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Can Corporate Culture and Personal Style Coexist?


The strength of your company lies in your employees, and that means there is a lot of power in incorporating diversity into your hiring protocols. It’s a practice that enables you to create a workplace culture that reflects and supports your employees as well as your clients. However, true inclusivity means diversifying more than your employee base; it also means diversifying your corporate image. From hair to piercings to tattoos, does allowing for cultural diversity and individual expression challenge the professional image of a company?

Not necessarily. According to Jesse Cheetham, vice president, human resources at Fire & Flower, that line of thinking may just be an example of corporate owners overthinking the issue.

“Business has changed. It isn’t necessary to dress formally every day,” Cheetham explains. “Some positions require formal attire more often because they’re meeting with government officials or are at events representing the company. However, cultural and personal expression are encouraged in both formal and casual situations. You encourage cultural expression and trust your team to use good judgement to know when more formal business wear is needed.”

For that, he notes, “You need strong leaders to mentor and have conversations with their team, and to model the expectations of using good judgement.”

“Fire & Flower welcomes any and all religious or cultural attire. These do not inhibit someone from doing their work exceptionally. There’s no reason someone with sleeve tattoos or a lumberjack beard can’t represent the company professionally,” he points out. “It’s all about balance. We feel the best way to have engaged people achieving amazing results is to encourage them to bring their authentic self to work, not to fit into a certain ‘professional’ image.”

“Authentic self includes expressions of faith, culture, and diverse backgrounds,” Cheetham clarifies. “This doesn’t mean anything goes; it means trusting your team and quickly coaching if things go into a place that offends or is in question. The company still sets the rules, but it’s more about establishing the river banks and allowing the team to use their judgement.”

For Cheetham, that practice isn’t just about creating an inclusive workspace for the employee. It’s also important to the success of the business. “It is critical to incorporate diversity into the team and image of the workplace to attract, as we call it, ‘uniquely talented humans.’ To be successful, you need to have a wide array of ideas that don’t come about organically from a homogenous team. This manifests in an intentional culture where feedback and competing ideas are the norm. And, at the end of the day, we are a retailer: we need to reflect our customers who are kaleidoscopic and diverse in Canada.”

Kerry Kelly, senior manager, public affairs, CBC English services, agrees that the traditionally professional image isn’t always applicable. “For an organization that operates in the creative and cultural arena, the concept of professional dress is very different from the traditional idea of an office dress code. We want people to bring their individuality to the workplace.”

“CBC is committed to a workplace that is distinct, digital, and diverse,” Kelly adds. “With that in mind, we want to encourage staff to feel comfortable here, and to feel respected and valued for who they are. There may be issues of safety or functionality that need to be addressed in terms of appearance, but, by and large, how someone looks has nothing to do with how they work, or the value they bring to the workplace.”

“In the end, there are legislative documents (The Human Rights Code, The Employment Standards Act, etc.) that dictate overarching guidelines for what is and isn’t acceptable,” she notes; however, “As in most business decisions, open communication is the best way to ensure we are meeting the needs of our staff, and that includes organizational requirements related to dress code.”

Kelly also points to the relationship between truly incorporating diversity into the workplace and allowing that diversity to manifest in the professional image of the workplace. “You cannot fully do the former without the latter,” she emphasizes. “Secondly, at least at the CBC, the idea of there being a singular definition of a ‘professional image’ does not reflect the kind of work we do and the cultural institution we are. The biggest benefit of encouraging people to be themselves at work is that you have a workforce that truly reflects the audiences we serve.”

Reflecting your audience is something that has a different kind of importance for companies like Apocalypse Tattoo, where the personal image of the employee can easily become part of the sales pitch for the services of the company.

Stacy A.J. Knight, tattoo artist and owner of Apocalypse Tattoos Inc., observes that, “In the tattoo world itself, there aren’t very many restrictions when it comes to religious wear, hair styles, tattoos, or piercings. The dress code is pretty much, as long as you’re not breaking any laws or endangering yourself or others around you, do whatever floats your boat,” he smiles.

However, he can think of at least one exception to that rule:

“As a tattoo artist for the past 26 years now, I have seen some situations where even that was tested to the extreme”—for instance, when a man whose face, neck, and arms were covered in swastikas and hate slogans applied for a job at the tattoo company Knight was working for at the time. “Needless to say, he was not hired. As a fellow Canadian, he has the right to whatever he believes in—but the company also has the right to protect its image and reputation, as well as to take into general consideration all of the surrounding patrons.”

“At Apocalypse Tattoos Inc., it is my shop policy not to tattoo anything racist or sexist or hate-related of any kind. That is not the image or reputation that I want for my business,” Knight notes. “However, short of the above extreme example of protecting your business’ image and its wide variety of customers, I find for the most part, anything does go nowadays. And as long as they are not endangering anyone around them or themselves in the work place, no harm done! The more cultural diversity and age range coverage the better when it comes to business and customer service.

“I have found that the work place in general has learned to relax quite a bit in the past 26 years—especially when it comes to tattoos, piercings (for the most part) and hair. When I started tattooing, they were still a bit taboo; you were either a criminal, a rebel, or military/marine, etc. Then, most people wouldn’t have dreamt of ever getting one. Now it’s almost weird if you’re over 18 years old and don’t have a tattoo, or at least a piercing or three. We live in a society where almost everyone wants to be different, so we get tattoos and colour our hair and pierce our faces and ears, etc. It happens so much that it has become part of who we are as a society.”

However, “Even in this day and age,” Knight warns, “the employer still has the ultimate say on what is best for the business’ public image. They still have the right to choose the rules, such as dress code, how many piercings and/or tattoos are visible, or how they wear their hair. Even as a tattoo artist, I warn clients all the time that extreme, visible piercings and face, neck, or hand tattoos can be job killers.”

Knight also points out that it might not be the employees who are hurt the most by the ongoing stigma.

“I also know that, in Canada, all of these things are now mainstream cultural—they fall in the same category of Canadian human rights and freedom. As a result, employers that can’t seem to keep up to the changing times might find themselves inadvertently segregating massive groups of people from all ages and losing out on the ‘sign of the times’ expansion into social media movements like #freethenipple and body modifications (tattoos and piercings etc.).”

“As for religious articles, this is multicultural Canada,” Knight stresses. “It should be well understood that certain people here in Canada and around the world wear certain clothing and religious articles—it shouldn’t even be a topic.”

“Incorporating these different aspects of modern culturalism into your business shows a level of understanding and acceptance,” he concludes, “and that helps to create a more comfortable world.”