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Can a hairstyle hurt your job chances?

Have you ever thought your choice of hairstyle might be a barrier to gaining employment?

 Michael S. Washington

Competition for jobs is great as unemployment remains high across the nation, so maximizing  marketability is key. But have you ever thought your choice of hairstyle might be a barrier to gaining employment?
That’s right, your hairstyle! Wearing a hairstyle such as twists, braids, cornrows or dreadlocks might pose such a barrier.

You may ask, “What does my hairstyle have to do with my ability to perform a job?”

That’s a great question, and the answer should be, “nothing!” The truth of the matter is applicants seldom know the reason(s) they didn’t get the job, because that information is almost never shared.

So as you compete for positions you should consider anything that could potentially work against you in landing your first or next position, including your hairstyle.

Hairstyle choice is often a personal expression of how we present ourselves to the world. Yet, some companies prefer employees who conform to an image that is consistent with their brand.  This is particularly true for jobs in corporate America, which is still pretty conservative. Hairstyles that are considered more “ethnic” may be considered unacceptable.

Not surprisingly, there are online discussion boards about how wearing dreadlocks and other ethnic hairstyles have impacted people’s ability to get jobs or progress in their careers. Some express they have had no problems finding jobs, while others share they believe they have been denied job opportunities precisely because of these hairstyles. As recent as 2010, two women in the state of Maryland reported they were denied employment at Six Flags amusement park because they wear dreadlocks. Another example involves an African-American male in Virginia who was denied a position as a loader with a moving company because he wears “locks” for religious reasons.

Some may feel employers who discriminate on the basis of one’s hairstyle are as wrong as those who discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or any other non-job related criteria. Unfortunately, employers discriminating on this basis may be passing over the best applicant in favor of another applicant whom they feel better fit their company image.

Is it worth the risk that your hairstyle might prevent you from getting a job for which you qualify?

If the answer is yes, consider the following. Make sure everything else about your image conforms to typical standards for appearance for your profession and industry. Know your craft, the skills you have to offer and how to masterfully communicate these in your cover letter and during interviews. In addition, understand the pre-employment process and be prepared as you advance through each phase. Wear your ethnic hairstyle in a way that it does not dominate or distract from your overall image.

The good news is that some companies place a higher premium on employee creativity than their personal sense of style. Seek out these companies when applying for positions. Information is often available on company websites and might offer some insight regarding a company’s expectations about appearance. Review this information at companies where you want to work.

Another strategy is simply observing employees working at companies you’re interested in working. Do you see employees with ethic hairstyles in the type and level of position you seek?  

Remember, entrepreneurship may also be an option to consider and pursue. If you choose this path, however, it’s important to keep in mind that prospective client perceptions about hairstyle could also pose a barrier to earning their business.

If you’re just beginning your career, you might consider wearing a hairstyle that won’t be a potential barrier, or at the very least, consider delaying your decision to wear a more ethnic hairstyle until you are established in your career. It would be nice to live in a world where everyone is accepted for what they have to offer rather than judged on their appearance.  The harsh reality is that some employers scrutinize applicants in ways some may feel is unfair and/or discriminatory.

Evaluate what is ultimately the most important to you at a given point in your career: earning a living or staying true to yourself. Often those who choose the latter may limit their employment opportunities. At the end of the day the decision is yours.

While choosing to wear dreadlocks, twists, braids and the like does not necessarily mean you won’t get a job or progress in your career, it’s something you should think seriously about before making the leap.

(Michael S. Washington, PHR, is a certified professional in human resources, and founder/principal career coach for Memphis-based Onpoint Career Coaching, which offers individualized career coaching services and group career seminars. Visit his blog at onpointcareercoaching.wordpress.com/.)



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