Hairstyles can say many things about a person. They signify fashion trends, cultural statements and declarations of individuality. Many hairstylists think of hair as a cultural artifact because it’s concurrently visible to everyone and it’s personal; an intrinsic biological fiber of our anatomy. More and more people are consumed about their hair as employers have become concerned with how their employees wear their hair. To what extent does hair impact “professional” appearance in the workplace?

Some women simply cannot afford to consider hair a trivial issue, especially as it pertains to their employer and employability for the conventional purpose of maintaining a “professional” appearance. Certainly “professional” hair(styles) should be clean, neat and out of the face. Duly noted, within certain career fields, the intentional caught in a windstorm tousled look or vibrantly dyed hair that would give Lady Gaga a run for her money may not be appropriate or considered, “professional”. Conversely, hair texture… yes, hair texture: straight hair, wavy hair, curly hair, kinky hair, coiled and tightly coiled hair textures, should not be subjected to the standard of “professional” appearance(s).

An increasing number of African American women are choosing to forgo “professional” hair management strategies that mimic the Euro-American hair. An influx of women with Afro-Textured hair is making decisions to showcase their hair in its natural state instead of chemically straightening their hair approximately every 4-6 weeks. For them, the decision to jettison the “professional” straight hair look is an extremely important career decision. Moreover, African American women fear that professional success may elude them and therefore sometimes feel societal pressure to maintain their hair in a conventional manner in order to receive more job offers, higher salaries and promotions. No one should be refused the aforementioned career advancement opportunities simply based upon their hair texture. The thought of career stagnancy should not be the forethought when one deliberates on the decision to embrace their natural hair texture, but unfortunately, this is the reality. Knowledge, skills, abilities, experience and education, are a few examples of core competencies that should measure the trajectory of career progression and/or regression, not hair texture.

“Going natural” is an expression in the African American culture relating to the choice to discontinue the painful burning sensation and costly expense of chemical (lye) straightening, also known as relaxing, their hair. Cultural hairstyles such as cornrows (when hair is braided close to the scalp in various patterns), braids, twists (when hair is twisted into coils), and dreadlocks (when hair is rolled and left in its natural state) are styles perceived by some as “unprofessional” in the workplace. However, a steady incline of women of African descent are wearing their crowning glory in afro’s showcasing their beautiful and unique kinky, curly and coily hair without pause. Additionally, many more African American women who are “natural” opt for covering their tresses with wigs during job interviews in fear of being perceived as “different” or not “professionally” appealing.

Employers should not expect African American women to have straight hair(styles) as opposed to their own natural hair(styles). Women who wear their hair straight (naturally or chemically) should not be perceived as more intelligent and or more “professional”.

It is inappropriate for employers to impose restrictions of hair(style) appearances on employees (unless there is a BFOQ). There are benefits to having people who manifest diverse cultures in the workplace. And there is a benefit that can be derived from having employees with diverse appearances up to and including their hair.

Throughout history and even yet today, hair continues to possess powerful symbolic elements of cultural nuances. It’s an object of traditions, cultures and beliefs. Coiffures project images we have of ourselves and it plays an important role in everyday language. To be noticed is rarely the objective. “Professional” appearances in the workplace should have nothing to do with hair(styles) but everything to do with work ethics.

By Stacy Edey, PHR/CLRL
Integrated Professional Services, LLC

About the Author
Stacy Edey possesses 10+ years of Leadership, Professional Writing and Human Resources experience. She earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Management with a concentration in Human Resource Management from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She later matriculated at Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio where she received a Master of Arts Degree in Management. Ms. Edey acquired a PHR (Professional in Human Resources) Certification from the Human Resources Certification Institute, a CLRL (Certified Labor Relations Leader) from The Michigan State University and is a professional member of SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management). To contact Stacey, e-mail her at stacy.edey@iprofessionalservices.com