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Workplace Appearance: Shifting cultural perspectives.

Along with helping manage day-to-day interoffice relationships, human resource (HR) managers also contend with a long list of rules and regulations guiding employee health and wellness in the workplace. The HR department is responsible for helping employees understand their health insurance options and learn how to save for retirement. They also keep track of vacation days, leave, and retirement; major life events; attendance and behavioral issues; and a worker's general appearance. Most businesses have an employee handbook in place that clearly lays out the company's policies and procedures regarding behavior and appearance. And during the past two decades a new sub-section of the "appearance" section of the employee handbook has surfaced: what is and is not acceptable when it comes to body modification.

The most common examples of physical modification are tattoos and piercings. Donning at least one tattoo or piercing is par for the course for many employees, regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity. Today, it's less common that a tattoo and or a piercing will serve as a barrier to nailing that dream job.

The Harris Poll in October 2015 surveyed 2,225 American adults and found almost one-half of Millennials and more than one-third of Gen Xers have at least one tattoo, while 13 percent of Baby Boomers sport a tattoo and one in ten so-called "Matures" have a tattoo or piercing. The 2015 survey reports that three in ten US adults (29 percent) possess at least one tattoo, up from 2012, when two in ten US adults reported having a tattoo. Of those who report having a tattoo, about 70 percent say they didn't stop at one, with seven in ten people reporting having two or more tattoos.

Alaska Executive Search: What the Pros Say

Paula Bradison is a fourth generation Alaskan business owner. She grew up in Wasilla and launched her career in Anchorage; her business footprint traverses the state, having served hundreds of employers and employees throughout her years as an entrepreneur.

One of her newest acquisitions is Alaska Executive Search, a full-service employment company celebrating its 40th year in business. Alaska Executive Search offers employee career counseling and job placement as well as employer staff recruitment and personnel guidance.

Bradison attests to the reality that the job market is competitive, particularly in Alaska as natural resource development jobs dissipate and lower paying hourly positions are being pursued by people of all ages with a vast range of experience instead of teenagers or entry-level employees. As employment competition intensifies, aesthetics and appearance may matter as much as credentials and aptitude.

"There is a growing societal acceptance [of] body modification, like tattoos and piercings in the workplace, but that seldom secures employment," says Bradison. "Some of the analysis is based on generational perception, like with significant piercings and older employers having an aversion to such an appearance, while arm, leg, and torso tattoos have been commonplace since World War II."

Bradison's company has been advising employees on appearance and attire for more than four decades, so it's a familiar topic.

"As an employer, finding a balance between engagement and professionalism between employees and patrons is a balance at best," she says. As a recruitment specialist, Bradison says her company's primary goal is to put forward the best candidate for a job. Alaska Executive Search advises erring on the side of caution when it comes to appearance. Brash and bold piercings or tattoos that cannot be covered by typical business clothing--such as tattoos on the face or hands--lack conformity with the majority of white collar, professional jobs. She notes there is an obvious difference between a legal secretary or administrative assistant and a building trades-person who doesn't engage with the public and clients as often, so body appearance policy absolutely depends on the job position.

"It's not just a tattoo these days," says Bradison. "What about hair color, length and style, teeth alterations, artificial eye colors, and even odd outfits; the sky is the limit of what an employer may face with her staff."

Copper River Seafoods: Cultural Diversity

Copper River Seafoods (CRS) is a professional food manufacturing business that operates in Cordova, Anchorage, Kenai, Naknek, Togiak, and Kotzebue. The company employs between 800 and 900 employees during peak season and 115 workers year-round.

Kimberly Ziegler, HR director at CRS for more than four years, explains that while the company doesn't have a specific policy regarding body modification at its Anchorage administrative building, its processing facility personal appearance policies are strict because workers are involved in the production of food for human consumption. "Our internal policy is based on compliance with food safety regulations," says Ziegler. "We are a British Retail Consortium [Global Standards] certified facility, which is a very prestigious and challenging certification to acquire. Essentially [British Retail Consortium Certification] guarantees the standardization of quality, safety, and operational criteria and ensures that manufacturers fulfill their legal obligations and provide protection for the end consumer. We take this seriously."

Ziegler cites examples of the company's strict policies as prohibiting strong perfume or deodorant at work and not allowing nail polish or false nails. Jewelry is prohibited except a smooth, solid wedding band, so visible body piercings are problematic. Hair and beard nets must be worn at all times. Ziegler adds that there is no prohibition of tattoos that she's aware of, although appropriateness of any tattoo is taken into consideration in case a visible tattoo is found to be offensive.

"Copper River Seafoods employs a multitude of employees with varied ethnicities and traditions," says Ziegler. "We embrace the celebration of diversity along with the presentation of cultural art by our employees, particularly since we have locations scattered across Alaska Native communities. The fact someone has body art or modifications is not so much a concern as food safety compliance and ensuring our products are processed, packaged, delivered, and consumed without issue."

Fatboy Vapors: Venue Latitude

Strict appearance and body modification policies may seem commonplace in banks, medical offices, and insurance agencies, but when it comes to a less formal business atmosphere, sometimes latitude is the default.

Matt Waggoner owns Fatboy Vapors, a seven-store vaping products company in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. He operates locations in Fairbanks, Wasilla, and Anchorage with more than fifteen employees statewide. Waggoner's staffing levels ebb and flow by store, so he and his managers routinely conduct interviews and assessments to determine the best person to helm each storefront.

"I don't necessarily care about an employee's body modifications in this industry," says Waggoner. "Our patrons are hobbyists and their demographics cover the spectrum, from a 19-year-old who is intrigued by the technology to the 70-year-old grandmother who wants to quit smoking cigarettes. We've seen the gamut of tattoos and piercings and treat everyone the same."

Waggoner says a customer-focused perspective in commerce is what matters most to him. An employee's personality is more important than appearance. But there are exceptions. "Hygiene is important for our staff, and we've not had a problem to that end," says Waggoner. "But I've never discriminated against someone applying for a job at one of our stores because they had tattoos or piercings. Granted, a swastika on someone's neck or something blatantly offensive or vulgar may be a different story."

Waggoner agrees that in professional services organizations and family-oriented businesses, facial tattoos and prominent, sizable piercings may deter some types of management from hiring an applicant. However, Waggoner sells his products to adults (customers in Alaska must be at least 19 years old to buy from Fatboy Vapors) across a spectrum of the population, so an employee's physical representation of their artistic expression typically don't affect customer sales or service and may even enhance the customer experience.

Does Age Matter?

"An important question we initially ask our employer-clients is to clearly define 'business casual' as related to their desired company culture," says Bradison. "Many employers don't have an iron-clad definition of what they envision as appropriate dress and appearance, rather relying on what they deem is common sense and a rational approach."

The difficulty of not defining appropriate appearance and attire is that employees--especially entry-level or young employees--may have no idea or wildly different ideas as to what is or is not appropriate when it comes to appearance in the workplace.

"[Common sense] doesn't [always] work as Generation Z and future generations mature and enter our Alaskan work force. It's a good chance if surveyed, most business owners continue to agree purple hair, large-gauge earrings, or bold neck and knuckle tattoos simply don't mesh with a modern day office in Alaska; this needs to be clarified early on. Most customers and clients at a business are judging the employees as much as products and services," says Bradison. Who also says she finds more businesses and organizations are developing a "Professional Expectations Policy," which is an agreement between employer and employee, including temporary workers, designed to spell out what is acceptable in terms of employee appearance.

"In a day and age where employee attitudes, preferences, and personal feelings can rule the work environment as much as performance and delivery of services, the most responsible approach to body modification policy is a crystal clear understanding by employer and employee of the rules. Plain and simple," says Bradison.

By Tom Anderson

Tom Anderson is a lifelong Alaskan freelance writer for local and national publications and owns a public relations firm.
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Title Annotation:WORKPLACE CULTURE
Author:Anderson, Tom
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 2017
Words:1560
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