Tattoos: to show or not to show?

Tattoos AND a top job? The combination is relatively new - and it’s still an uneasy one. So, what’s the best way to handle the “discrepancy”? Four young executives talk about their experiences…

Common though they are today, tattoos still have a bad image  – at least, in some circles. And, in some, they remain veritably taboo, with tattooed managers going to great lengths to hide the drawings on their skin -- even if it means wearing a turtleneck and long sleeves during a heat wave! Didier*, a tax consultant and partner in a Geneva company, knows all about that. Tattooed from the top of both shoulders to the middle of his forearms, Didier never goes to work in short-sleeved shirts. The constraint may sound tedious, but Didier says it hardly bothers him. However, when he does “roll up his sleeves” to work, he takes care not to reveal the tattoos that completely cover his skin: Japanese-style drawings in shades of yellow, red, blue and black; a phoenix, waves, flowering ivy and dragons.

It was in 2004, at the age of 30, that Didier decided to get tattooed. “I'm more the finance type than the kind of guy who gets tattooed,” he says. “I have a degree from HEC**, I'm kind of right-wing. But my past has been a bit bumpy and my tattoos express that quirky side. In my profession, if I took off my shirt, everyone would be shocked,” says the tax consultant who manages a team of some 30 people.

Curiously, this shock effect also applies to the construction industry. As branch manager of a construction company, Christian*, 48, takes as many precautions as does Didier. When he was 35 and already in management, Christian chose to be tattooed with a bearded dragon - all claws and sharp teeth - from the top of his shoulder to the elbow. He says that he “would have liked it to be even bigger,” but wanted to be able to conceal the tattoo. However, Christian got tripped up by ... fashion!

“When I got the tattoo, short-sleeve shirts were fashionable, but the sleeves came down lower! Then, shirt styles came out with shorter sleeves. So, in summer, I have to pay even more attention to the way I dress. I’ve also changed the way I move, especially when I raise an arm to point out something! I have to be seen as a trustworthy person. And, for clients, that means judging my appearance...”

For Stephanie*, an asset manager in Lausanne, it is also out of the question for customers to catch a glimpse of a tattoo. Yet, two months ago, she decided to have an entire phrase tattooed across her side, from armpit to thigh. No more spaghetti strap dresses in summer!

“When I meet with clients, I am obliged anyway to wear a jacket. But in summer, I will have to be careful,” she says. “Wealth management is already a masculine world; people aren’t accustomed to seeking advice from a young woman... And I don’t want to make it worse! In this environment, if you don’t fit a certain label, you have no credibility.”


Take a walk on the “cool side”


Although she, too, works in a field that is out of step with her choice to be tattooed, Valeria*, corporate legal consultant, decided to be true first to herself. But if she was willing to “tear down the barriers”, she adds, “it was also because I have gained confidence in my field.” Victoria recently had three skulls and four roses tattooed on her back, all the way up the shoulder. “I haven’t had any negative comments, but when I have to go to court, I make sure it doesn’t show. Law remains a straight-laced environment.” And what if she got a tattooed judge? “Now, that would really surprise me! There’re not too many tattooed people in my field.”

But Didier notes an amusing fact, seconded by Valeria: in certain circumstances, the tattoo actually improves the image of the person who wears it. “If people see you as a guy who thinks about nothing but taxes, their opinion changes if they see the tattoos. Everything is then turned around; you become ‘cool’. As long as you’ve shown yourself to be capable!” The young lawyer reports having had the same experience: “When people find out about it or notice it, they are usually surprised. The image I give is so different.”

And, when it comes to hiring, are these managers less prejudiced than others towards tattooed candidates? Paradoxically, Didier and Christian are not necessarily tolerant of a tattooed potential employee. “I wouldn’t hire a guy who has a visible tattoo,” says Didier. “Those guys who are tattooed behind the ears who want to look like M Pokora, no thanks! I wouldn’t hire them, because you have to be fundamentally stupid to do that. It is a matter of discretion. I consider my tattoos to be discrete.”

What about a woman, who allows a pretty tattoo be glimpsed, depending on the clothes she wears? “No, not unless she’s had an incredible career. Which goes together,” he adds.

Christian, although a little less categorical, says that he would still “be careful”. “A tattoo would bother me less than a piercing, for example. I do have some preconceptions about piercing.”


*The names of the four sources are fictitious.

**HEC: the Business School of the University of Geneva

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