A reader writes:
I’m 19 and have just returned home from a 3-month exchange trip. Before I left, I had a job at a guitar store, but I’m home a bit earlier than expected so I need to start looking for another job until the summer, when they can re-hire me. While I was away, I changed my hair to an electric pink mohawk. (It was purple before, but a pixie-cut and my previous employer was fine with this.) Do you think this will be a problem, considering that I’m just applying for places in fast food and retail? I’m also a bit worried about what my old employer will say.
Some managers will make all sorts of assumptions about you because of your hair — that you’re counterculture in some way that will be a problem on the job, that you have a problem with authority, that you don’t care about professional norms, etc. — or you will just make them uncomfortable. And fair or not (mainly not), that’ll torpedo your candidacy with them in an instant. And sure, this way of thinking is silly, but it’s still the reality you’re going to be dealing with.
Beyond that, even if you encounter a manager who personally loves your hair, they’re still likely to worry that it will be an issue for some of their customers, who may have all kinds of associations about people with electric pink mohawks. While their customers may be totally off-base in thinking this way, the business exists to make a profit from these customers, not to change their mindsets about other people’s hair choices. They’re not in the business of making people more tolerant; they’re in the business of selling a product, and anything that potentially detracts from their ability to do that is likely to be a problem.
Now, a guitar store may not care, depending on their culture and customers (although you should ask your manager there while you still have time to change it). But fast food and retail stores are more likely to care (unless it’s a very specific type of retail store that caters to a clientele who by definition won’t be uncomfortable with your hair). And this goes triple if you’re not in a pretty urban area.
You certainly might be able to find an employer who doesn’t care, but you’re stacking the odds against yourself … so you’ve got to decide if the hair is worth that price to you. And it may well be — just be clear about what you’ll be up against.