30 Aug 2022
How Can a Hair Style be Unprofessional? Your Bias is Showing
We’ve been thinking a lot about how our physical appearances can be perceived at work, as inappropriate or unprofessional. With the scorcher of the summer we’ve had, the age-old question of whether you can wear shorts to the office has resurfaced. Hair styles is another subject of tension for many workers – mainly people of colour – but we’ve also heard cases of shaved heads for women being deemed unacceptable.
The top line here is really very simple: does it affect their job performance? Two of our team members here at Diversifying Group share their thoughts and experiences on the tiresome ‘issue’.
Barish Mata, Marketing Executive
I had the good fortune of growing up in a multi-cultural area and had friends from diverse backgrounds from a young age. I never considered whether my hairstyle was "appropriate" until I began working in the corporate field.
I was once approached by a co-worker who commented on my "radical" hairstyle. "What do you mean by that?", I squinted, bewildered. At the time, I worked for a predominantly white media company with roughly eight black employees out of a total of one hundred.
Before securing this position, I was repeatedly rejected for jobs despite performing well in interviews. I began to doubt myself and frequently questioned whether my appearance played a role. I was certainly aware of the media's constant depiction of black men with braids as lowlifes, thugs, and troublemakers. My family even advised me to cut off my beloved braids, but instead I went even more "radical" and got locks.
My hair was affecting both my professional and personal life, as I was frequently stopped by police for "fitting the description". Amusingly, as soon as I switched from braids to locks, I was constantly asked if I had a lighter, possibly on the assumption that, because I had locks, I was Jamaican and smoked marijuana. Someone would occasionally approach me with "Yuh mon, mi love Jamaica, big up", to which I'd point out that I'm Congolese, not Jamaican.
I am certain that everything I endured with my hair as a black man pales in comparison to what black women endure daily. Many members of my community view their hair as their crown and a source of pride; consequently, they showcase its versatility by switching between afros, curls, twists, and locks. For many, it is a lifestyle, not just a hairstyle.
What has surprised me the most on this journey is that a quick Google search on "Natural hair in the workplace" yields questions such as "How can I style my natural hair for work?" and "Should I wear my natural hair to an interview?" This demonstrates the uncertainty and doubt people have regarding the natural characteristics they are born with. I've never understood how the hair that grows from a person's head could be problematic or viewed as unprofessional. As Kanye might inquire, "HOW SWAY?"
It is very disturbing that people are still compelled to alter their appearance to fit into a particular environment. Unbeknownst to most, some of these changes pose health risks, such as the chemicals in hair-straightening products.
Does a person's hairstyle matter if they continue to provide the same quality service? Can an individual's natural hair be distracting and unprofessional? Or are these rules and regulations a way to prevent people from being their best selves?
I had to learn to embrace the beauty of my natural hair in its current state and not be concerned with how others perceived it. I hope one day everyone will have the courage to do the same.
Kai Shakti-Akhenaten, Customer Success Executive
As a woman of colour, thoughts around how to style my textured hair for the day, week or month is a natural occurrence. Great emphasis is garnered within my community around wearing your hair in beautiful and complex styles. For males, it seems, there are similar expectations, but these include intricate shaven designs, particularly when approaching the weekend social gatherings.
In the workplace however, I often battled with how best to “present”, not wishing my hairstyle and indeed my whole persona to be deemed as “aggressive” or “defiant”. Therefore, options such as wearing headwraps, box-braids and natural afro styles were out of the question for me, I felt. For the best part of my office life, I wore my hair straightened and brown.
It was only in my later years that I began to reclaim my heritage and, within reason, attend work unashamedly as me. This included dressing my face with ‘tribal’ adornments, shaving my head or wearing headwraps. This, as expected, received mixed reviews. Some of my Caucasian work colleagues limited their interactions with me, but many people of colour approached me with secret salutations of “Yass sista!” in solidarity.
To this day, I wear my hair and dress as I please – with the exception of job interviews, where I still feel pressure to conform to the ‘corporate look’. My wish for the world would be to judge a person on their merit not the texture and design of their hair. Be open to other cultures and customs and examine your preconceptions carefully.