Is it time to redefine professionalism? Founder and managing director of NeXT Career Consulting Group Paul Heng explores if and why employers still think looks matter.
SINGAPORE: Would you hire someone who has an unconventional dress sense?
What if that person has a nose ring? Or tattoos?
Air New Zealand recently did away with its ban on visible tattoos for air crew and customer-facing staff, recognising that many New Zealanders with Maori heritage wear tattoos to mark their genealogy and amid growing acceptance of tattoo as a means of cultural and individual expression.
New research in 2018 on the US labour market suggests that despite perceptions, having a tattoo is less likely to give rise to employment or wage discrimination these days, as more millennials spot body ink and shrug off concerns their older counterparts in the workplace might have had.
As worldwide trends suggest a sea change in mindsets when it comes to hiring, have they taken root in Singapore?
While a New Zealand company might understandably have made such a switch on their employment policy regarding tattoos, and US hiring managers might be more open-minded, would we see a similar change in hiring practices in Singapore?
Do looks still play a role when it comes to hiring?
Does having something visibly inked on your body or how you dress hurt your job prospects?
HARD TO UNSEAT OLD PERCEPTIONS
The thing is perceptions, once formed, are difficult to change. In Singapore, tattoos have been associated with gangsterism, the use of drugs and connote, more generally, “bad company”.
To many employers, bearers of body ink are seen as non-conforming risk-takers who are more likely to flaunt rules and make poor decisions.
This perception has been passed down over time, and it will take a while for it to change, much as I don’t think it will be eradicated completely.
The preference among most employers typically is not to take the risk to hire someone with tattoos.
Don’t believe me? Nearly half of over 1,000 Singaporeans surveyed by YouGov in May said they are less likely to hire someone with a tattoo, even if they qualify for the position.
The desired situation is, of course, for hiring decisions to be based largely on individual merit and qualification for the job, rather than physical appearance as a gauge of how well the candidate might do the job.
However, so long as face-to-face interviews continue to be a recruitment tool, it will be difficult to achieve this goal. Interviewers are humans, who bring into the interview room their prejudices, bias and human judgment.
It is difficult to move away from this unless replacements for the face-to-face interview, such as personality and strengths assessment tools, gain greater ground.
A more productive endeavour might be to change the mindsets of hiring managers and recruiters.
MOVE AGAINST DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF TATTOOS
My view is that it’s a personal choice – hiring managers will make the shift when they are ready to. And whether a tattoo is a deciding factor depends also on details like the look of the tattoo and the nature of the job.
Roles that might see more resistance include leadership positions, high-skilled jobs and frontline staff.
But both employers and the media can help unseat this bias.
What will it take? Not much actually. Imagine if some preferred employer in Singapore, seen by many as top of their game and recognised as a desirable brand name, like Google, Grab or LinkedIn, sets an example of having a policy of not discriminating against job seekers with tattoos.
That might cause more to think twice about ruling out potential hires with tattoos because they might be missing out on quality candidates.
Many companies are likely to have non-discriminatory hiring policies already. We could do with more of such companies that hire those with “tattoos” as examples to be upheld and praised.
The media can help by showcasing examples of such employers. The media is a powerful influencer, it can help to shift mindsets.
The Government and the tripartite movement can make subtle but powerful moves that push the envelop, as part of its efforts to work against discrimination on the basis of age, race and gender. Why not add looks, the presence of tattoos, body piercings and other forms of body art in the mix?
Such efforts can help shift norms in a more accepting direction, which are already changing with the passage of time – as even colourfully dyed hair has become less of a concern with more employers.
OUR BODIES ARE JUST THAT – OUR BODIES
I have no negative perceptions of jobseekers who have body art tattooed on them as they are not openly offensive to others, when they’re not crude, vulgar or hateful expression.
Our bodies are just that – our bodies. We should choose to do whatever we want with it, and who can tell us otherwise?
What is more pertinent is the capabilities of the individual behind the body art for the job – and this ought to be take primacy in how we make hiring decisions, and not be influenced by a physical façade.
Beyond the issue of tattoos, it’s worth reconsidering also whether we’ve become fixated on how people look instead of how they perform in the workplace.
Let’s not forget that critics have pointed out that heavier people face weight stigma at work.
DO AWAY WITH ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL DRESS CODES
A final point about judging job candidates on the basis of looks is this – is the idea of an office dress code still valid. Is it time to redefine professionalism and get rid of the office dress code?
In many organisations, formal wear has given way to casual dress codes.
Start-ups, in particular, have a “dress-down” code – and they wear sneakers, jeans, even bermudas and slippers to work. What might explain this is changing norms with age: A huge percentage of employers and employees in such start-ups are millennials, and they seem to value comfort over appearances.
Some big corporations have also come onboard this bandwagon. In March, global financial giant Goldman Sachs was reported to have made suits an option for their employees. It’s not quite our idea of “dressing down”, but it’s certainly a move in that direction for sure.
Dress codes should ideally be dictated by the job one does and its context. There might be several dress norms across one company.
Employees working in a back-room function in a bank can be attired casually, whereas those facing customers (of which the numbers are dwindling) ought to be smartly attired.
I have three pieces of advice that should guide dressing sensibly for work – dress the part for the job you hold, the occasion, and the audience.
Attending a leadership role interview with Grab? If you are a guy, go attired in a plain-coloured long-sleeved shirt with dark-coloured pants. This shows respect for the occasion and your interviewers, even though Grab has a casual dress code.
By all means, dress casual after you’ve become a part of the team, but not when you are attending the job interview.
So, have some form of a dress code in your mind as a guide, but dressing such that you leave enough space for employees to agree what you wear is reasonably appropriate would be ideal.
Still, Singapore would do better if companies focus on capabilities and qualifications when thinking about who to hire, instead of valuing physical appearances where these do not interfere with the candidate’s ability to perform the role. It’s high time companies get there, and employers, the Government and the media have roles to play.
By Paul Heng 15 Jul 2019
Paul Heng is founder and managing director of Next Career Consulting Group.