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Image is Everything

Help – But Not Body Art – Wanted

I’ve always been a fan of career management newspaper columns. Particularly entertaining are the round-ups of do’s and don’ts during a job interview: Don’t bring a mortar launcher to an interview for a senior position with the Pew Charitable Trust. Leave the Monte cristos behind when applying at the Centers for Disease Control. Never drive a Humvee to a job interview with the Sierra Club.

Recently, the “Managing Your Career” column in the Wall Street Journal discussed the rather odd experience of a middle-aged executive armed with a solid resume who applied for a CFO post at a hospital in a small Texas town. Despite impressive credentials, she got turned down for the position because when she leaned forward – while wearing a somewhat low-cut blouse – the CEO conducting the interview noticed that she had a large black panther tattoo engraved on her breast. He later explained that his thumbs down to her application was because the tattoo “would not fly with the board members and the community for someone in that position.”

For many reasons, this is troubling. Did the prospective CFO get shown to the door because of the size of the tattoo, the position of the tattoo or the animal depicted by the tattoo? Would a smaller tattoo of, let’s say, a koala or a teddy bear, have passed muster? Or a large tattoo of an American eagle positioned more demurely on the right forearm? How about a puma or lynx? Or, for that matter, a manatee or dolphin? And how could the CEO be so sure that the members of his board do not have tattoos concealed beneath their own clothing – and might have welcomed a fellow body art enthusiast to the fold?

Isn’t it possible that the candidate deliberately chose to show off the panther tattoo, thereby transmitting a powerful message to her prospective employer that she was a hard-driving, hard-as-nails type, precisely the kind of person hospitals need to oversee their finances and cut costs in these troubled times? More relevantly, is it even legal to discriminate against a highly qualified candidate simply because she or he has a tattoo?

Tattoos were once the exclusive domain of bikers, sailors and convicts. You had to go down to the water front and see someone named Shanghai Pete or Three-Fingers Johnson to get them. All that changed more than a decade ago when cutie-pies like the Backstreet Boys and American Studies majors at Sarah Lawrence started wearing them. From that point onward, tattoos began a migration from the periphery of our culture to its epicenter. Today, tattoos are as ubiquitous, as accepted and as harmless as apple pie.

Thus, when I read about a qualified CFO turned down for a job simply because she sported a black panther tattoo, I wonder if the CEO in question compounded the damage from his error in judgment by hiring a less qualified individual to serve as CFO simply because he or she was tattooless.

My hunch is that many of the most powerful people in American business already sport gaudy tattoos beneath their clothing that the rest of us don’t know about. I’ll go one step further and wager that they are wearing tattoos that perfectly match their personalities.

For Larry Ellison, that would probably mean a raptor. A big, nasty raptor. For Eric Schmidt, it might mean an African bird of paradise, the creature that changes plumage to please new suitors. For Carl Icahn, the consummate corporate raider, a Bengal tiger would seem most appropriate. Maybe a whole pack of them. And so it would go from there. Mark Cuban, who will mix it up with anyone anywhere, might be sporting a pit bull tattoo.

For Jeff Immelt, who takes a licking, but keeps on ticking, a leather-skinned rhino would do the trick. And for Steve Jobs, the enigmatic shaman who never forgets a slight, the concealed tattoo might very well be a sphinx. Or a scorpion. More than likely, both.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.