Piercing and office may not mix
It's no longer unusual for college students to flaunt multiple body piercings. But some say young job-hunters need to tone down their look to be successful in the workplace.
By Cati Vanden Breul, Special to the Star Tribune
College student Jordan Schoephoerster is obviously a big fan of body modification. She started two years ago with a tattoo of a double helix on her lower back. In May last year, she got her nose pierced and wears a ring through the septum. Soon after, she pierced her tongue and wrist.
But when she's waiting on tables at Applebee's, the University of Minnesota junior hides all of that with a clear retainer in her nose piercing and a wristband covering the barbell in her wrist. And until her internship with a high school biology teacher next fall is over, Schoephoerster will hold off on getting her lip pierced.
"I kind of just have to adapt to whatever I'm doing," she said. "Do I always want to be the person I am when just sitting in class, or do I want to be able to do what I want to do later in life?"
Like many young job seekers, Schoephoerster, a genetics and biology major, will have to make a choice between indulging in her personal sense of style and fitting into a traditional work environment. For some college students on the job hunt, leaving a diverse campus and entering the real world can mean hiding a part of who they are -- at least from 9 to 5.
There are no steadfast rules when it comes to piercings in the workplace. Employers' tastes vary and some might not have a strong opinion on body jewelry or tattoos, said Paul Timmins, career services director in the university's Career and Community Learning Center. That's why it's important to research a company's policies before you schedule an interview, he said.
In the National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2006 survey, a majority of prospective employers said a weak handshake would influence their hiring decisions more than a piercing would. Thirty-three percent of employers ranked an applicant's handshake as a strong influence, while only 31 percent said a body piercing would have the same effect. Employers cited overall grooming (73 percent) and interview attire (49 percent) as the physical attributes they paid the most paid attention to.
"Every student hoping to make a good first impression needs to realize that everything about their appearance could count," Timmins said. "This could include piercings and tattoos, or things we don't even think of as much, like a handshake or eye contact."
People who view their piercings as an important expression of who they are should talk to prospective employers about company policies and explain their feelings, Timmins said.
"Everyone has to keep in mind that a job interview is a two-way street. We're trying to make the employer pick us, and at the same time, as a good job seeker, we should be evaluating the employer," Timmins said. "Is this a place that would allow me to be myself? Would it allow me to express myself the way I want to?"
As piercing becomes more popular and the workforce younger, employers might become gradually more tolerant, Timmins said.
"It is something that could change over time, but change on things like that does happen slowly. A lot of people doing the interviews have been in the workforce for quite a while and this is all new to them," he said. "They haven't had to consider these questions before as much."
But in the past decade, piercings have become less of an alternative style and more of a mainstream phenomenon, said Alex Levine, owner of the Axis Body Modification Studio near the university's Minneapolis campus. Levine, whose interest in piercing surfaced at age 8 when he decided he wanted to get his ears pierced, has been working in the business almost 10 years and has seen its evolution.
"Piercing has become more accepted, just like tattooing has. It's not as gang-related or drug-related, or whatever people used to associate it with," Levine said. "It's more fashionable. Just in the last three years, you've seen it more in magazines and advertising; before, models wouldn't even be able to wear their jewelry."
On average, six people per day are pierced at Levine's studio, most leaving with a new nose or belly-button ring. Piercings represent different things to different people, he said.
"Some people will do facial piercings as an accessory; they'll get a jewel to sparkle a little bit more," he said. "The ones who have all sorts of spikes in their lip are probably doing it to show that they don't want to fit into society and [want to] go against the grain."
Although piercing has become more of a general trend and is becoming more accepted in some areas of the service industry, Levine said he understands why some employers would take issue with their employees overdoing it.
"I know I'd take someone more seriously if they didn't have six rings around their lip," he said. "A little jewel on the nose or lip is fine, but eight piercings just on your face -- that's distracting."
Schoephoerster is aware of others' perceptions and adjusts her look accordingly. She said she wants to come across as professional in the classroom during her upcoming internship. "I'm supposed to be a role model for these students, and parents have a certain idea of what that role model should look like," she said.
At her waitressing job, she knows her appearance might affect tips and she is afraid of turning off customers by flaunting her piercings. She doesn't feel the need to hide her body decor, however, at her other job as a research assistant in a University of Minnesota genetics lab.
"That kind of environment is way more accepting because I'm not really working with the public," she said, "although I think I might scare my boss sometimes."
Cati Vanden Breul is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.