Tattoos in the Courtroom
What predisposes you to like a person? Or dislike them? A proper handshake? Strong eye contact?
We all have things that make us pull away or toward people. It’s human.
But when those predispositions show up in the context of how we evaluate someone in a job interview, that’s a problem.
How important is handshake technique really to job performance? Intellectually, we know that if someone doesn’t iron their shirt perfectly, it doesn’t mean they will always be unprepared and won’t be a good worker. And yet, some of us hear alarm bells going off in our head if we think a candidate has a lapse in polish.
I was recently reminded of how superficial—and changeable—these norms around professionalism are. At a workshop on conducting interviews, a participant brought up tattoos as being inherently unprofessional. Apparently some law firms ban visible ones when their lawyers are in court.
Other participants thought that seemed reasonable. What would the judge or the jury think of a lawyer with tattoos?
I asked if any of them were familiar with Judge Frison. Shannon Frison has been a judge for the Massachusetts Superior Court for more than 13 years. She has detailed tattoos on her arm and her neck, which she brandishes in her robes from the bench.
I really appreciate all the ways she is showing up as her authentic self. As a Black woman with a shaved head and unique personal style, Judge Frison was already going to be breaking stereotypes on the bench. Her pride has the effect of reprogramming us about what a legal authority can look like. She blazes a trail for other people who may not resemble those who have come before to be judges and other civic leaders.
The next time you interview a candidate with a tattoo, ask yourself: does a tattoo really get in the way of doing the work? What about cornrows or an afro? Or anything else that varies from traditional office style or behavior?
And what cost are you making your employees pay to fit in to your biases? When does a modest amount of code switching transition into covering their true selves?
A participant in another workshop shared that her child is neurodivergent—super smart, but socially inhibited, so he doesn’t make eye contact. “I’m in IT,” the participant said, “and I have a lot of colleagues who behave the same way. Maybe that isn’t something they can control. Maybe it’s just a part of who they are.” In other words, what might read as unprofessional is in fact a contributor to organizational diversity.
In the end, it’s not worth holding too tightly to traditional expectations. When I started my career, suits with skirts, pantyhose, and heels were a daily requirement for women lawyers. Thankfully, we have broadened our views on that front. Can you broaden what looks like “professional” to you?
And based on what I see as I look around, it’s only a matter of time before the people in charge will all have tattoos. And it won’t be a big deal.