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Piercings, and Goatees, and Tats! Oh My!

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It was Q&A time after a speech I’d just made to a large audience of small business owners, in a somewhat conservative retail field. As the speech featured some tips on how to be successful engaging younger workers (hint: “Complain that they aren’t like Baby Boomers” was not one of the tips), I wasn’t too surprised by this question:

 “What do you do about these kids who want to wear beards, nose rings, and tattoos?”

As is often the case, the best answers come not from the speaker, but from the audience. A hand shot up near the back of the room, and the fiftysomething woman attached thereto offered, “Well, I’ll tell you what we did at our company. We decided to get over it. Best decision we could ever have made.”

She went on to say, “We’d had this rule, since, like forever. No facial hair. No visible tattoos. No piercings except earrings. And only two. If you were female. None for the guys.

“So this guy applied for a job, and he had a tattoo all up his arm, and he wore a beard. He had a great interview! We were hurting for someone to fill this position, and he was just the kind of person we needed. But his appearance broke the rule. The owner and I talked, and we finally agreed it was a stupid rule!”

A smattering of applause and chuckles rose up from the audience at this point.

 “We hired the guy,” she said, “and he’s been a great addition to the team! He keeps his beard trimmed, and…”

Then someone else asked, “Can you see the tattoo?” the word “tattoo” tinged with a certain unseemliness usually reserved for unmaintained litter boxes.

“Yeah! But we were like, who cares? Half our customers have facial hair (the male half). And tattoos. And piercings pretty much anywhere, so we just thought, you know, this is 2018. Those things don’t bother our customers. Things change. Maybe we should too.”

Then she added a bonus. “And you know what? Morale improved almost immediately. It wasn’t like everyone ran out and got tattoos and ear gauges. OK, a few did. But it was just that they appreciated that we weren’t getting all up in their business about those things. Everybody looks good. The beards are trimmed. The piercings aren’t extreme. It’s just turned out way better than I imagined it would.”

Imagine that.

Look. If you own the business, the rules are yours to make. And so are the mistakes.

If you’ve read our first book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk (published in 1998), you’ve seen the story we told about companies like FedEx and Disney, and the strict buttoned-down appearance rules those companies, and others like them had for many years – rules borne of clear input from customers that they preferred the clean-cut look. Our 2012 rewrite, Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk, pointed out that, in response to evolving customer input, Disney changed their no-beards rule that year. And since then, you may have noticed your FedEx driver with a neatly trimmed adornment on his face.

Last week’s Delta flight attendant was a young man with a beard, two tasteful earrings, and a man-bun. And except for the gray uniform and name badge, he looked like lots of the other men around his age in first class. (Don’t get excited. I scored an upgrade.)

Before you get all up in tattooed arms about lowering standards, and slippery slopes, stop for just a minute, step back, and reframe the issue. We’re talking about filters.

Few decisions a manager makes are more impactful than those involving who gets to join the team. You’ve got to keep standards high, and filter OUT those who are unqualified, by virtue of relevant factors, including values and attitudes. But with today’s undersupply of talent, we can ill-afford to put the wrong filters on the hiring process, making perfectly qualified people available to our competitors for talent. And in some cases – repeat – some cases – what someone has growing on or sticking out of their face – may not be a relevant filter.

It just makes zero sense to screen people out, based on fashion choices, unless those choices happen to be relevant. If you’re turning away otherwise well-matched candidates because of skin ink or facial hair, don’t come complaining to me that you can’t find people.

Instead, consider these things:

  • How your employees present themselves should be dictated more by your customers’ preferences than by your personal tastes, or your employees’ desire to look a certain way. Something tells me that Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian may not be a man-bun fan. But that’s irrelevant. And he knows it.
  • Look around. Your customers’ habits, and expectations, have changed. When I was a kid, you got dressed up to go downtown to go shopping. Today…are you kidding me? My first job out of college was at a bank, where male employees had to be wearing a suit jacket or sportscoat to enter or leave the building. Now, my bank manager sports a bank-branded polo shirt most days.
  • Evolving standards do not equate to declining standards. That goes for appearance, behavior, and performance, just to name a few.
  • You’re in business to make a profit. Every customer who’s turned off by an employee’s appearance could hurt revenue. And every minute your employees are thinking or complaining about what they perceive to be an unjustified restriction on their personal expression is a minute they’re not giving everything they can to your customers. And that’ll cost you, too. It’s a matter of balance.
  • We’re talking evolution here. Not extremes. Nobody is suggesting that your customers are clamoring for your employees to have zippered tongues or skewers protruding from their eyelids. Not yet, anyway.
  • In the end, it’s your decision. Choose wisely.
Richard Hadden

Richard Hadden is an author, speaker, and workplace expert who helps leaders create a better, more profitable place to work. He and Bill Catlette are the authors of the popular Contented Cows leadership book series, and Rebooting Leadership. Learn more about Richard, Bill, and their work at ContentedCows.com. Or Hire Richard to speak for your next conference or leadership meeting.

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