For anyone who hasn't read the Stieg Larsson book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or seen the film, the main character, Lisbeth Salander is incredibly bright, talented, and enterprising—and also totally covered in tattoos and piercings.
The fact that Lisbeth's character has piercings and tattoos is meant to show her as different and weird, and outside the mainstream. I wonder, however, if that depiction of people with body art is really correct in this day and age. Statistics gathered in a survey by Northwestern University showed as early as 2006 that 25% of the population aged 18 to 50 had at least one tattoo. This number increased to 36% when looking at the youth population aged 18 to 29, the next generation to enter the workplace. One can only assume the number is far greater in 2011.
As the owner of Metal Mafia, a more than $5 million wholesale supplier of body piercing jewelry, I see people who are "modified" (the colloquial term for those with tattoos, piercings, ear shaping, or other alterations) all the time. They are not only my customers, but also my employees. I also have one tattoo, and a handful of piercings. Being modified is not one of our hiring criteria, but it's certainly a plus. Now I know that not every business owner feels this way, but I actually think that people with piercings and tattoos can be a great find when looking for new hires—and not just for underground or unconventional industries.
People with body art are generally not only creative, but also bold, and often decisive. They are passionate, capable of thinking outside the box, and are often more open to the ideas of others than the general population. Those characteristics translate well to many professions—sales, marketing, advertising, public relations, and art direction, to name but a few.
It always surprises me when I read about companies with policies allowing body art, but requiring that it be covered up. Let's be frank. If you are requiring body art to be covered, you are not "allowing" it. Personally, I would far prefer to have someone with a tattoo or piercing wait on me than someone with some sort of oddly-placed bandage or unsightly gauze patch. Piercings and tattoos aren't unclean, nor are they contagious. Of course, I am biased, but I have also gone into medical offices and been helped by administrative staff who were visibly free of piercings, as well as unfriendly and uneducated, and whose attitude made me doubt my choice of physicians. I have had serious medical tests performed on me by people with visible tattoos who have made me feel safe and well taken care of.
While some small business owners may not object to piercings in principle, they still worry about customer perception and reaction to them. This is not an unreasonable concern, but I find that it is not nearly the obstacle they imagine when the customer is actually consulted. My industry is an interesting indicator on this point. I mentioned earlier that some of my employees are modified, but many are not. Never has one of our 5,000 customers complained about being helped by a sales rep who did not happen to have a tattoo or piercing. This point is also well-illustrated in the film, when a conservative older gentleman hires the research services of Lisbeth Salander, even after meeting her in full-modified regalia, because she is well-spoken, thorough, and innovative.
Large corporations that still shun the idea of tattoos and piercings in the workplace fail to consider the disservice they may be doing themselves in the process. Customization is one of the most important trends in the marketplace today. Every company is trying to find ways to do it successfully. What better way for an old blue chip corporation to become relevant to today's consumers than by showing those consumers that individuality is not just a cooked-up product benefit, but a real corporate value? Hiring modified people can help make that clear. The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander, while depicted as societally off the grid, is also praised as the most valuable team member of the company for which she works because she is willing to push the boundaries on the projects she is assigned, and thus, gets better results.
Luckily, times are changing, and people's desire to express their individuality is less an obstacle than it once was. Companies who show that they not only permit individual freedom, but actively encourage it, are winning battles for both top hires and market share. They are able to gain cherished social capital with the young generation, who are not only the new hiring pool, but also choosy consumers with considerable buying power.
(This article first appeared Dec. 20th, 2011. It has since been updated to include Rooney Mara's Academy Award nomination.)