Tattoos and aid work: Wearing your heart on your sleeve

Getting a tattoo. Photo by: Kelvyn Skee / CC BY

A favorite part of my job as the director of global recruitment services at Devex is using my recruitment experience to help our members navigate their careers. International development is an exciting industry to work in, with many rewards and benefits. But it is also challenging work.

The many intricacies unique to this industry can make professionals at all levels of their career — from entry-level job seekers to seasoned consultants — have questions on how to succeed.

Starting this week, I will address these kinds of questions in our Career Matters blog. Like, do I really need to keep my resume to one page? Will that tattoo I want on my arm prohibit future employment with an NGO? What are some steps to make the transition from a field position to home office, or vice versa?

Tweet me your questions @DevexCareers and I will select a few each week to address in this blog. Starting next week, I will also publish an accompanying video blog.

When giving advice, I strive to be direct and frank and focus on practical tips you can really use. I don’t tend to sugarcoat, so at times you may not like what I have to say, but I promise to always tell it like it is, or at least how I see it — no holds barred. On occasion, I will bring in a guest blogger to provide a range of views.

For my inaugural post, I got inspiration from a lively discussion recently posted on the Devex LinkedIn group. One member wondered how having tattoos would be seen by prospective NGO employers. This poster has a few, and wants more, but was curious about the potential impact — positive or negative — of getting more “ink.” Many professionals chimed in with their personal experience and while opinions ranged from “why would you want to work for someone who would discriminate” to “why would you risk your livelihood over some tattoos,” the overall consensus was to err on the conservative side.

My opinion?

Many professionals that embark on an international development career are, in part, attracted to this line of work because they don’t want a “typical” corporate job in a “typical” corporate environment. They eschew stuffy cubicles for getting their hands dirty in the field. They wear their passions, sometimes literally, on their sleeve. But just because your work environs may not be an office park in the suburbs (and in reality, that is exactly where many international professionals do work!) doesn’t mean you can dismiss some of the same professional norms and expectations. And unfortunately, tattoos and all of the bias that comes with them are included.

NGO culture is often stereotyped for being more laidback than their more corporate counterparts. And while in some cases that is true, it is hardly a hard-and-fast rule, nor are NGOs the only players in town. As aid funding flows evolve, so do the employers, stakeholders and investors an international development worker must work alongside. Throw on top of that the wide variety of cultural views on ink, from tribes in India where your full-sleeve jaguar may be embraced as identifying with their traditions, to Japan, where you will be shunned from pools and gyms for that little butterfly on your ankle.

A key trait of a good aid worker is adaptability, and being able to work with a wide range of stakeholders in a wide range of cultures from high levels of government to U.N. agencies down to the beneficiary. To a recruiter, lots of visible tattoos could signal more than anything that this is someone who may not be willing or able to adapt to the environment they are working in. So while I agree that you should err on the conservative side to open up as many employment opportunities as possible — or at least to not close them off — you should also consider how tattoos could negatively impact the work you do once you have the job.

Please tweet me @DevexCareers; your question may just be the focus of an upcoming Career Matters blog post.

About the author

  • Warren kate 1

    Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.