Elephants Graveyard

Where do old behaviors go to die?

Just the other other day I noticed a tweet in the torrent emanating from #SHRM14 attendees (am I the only HR geek not there?) about people not responding well to tats. Tats with an “a”. You know, tattoos.

At least one participant felt judged and shunned because she displayed some ink.

We’ve come a long way baby.



Years ago HR became linked sometimes lovingly sometimes forcibly to the civil rights movement. We stood up for what was right and for accepting people for who they are in employment.

Don’t get me wrong, not many of us (and certainly not me) displayed the courage of the Freedom Riders, or the determination of those who marched on the Edmund Pettus bridge or the quiet tenacity of Rosa Parks, but we knew treating people differently was wrong.

Its in our history as HR to give a damn how people are treated, to make sure everyone has access to employment and education, and to stop ‘isms’ of any type.

Decades later we still face racism and sexism, along with homophobia and ageism, but we’re out front now still pushing against what’s wrong in the name of fairness in the workplace.

Except maybe when you have tats.


Maybe it’s where I live – proudly – that influences my feelings on the matter, but I see more tats, gauges and piercings in a day than most people see all year. Mind you, I don’t find them all attractive – still don’t quite get the whole gauge thing – but I don’t care if that’s what you’re into.

Years ago I worked at a tech support center for Apple. A manager called me one day and said one of her employees had come to work in a bathrobe. She wasn’t sure if that was ok. I asked her what kind of tech her was. Pretty good, she said. Works for me, I replied. Yep, I’m okay too, she closed, just wanted to check with you.

Could he have worked in an Apple store with a bathrobe? Probably not. But his attire fit his job as on-line tech support. It didn’t matter so we didn’t have to make it matter.


Our role as HR people is really straightforward, though never simple. Its to find, attract, develop and retain talent using all the systems it takes to do that. We clear the way, set the tone and care for the ongoing work system and culture.

And we adjudicate, but we judge behaviors, not people.

We don’t need to judge based on non job-related factors like those covered under Title VII or things as superficial as a tat. That’s judging, not judgement.

Each of us gets to choose how liberal or conservative we want to live our personal life. That’s our call. But in the workplace, we need to honor our professional role and make everyone feel welcome to compete on the basis of their talents and skills.

We need to open the doors to all, not just to all the ones who look like us.


4 thoughts on “Elephants Graveyard

  1. I had the tat challenge in my old job – funky new NY brand coming into store. Brand wants people working the counter to be able to express themselves through tats, piercings, etc because that’s the brand, that’s the core person who’ll want to work for them.
    Our side had principles of ‘but it’s against our policy’, ‘what will other colleagues say’, ‘what will customers say’. Chimps were jumping up and down all over the place to protect the status quo, fearing for….what, I don’t quite know. But it definitely felt unsafe to the chimps!
    But human logic reigned in the end – time’s change, it fits with the brand, if customers complain then we’ll rethink.
    Guess what – no complaints ever.

    Times change, rules change, attitudes need to change too.

  2. Aw, thank you for sharing Helen! Its true, sometimes we HR people worry so much about preserving the past we miss the future. The scope of things we should worry about is far smaller than the range we do. Assume people are adults and treat them like that. Times change, and attitudes will too – if we get out of our own way!

  3. awww I hate that you missed SHRM14, I had a lot of fun there and met a ton of new people this year! I guess the attendee that felt put off because of her tattoos was definitely hanging out with the wrong crowd. I know people should just be accepted, but is it just as bad to judge the person that didn’t understand her tattoos? I have several tattoos and I know everyone doesn’t understand them, so I don’t expect them to. I also don’t show most of them in my day to day because I work in corporate and not for a funky new edge kind of place, but a very conservative engineering firm. I do think that it’s a sad day when HR folks can’t accept other HR folks and I assume it’s a reflection of how they conduct themselves in the workplace too. Great post Christopher, some really good points for all of us to consider!

    • Thank you so much for your comments Kristina! They were well thought-out and reasoned.

      I agree, lots of judging going on all sides: I know I’m guilty of it too. We need to just keep having the conversation, with ourselves and others, about the things that we should be judged on. Our workplace contributions, our ability to get along with others, our effect on the team and the office. It takes a lot of energy to keep moving forward, but accepting one and other can help minimize wasting that energy.

      Great thoughts Kristina: thank you so much for taking the time to write!

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