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Glance across at your neighbors next time you're in a coffee shop or on the train — how many tattoos can you spot (including, perhaps, your own)?

From Sanskrit symbols to colorful sleeves, getting inked has moved from a counterculture movement to a pop culture norm, particularly for young people. The most recent survey from Pew Research Center found that four in 10 millennials have at least one tattoo. And 12 percent of those with ink have tattoos that can be seen by managers and coworkers, according to Salary.com.

The Lasting Taboo

With increasing competition to attract and retain top talent, employers understand the need to create a corporate culture that welcomes diversity and allows for personal expression. However, the long-standing taboo against tattoos in the workplace is proving hard to shake. The majority of HR and hiring managers still feel tattoos and piercings destroy career opportunities and advise interviewees to hide any body art. 

According to a recent survey from Salary.com, 76 percent of Americans feel tattoos and piercings hurt an applicant’s chances of being hired during an interview. The same survey found 39 percent believe employees with tattoos and piercings reflect poorly on their employers. In fact, 42 percent feel visible tattoos are always inappropriate at work, with 55 percent reporting the same thing about body piercings. 

"Public relations agencies tend to mirror the dress of our clients," says Stacey Bender, CEO of the Bender Group. "Regarding my staff, which is a mix of slightly older and younger [employees], most dress professionally and have no visible tattoos or piercings other than earrings. When I have had staff with more visible tattoos and piercings, I generally ask the employee to cover or tone it down for office client meetings or events."

Bender's comments reflect the consensus of many Wall Street and Fortune 500 companies. But a shift in other industries indicates that attitudes may be beginning to change.

A Generational Clash

Startups and more artistic or entrepreneurial outfits, for example, are evolving toward more liberal dress codes. Even Starbucks now lets employees openly display their tattoos at work, just as long as their tattoos are "tasteful" and are not on their face or throat. 

At Blue Ribbon Bags, a tech-savvy startup in the travel industry, executives say they don’t have any qualms about employees with tats. "If our staff has piercings or tattoos, we are completely comfortable so long as the production is strong," says President Daniel Levine. "As a young company, our staff is also under 40, so that is part of our mindset."

For companies seeking to find a middle ground, the advertising industry might be the best model. There, it's typical for younger employees – such as junior creatives – to sport tattoos, while higher-ups running large accounts or departments rarely have body art. The norm may shift as younger employees advance, but for now, the generational difference can lead to potential misjudgment of their abilities and experience. 

"We have on occasion told creatives that their clothing — jeans, t-shirts, shorts, flip flops, sneakers – could send signals in the agency and at the client that they are junior," says Sandy Greenberg, CEO of The Terri and Sandy Solution. "And [appearance] might send signals that they don't have the credentials necessary to spearhead an account." 

Photo: Shutterstock