominate other people’s emotions, the time has to come when you have to pay, and heavily, for that privilege.” – Ethel Waters

“Force can overcome force, but a free society cannot long steel itself to dominate another people by sheer force.” – Dean Acheson

I got my first tattoo when I was 18. My father wasn’t too keen on the idea. I had made up my mind when I was 16 or 17, so it didn’t matter. It’s an Irish cross on my left shoulder. The ink, it has held up well over the years. I am lucky that my skin takes well to tattoos. One never knows, right?

I’ve gotten many more since. I like them all. No regrets. I have two half sleeves. They can all be covered up if I wanted to. And that was by design. I didn’t want them to interfere with my professional advancement. Tattoos were (and still are in many circles) seen as unprofessional.

Originally, this blog post was meant to discuss why tattoos shouldn’t factor in any definition of professionalism. However, a recent conversation on Twitter made me rethink the meaning and reasoning behind what I was writing, and why.

It’s not about the tattoos.

Laurie Ruettimann recently posted an unprovoked message she received from Brad, who disapproved of her tattoos. Apparently, Laurie needed to work in a gas station, and not in HR.

As an admirer of Laurie’s, and fellow tattooed professional, I jumped to her defense. “Tattoos are OK for the workplace, yada yada yada,” was essentially my response. Laurie kindly pointed out that this isn’t about tattoos. It’s about policing women’s bodies, in her words.

Wendy Daily piggybacked:

The light bulb went off.

I used to be obsessed with finding the meaning of the word “professionalism.” The more I dig, the more I’m beginning to believe it’s a made-up word used by power mongers to get people to act the way they want them to, not by any true means that deliver impact in a community or organization.

Professionalism, in these folks’ definition, is about power over others. I mean, think of these sayings:

  • Working certain hours isn’t professional.
  • Working remote or from home isn’t professional.
  • Wearing hoodies isn’t professional.
  • Tattoos aren’t professional.
  • Black hair styles are not professional.
  • Short skirts aren’t professional.
  • Colored hair isn’t professional.
  • Piercings aren’t professional.
  • African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, Ebonics, whatever) isn’t professional.
  • Men acting feminine and women acting manly isn’t professional.

None of these things has ANYTHING to do with the actual WORK that is being accomplished. The output, the results are what I thought mattered, not how it got done, much less the physical appearances of the folks DOING the work.

Shame on me.

Also, notice to whom most of these unprofessional attributes are directed towards… Women and persons of colors. Those demographics bear the brunt of these unwarranted and ruthless attacks because they had the audacity of being born different from the traditional powerholders.

It’s not about the tattoos.

Franz Oppenheimer was a German Jewish sociologist and political economist. His main works centered on the area of the fundamental sociology of “the state” – specifically, how states, or governments, are formed.

In his seminal work, The State (1908), Oppenheimer rejected the idea of the “social contract” (as put forth by John Locke) and espouses the “conquest theory of the state.”

“The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad.”

Essentially, governments come to be because on group dominates and conquers another group. One group of people dominate another and force their views, their customs, their ideas on the vanquished.

Take this idea to the microlevel, say the workplace, and one can see clear parallels. The victorious group of people, namely White males, dictate the rules of the game, most of the time at the expense of other player, which is the point of power. Power ensures a clear winner to determine what works and what doesn’t, or what is and isn’t professional, even when there is evidence to the contrary.

Flexible work arrangements? Nope. You need to be in the office.

Dress for your work “dress codes.” Nope. You need to look a certain way.

Expressing your culture and heritage. Nope. Not on my watch!

It’s not about the tattoos.

All these overused and annoying buzzwords – the Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, or whatever the next “it” thing will be – have a foundational cause. It comes from people being treated like garbage at work. People being treated like garbage in society. People are sick and tired, and they won’t want to take it anymore.

I hope the following quote from another famous Oppenheimer isn’t true, but I’m not so sure anymore. The creator of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, said:

“The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.”

So, what should be done? Well, it depends on what organizational leaders want. Do they want results, growth, innovation, respect, kindness? Then they will build an organization that lends itself to these ideals. This means using privilege to give up privilege. Put another way, those leaders will let go of power. Thy will allow others to be themselves, and they will hold those accountable who want to police other folks’ bodies, ideas, attitudes, experiences.

Easier said than done because ego is the enemy. And ego wants power.

If organizational leaders want a harder time hiring folks, a bad employment reputation, harassment and EEOC lawsuits, unhappy workers, and lower profits overall, then they will keep the historical infrastructures in place. They will enforce dress codes. They will enforce work at the office mandates. They will enforce no tattoo policies, no piercing policies, no diversity policies. They will allow Brad to call out women online for having tattoos – despite never having met the woman, knowing what she’s about, or how much good she’s done for the world.

They will give into their egos, and allow the world to be the “best of all possible worlds” despite it being able to be much better.

So, after all my years of looking for the perfect definition of professional, I believe I have found my definition.

Professionalism, to me, is about allowing other people to be themselves. It is about non-judgment. Being a professional is about treating other people the way they want to be treated, so long as they get the work assigned to them done at the appropriate and agreed upon quality. Professionalism has nothing to do with dress, or hair, or gender, or tattoos. Professionalism is about anything but superficial garbage.

It’s not about the tattoos.

Published by Paul LaLonde

Husband. Father. Passionate about HR, helping people, and doing the right thing. Also, heavy metal, craft beer, and general nerd things! #SHRM19Blogger. Find me on Twitter at @HRPaul49 and LinkedIn. Thoughts, views and opinions on this site are solely my own and do not represent those of my employer or any other entity ​with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated.

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