Speaking with an African-American candidate a few days ago, she made a comment in passing that made me stop and think. We were discussing the interviews she had been on and she said, “I’m sure my natural hairstyle prevented me from getting a couple of those jobs.”
Immediately, I wanted to believe she was wrong. Surely, someone more qualified was chosen for the job. It had to be that simple. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was being naïve. It is never that simple when it comes to Black hair. Gabby Douglas was the most recent target of criticism about her hair and she wasn’t even applying for a job at the time. Chris Rock even produced a movie about the subject after one of his daughters made a comment about her friend’s hair being “so good” (the friend was Caucasian).
I’m no stranger to the ‘natural’ vs. ‘straightened’ hair debate among Black women. My own hair is straightened and has been for more years than I can remember, but when I wore my hair in braids, I would consistently encounter people asking a million questions about my hair. And when I say ‘people’, I mean Caucasian people.
So what does that have to do with getting a job?
Each time a person is questioned about their hairstyle, they are casually reminded that it is different and not the norm. Not once has anyone asked me about how I “get my hair that way” when it is straightened. During an interview, an African-American woman with straightened hair is confident in the knowledge that her hair is not a factor in the interviewer’s thoughts because we have all bought into the idea that straightened hair is acceptable. Curly, kinky and braided hair is not.
Corporate America has a dress code and it applies to your hair. African-American women with natural hairstyles, men with dreadlocks and Baby Boomers with gray hair are not the only ones leaving job interviews questioning whether their hair just cost them a job. Men with long hair and anyone with non-traditional hair colors/hairstyles are looked upon with suspicion.
It’s not just hair that causes interview angst. Tattoos, piercings, and ear plugs all have their place in the non-interview appropriate hall of fame. Companies will tell you they are private entities and have the right to institute a dress/appearance code. However, hair is a very personal point of view with a public expression. The line a company draws can be difficult to approach. Even though a dress code should not discriminate under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unfortunate that many enforceable dress codes include provisions that mainly adversely affect minorities.
The point of an interview is to let your qualifications shine, not your hair gel. Regardless of how you wear your hair, make it neat without serving as a distraction to the interviewer. People will always find a reason to reject a candidate they weren’t planning to hire anyway. I once had a candidate get rejected because the hiring manager said she played with her hair in the interview and it was distracting.
In the end, if you believe you will need to substantially change the way you look in order to obtain employment, it warrants seeking work outside of a short-sighted employer. You probably wouldn’t have liked working there anyway.
Originally written for Forbes.com