No one would really call Pamela Ross Snyder a rebel, but when her hairstylist showed her a number of hair color samples she could try, the blue just jumped out at her.
Naturally a light brunette, Ross Snyder had been wearing her hair a fairly bold red for the past few years. “But red is a natural color,” she said. She knew going blue was a big step from red, but she was just too tempted to not try it.
It was around Easter time, so when she returned to work as a manger in customer services at Avantor in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, her coworkers joked that she was trying to look like an Easter egg.
But other than that, she said, the response was almost universally positive.
“I got complements on it every single day. Everyone in upper management really liked it” she said. “It was really such an ego booster.”
She even got noticed by the company’s CEO when he was in the office to present employee awards, of which she was a recipient.
“He said ‘Whoa! That’s blue,’ when he saw me. So I just told him it was one of our company colors,” she said.
“It shows your style,” Ross Snyder said. “As long as you’re professional people will respect you.”
For Sheena Guthrie, an implementation manager at Olympus Corp., also in Center Valley, it wasn’t what people were saying, it was what they weren’t saying that made her love bringing a bold hair color to work.
An employee at Olympus for more than four years, she had a baby three years ago and suffered from postpartum depression. Having her coworkers regularly asking about new motherhood was becoming stressful, so she decided to give them something else to chat about.
“I decided to dye my hair and change the conversation,” Guthrie said. “Green was the first color I decided to go with and it gave everyone something to ask me about besides the baby, which was the one thing they knew about me.”
She said at the time there weren’t many people with unusual hair color at her company.
While her husband was a bit shocked at “just how much color” she chose, her coworkers and supervisors loved it and she’s been dying it different colors ever since. And since then, she said she’s seen many more coworkers choose more unusual hair color.
Between a general growing acceptance of personal expression in society and low unemployment keeping employers more open minded, bold and brighter hair colors are finding their way into the workplace even in more traditionally conservative fields.
“Self-expression is becoming more acceptable,” said Tina Hamilton, president and CEO of myHr Partner, a human services provider in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “You can even see executives with bright red or bright green hair, but they’re still professional.”
One of her own human resources professionals dyed her hair pink for breast cancer awareness in October.
“She went out to visit our clients and nobody complained,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing to let people have a little fun.”
Stephen Flowers, owner of Suddenly Samantha, a hair salon in Easton, Pennsylvania, can vouch for the increasing popularity of bold hair color, especially in older, professional women who would have shunned it in the past.
“I’ve seen a drastic increase,” Flowers said. “Conservative mothers who a few years ago would have had a fit if their kids wanted to color their hair wild colors are now getting it done themselves.”
He compared it to the road to acceptance taken by tattoos. Like tattoos in the past, as more people adopt unusual hair color, it’s becoming more mainstream and acceptable.
“Tattoos used to be associated with more negative things,” said Hamilton. “That isn’t so anymore.”
Likewise, bright and unnatural hair colors used to be viewed as a thing of teenage rebellion and youth culture. “But women my age, 50, 55 are dying their hair like this,” Hamilton said. “The world is changing and if we don’t change with it, you may be selling yourself and your company short.”
Mind the Code
While Ross Snyder said her company was supportive of her bold look, she knows not all companies are. She knows a woman who worked for a nursing home who was fired for refusing to change her “unnaturally colored hair.”
But, as accepting as modern corporate culture is becoming with people expressing their personal style in less conventional ways, such as hair color, employees can legally be fired, or disciplined in other ways for wild hair color, said Loren Speziale an employment law attorney with Gross McGinley LLP in Allentown.
“It comes down to what the policies of their companies are,” Speziale said. “Hair style is not a protected class from discrimination. A company is allowed to have policies on personal appearance and grooming.”
She did note that there are exceptions, specifically if a hair style is influenced by race or culture. People of African heritage have successfully sued their companies for banning what they considered natural hair, braids or dreadlocks, all considered cultural expressions.
That isn’t a free pass for a person of color to do whatever they want with their hair, Speziale explained.
“[A company] can have a policy, but they have to enforce it consistently,” she said.
Speziale cited the case of an African-American UPS employee who dyed her hair fuchsia. The company disciplined her, and she filed suit. UPS was able to prove that it had disciplined employees of other races for the same hair color and that hair color, not race, was the issue.
UPS won the lawsuit.
As someone who’s done the daring do, Ross Snyder said she still understands it’s not for every corporate culture. She would have changed her hair back to a more normal color had her company requested.
“You’re making a choice. It may be self-expression, which I applaud, but society does still have its constraints, especially in some workplaces,” Ross Snyder said.
Guthrie also said she looked up her company’s dress code and personal appearance policies.
“It was actually pretty open,” she said.
Still, she was nervous, recently when she applied for a promotion, fearing that her hair color would keep her from a management job.
“I was very relieved when I got the promotion,” she said, noting that those interviewing her were supportive of her look, which she said she now sees is in tune with the company’s culture which encourages everyone to “do their job and not be distracted by what people look like.”
That was a good call, said MyHr Partner’s Hamilton.
Companies that may be quick to dismiss someone for a bright blue bob should perhaps reconsider their prejudice against people with more unusual hair color, she said.
“In a tight labor market you may be missing out. Even in a more conservative office you may need to rethink that reluctance,” she said.
Flowers isn’t seeing any slowdown of creative color choices at his salon. He sees women in the legal profession – bold colors are popular with law clerks and even teachers are getting “pops” of color in their hair. “We’re seeing an array of colors. It’s not like when I started my salon 24 years ago when it was mostly blondes and darks and covering gray.”
And for Guthrie, the support her company and coworkers have given her for her personal expression through hair has made her a happier and more loyal employee and while she said it “may sound cheesy” it means a lot to her to work for a company that values people’s differences.