Tattoos and Ponytails

The Code of Professional Conduct (“the Code”) sets forth what it means for an actuary to be a professional. The preface to the Code goes further to state, “It identifies the responsibilities that actuaries have to the public, to their clients and employers, and to the actuarial profession.” It is safe to say that most clients and employers who hire actuaries have a reasonably good understanding of the profession. But what about the public?

In many cases, members of the public identify professionals by their appearance. Police officers and firefighters typically wear uniforms. Doctors and medical professionals wear scrubs or lab coats. Judges wear robes. Construction workers wear hardhats. How can the public tell if someone is an actuary?

Here is an unusual approach.

A Case Study

John Hodgman is an author and humorist who wrote the book The Areas of My Expertise. “It is written in the form of absurd historical stories, complex charts and graphs, and fake newspaper columns. Among its sections are a list of 700 different hobo names and complete descriptions of ‘all 51’ US states” (Wikipedia). I should note that there is almost no factual information in Hodgman’s book.

One story describes how Hodgman learned that strangers having a drink in an Omaha steakhouse were actuaries based on their tattoos. His satirical story about the actuaries he encountered provide an opportunity to consider the tattooed actuaries in light of the Code of Professional Conduct as well as the public image of an actuary.

Let’s begin with Precept 1:

An Actuary shall act honestly, with integrity and competence, and in a manner to fulfill the profession’s responsibility to the public and to uphold the reputation of the actuarial profession.

There is little in the story to indicate whether the individual actuary-diners followed Precept 1, and acted honestly, with integrity and competence. However, their presence and tattoos do appear to uphold the reputation of the profession. The actuaries are all “pleased and prosperous-seeming.” They were hired by an insurance company after completing their training by international guilds identified by their tattoos. They are revered as professionals who read mortality tables and stochastic models.

This leads us directly to Precept 2:

An Actuary shall perform Actuarial Services only when the Actuary is qualified to do so on the basis of basic and continuing education and experience, and only when the Actuary satisfies applicable qualification standards.

As with Precept 1, it appears by virtue of their tattoos (a crystal ball for the Casualty Actuarial Society, an empty teacup for the Society of Actuaries, a sheep’s entrails for the International Actuarial Association, and so forth) that the actuaries have met the education and experience requirements. The author, representing the public, also recognizes that each guild is unique so the insurance company hires actuaries from various guilds to have the expertise to address a range of possible insurance needs.

As lunch hour continues, Hodgman sees all but one of the actuaries finish their drinks, turn the glass upside-down and leave. One man remains—he has been banished from the insurance company actuaries because he violated a fundamental rule of all actuaries. Regardless of the particular line that was crossed, the actuaries who left the table violated at least one aspect of Precept 13:

An Actuary with knowledge of an apparent, unresolved, material violation of the Code by another Actuary should consider discussing the situation with the other Actuary and attempt to resolve the apparent violation. If such discussion is not attempted or is not successful, the Actuary shall disclose such violation to the appropriate counseling and discipline body of the profession, except where the disclosure would be contrary to Law or would divulge Confidential Information.

There appears to have been some discussion between the outcast actuary and the other actuaries. The apparent, unresolved, material violation may have been resolved, but that seems unlikely. If unresolved, the other actuaries have a responsibility to bring the apparent violation to the Actuarial Board for Counseling and Discipline (ABCD)—unless they would have to breach a confidence to do so. It appears rather than addressing their complaints to the ABCD, they have made their own disciplinary decision.

Let’s consider how the ABCD may have reacted to a complaint. Annotation 13-1 states:

A violation of the Code is deemed to be material if it is important or affects the outcome of a situation, as opposed to a violation that is trivial, does not affect an outcome, or is one merely of form.

And what fundamental rule had the expelled actuary violated? He predicted the exact date and time of his own death. I believe it is likely that the ABCD would have dismissed the complaint. Even if the complaint were not dismissed, the ABCD has a range of options including counseling, or recommending a private or public reprimand, suspension, or expulsion to the actuarial organizations of which he is a member.

Lessons Learned

The general public may not be able to identify an actuary by his or her uniform—or tattoo. It’s important that we are open-minded about who can be an actuary and fully support that vision when presenting ourselves to the public. Going back to the concept of professionals, a quick internet search reveals synonyms for professionals that include “competent,” “efficient,” “experienced,” “qualified,” “skillful,” “ace,” and “adept.” These are the virtues we want the public to associate with actuaries, and following the Code of Professional Conduct helps us to demonstrate those virtues.

While I haven’t personally met any actuaries with the “guild” tattoos envisioned by John Hodgman, I have had the good fortune of knowing many actuaries who don’t fit the dated, stereotypical image of insurance company actuaries—white, clean-cut, middle-aged men who wear nothing other than white shirts and conservative ties. I’ve known talented, competent, and experienced actuaries who look too young to be professionals, who do not stare at their shoes, who wear designer stilettos, who speak fluent French or Spanish or Russian, who are avid bridge or chess players, who ride motorcycles to work, and who have ponytails.

The examinations and courses required to obtain actuarial credentials neither reward nor punish candidates who do not align with our expectations of the traditional actuary. Similarly, while our Code of Professional Conduct does not define how we appear, it does guide us in the ways we must uphold the reputation of the actuarial profession. As such, it applies to actuaries when they are at work, and when they are outside of work, ensuring that an interested bystander like John Hodgman who observes us at a restaurant will come away with respect and admiration—more than questions about strange professional rituals.

TAMMY DIXON, MAAA, FSA, FCA, EA, is a member of the Actuarial Board for Counseling and Discipline.