With Halloween just past, memories came to mind of how I celebrated the holiday as a child. In 1985, it was in vogue for kids my age to go as punk rockers, so my friends and I sprayed our hair all the colors of the rainbow. It was the kind of color that was super-temporary—it lasted just until the next time you washed your hair or else my mother never would have allowed it. When I saw an article last week in Real Simple about how unconventional hair colors are still not welcome in many workplaces, it got me thinking.
I believe wholeheartedly in tolerance of diversity, not just of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race, but of all aspects of identity—including personal style. In theory, I believe people who are good at their jobs should be able to come to work and serve customers with any hair color they choose, whether that’s brown, blond, black, red—or pink, purple, or blue. In practice, I don’t know whether I would be OK with it. If my life or career were on the line, I would expect a greater proof of professionalism from a person who presented herself with an unorthodox hair color than I would from a person with a run-of-the-mill hair color. In other words, would you pause and think carefully before hiring an attorney with pink hair? How about if the attorney was going to argue your case in front of a jury? How about if the attorney was only going to do back-office work, such as on an important contract or negotiation on your behalf?
If the attorney had impressive credentials, and a provable track record of cases won or well-known clients who endorsed them, I would hire them. I would always check on the track record of professionals, such as attorneys I hired, but I would require an extra-impressive record of a person who presented themselves with an unorthodox hairdo, many visible tattoos, and/or many body piercings. I don’t like having to admit that, but it’s the truth for me.
While people may not admit it, I’m probably not unusual in this regard. That brings up the question of how companies should approach tolerance for diversity of personal style. Many of us now understand and endorse the importance of respecting diversity in the other aspects of identity, but far fewer of us accept personal style that differs from what we are used to seeing for a person in a particular job role. Companies have to decide whether it’s still acceptable to put narrow parameters around what is considered acceptable personal style. Should the standard be that, as long as all body parts most people would consider private are covered up, and there is no hate speech present on any of the person’s clothing, that any personal style is acceptable? The one requirement in that culture is that the employee deliver good and dependable work. If they do that, then their personal style is irrelevant.
Another approach is to allow for any hairstyle and hair color and any personal attributes, including visible tattoos and piercings, but to stipulate a dress code. In that culture, all employees might be asked to wear a business suit and dress shoes, but would not be asked to alter anything about their bodies, including their hair. What do you think about that approach?
When I was starting out my career, I thought I would be a good marketing or public relations writer. I applied to dozens upon dozens of jobs in those categories, and went on many interviews. The impression I got from these prospective employers was that I wasn’t a good personality or cultural fit for those kinds of jobs. I have always had a traditional appearance with brown hair and no tattoos or piercings beyond one in each ear. I like bohemian and quirky clothing, but never showed up for a job interview in anything that wasn’t conservative (at least what I thought of as conservative). Perhaps my creative spirit and bohemian self slipped out somehow. The parameters of acceptability for some jobs was that narrow back then. What’s it like now?
What is considered acceptable in terms of personal style at your company? How do you approach managing (or not managing) the personal styles of your employees?