There is a young woman in our office who has done a great job in sales support. We are considering her for an outside sales position, but some of the managers are concerned because the employee has a pierced tongue and a little silver barbell ornament in it. We don't know whether to try out this employee in an outside sales role and risk alienating our clients. How would you proceed?
The great thing about a situation like this is that you have degrees of freedom—you can have as many conversations as you need to get the right answer, and take incremental steps to learn more about what will and what won't work in your organization. First, of course, you'd want to talk to the employee and see whether indeed she is interested in pursuing an outside sales role. If so, you can let her know that the organization thinks highly of her and would like to make this next career opportunity available to her. And you can share your concerns about her tongue-piercing. You will tell her the truth: You don't know whether a pierced tongue will bother the customers or not.
Also, any time you contemplate making or not making a job assignment based on a nonperformance-related issue (for instance, this employee's pierced tongue) you should speak with your company's employment law specialist.
Popular culture is moving fast. Tattoos and piercings started out on the edge of acceptability and are moving quickly toward the middle—they're becoming more and more mainstream/suburban every day. Talk with the employee about her thoughts on the tongue-piercing issue, which will also be a great way for you to evaluate her thought process. And it's much more appropriate to involve her in the issue and its possible solutions than to dictate terms to her.
It may be that the employee agrees to remove the barbell ornament during customer meetings (in which case it would be nearly impossible for anyone to spot the tiny holes in her tongue) or find a tongue-colored barbell that would be less obvious than the silver one. Or you may agree to send her on a few sales calls and get customer reactions afterward. If you pose the question "Joe, as a valued longtime customer, we wanted to get your candid thoughts on Samantha's sales presentation today—how did she do?" and Joe says, "She's fantastic," then the barbell might turn out to be a non-issue.
You know what, Charles—my grandfather wore spats. You don't see a lot of spats on the streets of Manhattan—or anywhere else—these days. Fashions change. It would be a shame to let this employee's talent hide under a bushel because of two perforations and a gram or two of metal in her mouth.