A Bald Head… and a Job Interview

bald interviewToday’s e-mail is from J, who has a question about bold hair choices and job interviews…

I’m a public policy grad student, graduating in May and applying for jobs all over the place , but many in DC (employers range from government-level, to think-tanks, to smaller non-profits). I am 22. Right now I am pretty average-looking: short, white, size 2, brown hair slightly longer than shoulder-length in a well-maintained cut. I found out this week that my close family friends’ seven-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with leukemia. The girl and I are very close, and I think of her like my sister, so obviously I’m torn up about this. Her mom says she looks up to me, and I know I influence her behavior so I try to be a good role model. She’s going to be getting chemo, the whole nine yards, and I am anticipating that she’ll have a hard time if she loses her hair. I’m thinking about shaving my head to support her. Now I’ll be honest and say that I’ve never had short hair, let alone shaved it before, and I do have some issues about the whole thing — but none of them outweigh my desire to to do something concrete to help the girl. However, my question is, do you think a shaved head would affect my chances at getting a job? Would it be likely to freak an employer out? Any general thoughts?

Wow. We have a lot of thoughts on this, and we’re sure our readers will have more. We’ll try to put our thoughts in a cogent order…

First: Our hearts go out to your sick friend, to her family, and to you.  Words can’t properly express how strongly we hope she gets better.


Second: We get what you want to do with the shaved head — words can’t express it, and to shave your head along with her and show solidarity with her — this is a Good Thing that you want to do.  A few further thoughts:

  • It sounds like your friend has not yet lost her hair — we are unsure of how quickly a chemo patient loses their hair, or how definite hair loss is.  (Background: a  good friend of ours endured a lot of chemo when we were around 19, and she didn’t lose hardly any of her hair.)  And so you may be jumping the gun a bit to get your head shaved immediately.
  • Do you see the girl often enough?  It sounds as if you do — but if you only see her once every 3 months, you may want to reconsider, even though your gesture is incredibly magnanimous.
  • Would you keep it shaved throughout her treatment?  Or would you let it grow out after shaving it?

Third: Ah, yes, the job thing. There’s no way around it, your job interviewers will DEFINITELY notice a shaved head.  But:

  • Anyone with a heart will sympathize with your reasons for doing it.  So long as your job is behind the scenes, hopefully the person will look beyond your hair.
  • If your job is NOT behind the scenes, or if Important People visit the office where you’ll be working on a regular basis, you may want to prepare yourself — this may not be a job that you will get, unless the person in charge thinks they are running a young, hip shop (whether it be a think tank or a non-profit).  Some people simply will not want an underling who makes more of an impact than they do.
  • It will be your resume and transcript that wins you the interview — so your bald head won’t be an issue until then.
  • On the interview:  You should think about how to explain your bald head in the interview.  We think a bald head does need to be explained, both because a) the interviewer might worry that you are sick yourself, and you should dissuade those fears, and b) this act of shaving your head says a lot about who you are — it speaks to your loyalty, your strength, your sense of self — and these are all good things that interviewers should know. (A quick tip — you might want to simplify the story and just say “my 7-year-old sister” and leave it at that, unless the interviewer delves further.)*

Fourth:  You are young. This is the time to shave your head, or dye your hair blue, or otherwise take fashion and beauty risks. Hair is a great place to take these risks, because it grows out and is back to normal in short order.  Give yourself at least a few years until you force yourself to play it safe.

Fifth: We have less coherent thoughts on this, but as a stream:  We have a number of guy friends who shaved their heads rather than deal with dwindling hair (or because they thought it looked cool).  We have had friends who actually did suffer hair loss because of chemo and had no choice but to rock the bald look.  We also know some very fashionable women who shaved their heads just because they thought it complimented their bone structure (and we’re sure we’ve seen at least, like, 3 models on America’s Next Top Model get it done.)  A bald head really should not be a big deal.

We’ve spent limited time on the DC scene, though, so we asked a friend of ours who worked at numerous places (and was fairly powerful) before she left for greener pastures.  Her thoughts:

My first instinct is that they may look at her and form (ignorant) opinions right away.  My second thought is that it’s a good conversation starter for her and shows a side of her that demonstrates commitment, which is an attractive quality for a job applicant.  However, for # 2 to work, she has to come up with a great way to open up the reason for her hair pretty quick into each interview.  … Also, I’d say that if an interviewer judges her by her hair, she probably wouldn’t want to spend the majority of her waking hours with those people anyway.

All right, readers — what are your thoughts?

* UPDATE: Geez, commenters are going nuts over our suggestion that she simplify her explanation as much as possible.  We stand by our advice to come up with a quick, easy way to explain your baldness, and be open to talking about the issue more if the interviewer wants to.  This shouldn’t be the focus of the interview, though.  We totally disagree that saying her friend is her “sister” is a Lie in the capital L sense of the word — which should never be done in a job interview, obviously, and perhaps “cousin” would have been better suggestion. But: either way it could be explained further, very easily and quickly, if the interviewer wanted to talk about it.

Comments

  1. If they would not hire would because your shaved your head in solidarity with a 7-year-old cancer patient, consider whether those are people you’d want to work with/for at all.

    Good on you. And good luck.

    • Wow, this was a hot mess – too bad I can’t edit! What I meant to say was:

      If they would not hire YOU because you shaved your head in solidarity with a 7-year-old cancer patient…

  2. The thing is, it would be much better NOT to have to bring this up in a job interview. Because it’s so much better not to have to call attention to your appearance. How does one do this gracefully?

    The other thing is that even if people think it’s great, they still won’t want you to be the face of their company, so to speak, without any hair.

    Frankly, as wonderful as a gesture as this is, this is the thing to do AFTER you have a job. Otherwise you’re going to be known as the bald woman. Because all things being equal between you and another candidate, guess who they are going to hire?

    • I agree – I’m an accountant in a corporation – hardly a public face kind of job, and we have a dress code and corporate culture expecting us to represent the company even within the company appropriately. Even back office positions go to continuing education classes.

  3. I can’t comment on anything else besides this one point right now because my head is still swimming –

    “(A quick tip — you might want to simplify the story and just say “my 7-year-old sister” and leave it at that, unless the interviewer delves further.)”

    No no NO. This is not simplifying the story. This is changing the story – she isn’t a sister. This is a lie. Do NOT lie about ANYTHING in a job interview (or ever, really).

    If I interviewed someone who mentioned a sister, and I later learned that the person was not her sister (even if it was a super close family friend, “like a sister”), I would immediately doubt everything else they’d told me.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying “my very close family friend who is like a sister to me”.

    • That threw me for a loop, too. In no way, shape or form should you change the truth for a “better story”. Be absolutely clear and honest, and don’t be apologetic. Set them straight at the beginning of the interview that you are not straight from the punk scene or radical in your actions generally, and that the bald look is not forever, and that should be enough. I would be impressed by a candidate like you, if I could see your confidence and strength of character.

      • Wow, I totally disagree (obviously). I’ve had so many friends who mentioned “Uncle Nick” and then later revealed that he was a close family friend when we talked further. Family relationships aren’t important to an interviewer who wants a quick answer. Changing it to “sister” doesn’t make it a “better” story, but it simplifies the telling of it — the less words the job applicant has to trip over in whatever her quick explanation of it, the better.

        Actually, having said that, I take it back — maybe it does change the story, in that it makes it worse — it shows J’s better character that she’s doing it for a family friend and not a blood relative.

        But still: if the interviewer cares to probe further, she will, and it’s easily explained in a sentence. If she keeps it a deep dark secret for three months, it’s going to be weird. But the “bald” thing should not be the subject of the interview; it’s just something to be explained and moved beyond.

        • I think there is a huge difference between “Uncle” who is really a friend, and someone who you think of “like a little sister”. This is a wonderful thing for the letter writer to do and would mean so much to that girl, but there is a big difference between actual sister and young girl you think of like a sister in terms of what it means when you tell that story.

        • That’s different. Many people are brought up to call their parents’ friends uncles and aunts – my godmother is Auntie Louise to me. And I actually referred to her as my aunt the other day by mistake.

    • Right, I’m not even anti-lying about trivial things to smooth over social situations, but that one would come back to bite you if you got the job. Everyone would be asking you how your sister was doing and how your parents were coping, so you’d either have to cop to it and look weird or make up ever more elaborate stories, all of which would unravel when your mom visited and you ran into a co-worker at the grocery store who you’d have to introduce and who would immediately exclaim “I was so happy to hear your daughter was doing better!”

    • Anon, I wholeheartedly agree.

      When I was in undergrad, I was involved in a semester-long project as part of my capstone class. One of our group members frequently mentioned his little brother’s struggle with leukemia. As the semester wore on, his brother’s leukemia progressed, and we let him off the hook for several group meetings and all-nighters so he could spend time with his brother and his family.

      When his brother passed shortly after our big presentation, our entire group made plans to attend the funeral. The day before the funeral, we learned through the grapevine that the “little brother” was not related to him all; rather, he was our group member’s neighbor from down the street. Though we recognized that our group member must have been in a great deal of pain, and that loss and mourning transcend familial bonds, we all felt sort of betrayed. It made us question his motivations with respect to most of what he’d told us.

    • Even if the lie would not be “a Lie in the capital L sense of the word”, any lie is just seems to be a bad, BAD idea. Stick to “someone very close to me”, “my close friend’s little girl”, “a little girl who means alot to me”, etc. It gets the point across quite effectively and you’re not tip-toeing near “Lie” territory.

  4. Do not lie and say she is your sister!! If you get the job and then it comes out that she is not your sister, this will be very, very bad for your reputation. Stick to the truth – the WHOLE truth!! Cannot stress this enough!!!!

  5. I totally concur about NOT LYING and saying it’s your SISTER who has cancer. If the story must be streamlined, perhaps saying she’s your “neice” would be better, as far more people call their parents’ close, lifelong friends “Auntie Soandso” than “my big sister.”

  6. what about getting a wig for interviews (and potentially, for the work day)? you would still be able to show your incredible support outside of work, but it wouldn’t have to impact your career.

    • wig seemed the solution to me, too. you can get a really nice one these days.

    • I agree with the wig idea.

      • I’d have to disagree. A wig would be distracting– people will wonder (1) if writer is wearing a wig and (2) if she is wearing a wig, why? Wearing a wig would bring up the same attention as the shaved head and it won’t be in a good way. I think writer should do it if she wants to and be prepared to explain in an interview. I’m betting most people will think that it is a good thing and move on!

        • Blonde lawyer :

          Not if you have a good wig.

          • Plus, depending on the interviewer, they might just assume she’s an orthodox Jew.

        • A good wig can be perfectly natural looking. An attorney in my office went through chemo and lost her hair and wore a wig the whole time. Those that didnt see her everyday (and thus didnt notice the slight color/ length change when she made the switch) never knew it was a wig—some never even knew she had cancer.

          • wig is the way to go.

          • Anonymous :

            I agree. Take it from me – I know first hand. If she will lose her hair, it might be on day 14 of the treatment (depending on the drug. Is your interview before day 14?) Before you shave your hair, cut it short. Then, get a wig with short hair that looks like yours before you shave your hair. This way when your hair grows back and you are ready to take off the wig, it will not be such a dramatic change from long to short!

        • Wigs are only distracting if they are poorly fit, poorly colored, and/or poorly made. A good, quality hairpiece that is fit correctly and made with real hair is unnoticeable. More women (and celebrities, in fact) wear them than you think.

      • So sorry to hear that your little friend has a tough time ahead & parying that all goes well with her & her family.

        I thought of the ‘wig’ suggestion too for the interview atleast. That said, one of my closest friends had chemo last year and her hair starting falling out only halfway into the treatment. So wait a bit and see how it goes before you shave it off.

        If you opt for a wig for the interview, then, assuming you land the job, I wonder whether it makes sense to discuss with your employer and say that you will wear a wig if needed for the job/ key meetings etc but otherwise will sport a bald look? Obviously depends on how human/understanding he/she is…but just worth a thought.

  7. I agree on the no lying about her being your sister thing. I recently heard a co-worker who is an only child tell a story about a family trip that somehow involved another girl that made it sound like her sister. It distracted me from the story and made me question whether she had made it up. It doesn’t take a lot of extra time to call someone a close family friend and the fact that you are shaving your head emphasizes the tight relationship.

    • Anonymous :

      I’m 30 and I have a kid that lives with me. I’ve known him since he was 11, now he’s 19 and I’m very close with his family. I’ll often refer to him as my “little brother” to simplify interactions (especially when the neighbors ask if he’s my boyfriend). If it ever becomes strange as I get to know someone better, I simply add, “I call him my brother because it’s the easiest explanation of our relationship but he’s not actually my brother.” Most people seem to be satisfied with that. I save the real explanation for people I know very well because it’s terribly personal.

  8. Anonymous :

    You are a very good friend.

    I think there are a lot of other concrete ways to show your support, e.g. go with her to treatment, visit often, etc. As much as the hair will be a very meaningful gesture, nothing beats having someone sit with you and try to distract you during treatments.

    When my mom had cancer my sister cut her hair very short to show solidarity but did not shave her head. She had always had hair no shorter than a bob so the haircut in itself was dramatic.

    Part of me would suggest that you do not shave your head if you are trying to enter the job market right now. It’s just not an easy market and DC is a fairly conservative town. I am sure some employers would really respect your choice, but it’s a risk.

    • Legally Brunette :

      Your gesture is incredibly thoughtful and I wish your friend a very speedy recovery. ‘

      BUT, I completely agree that DC is very conservative and that extends even to the non profits in the area. I have friends who are looking for jobs in DC and have been looking for over a year, without any luck. I would not do anything that would call attention to yourself in a potentially risky way, given how hard the job market is right now.

      Also, I saw a documentary a long time ago about skinheads and some of the women had their head shaved. This is the last association that you would want to have.

  9. 1. Agreed w/ other commenters — don’t lie — any lie, ever, and especially not a lie that sounds like you are playing a sympathy card. This will screw you up professionally forever when people find out that you lied about your (non-existent) baby sister having cancer.

    2. Talk this out thoroughly with the girl’s parents — make sure it will have the impact that you want it to have, and not scare her, or make her sad.

    3. Think through if, at this juncture of your life, this is the right gesture to be making. DC is a conservative (dressing and looking) town, even the liberals. You can visit your little friend daily, plan special “big girl” outings for shopping, tea, zoo, movies, manicures, you name it, every weekend she’s up to it, help with homework, bake her favorite cookies… there are a lot of ways to be “concretely” close to this girl (and a millio other ways — running errands, cooking dinner, spending time with any siblings — to help her family) that don’t involve making a dramatic physical statement that could be interpreted as having a drama queen aspect to it.

  10. I lost my 17 year old cousin to cancer in Fall 2008 and watched her lose her hair a few times during the 4 years she battled cancer. Although it falls out slowly (well, in clumps), in order to make her wig fit properly, there did come a time when she needed to go ahead and shave her head. I was in law school for most of this and wanted to contribute but was also trying to find a job. I opted to grow my hair out and then donate it to try and provide support for her. It was very short after I cut it but still professional and at the end of the day, my cousin spent most of her time wearing a wig or a hat or scarf anyways. For a short time she was able to ditch the wig and we went through the awkward “growing out” phase together.

    I agree with everything that’s been said but you don’t need to shave your head (or even donate your hair) to be a source of support. Making her feel loved and safe and having those precious few moments where she can be a kid is the most important thing. I think my cousin was infinitely more grateful for the trips to Starbucks and manicures with me that let her feel like a “regular” teen than she was about me donating my hair. You can also support her by supporting her parents/sublings. Bring over frozen casseroles and fresh fruit. Offer to help take the 7 year old or her siblings to appointments, soccer, etc. if you have time. There are many things you can do that the family will remember forever that don’t involve making your appearance something that employers will question.

    • Your post reminded me – a woman I know has over the past year or so had to undergo some pretty major surgeries, and her family is on the Caring Bridge site. Apparently it has been an absolute godsend, and helps everyone coordinate bringing meals and scheduling visits. She wakes up in the morning and will find dinner on her front porch. Just something to think about for the little girl’s family.

    • Anonymous :

      I had the same thought. Rather than shaving your head, would it make more sense to get a short pixie cut and (perhaps) donate your hair for a wig for your friend? Because she’s so young, many children her age may not understand what’s going on. It could be better for her self esteem to have a wig to wear when she feels like she needs it. It also allows you to help and support her (and as noted by others, there are SO MANY wonderfully supportive gestures you can make), and it keeps you from having to explain your bald head during job interviews.

    • could not agree more – donating your hair to locks of love or a similar organization to help make wigs for other cancer survivors is both a touching way of contributing that you can explain to a 7-year old and still allows you to have short hair for an interview…

  11. Anonymous :

    I think a pixie cut would be just fine and would exemplify the same gesture without making people worry that you were sick.

    If people ask you about yourself, say “something that’s been very much on my mind right now is my close friend’s daughter…. in fact, I cut my hair very short because she may soon lose her hair to chemo and I don’t want her to think it’s scary.” then move on. But DO NOT lie — I agree with everyone who’s said it’s a terrible idea.

    And wigs are fine if they’re good ones, but if you’re just buying it for an interview and it’s a cheap one, it’ll look bad. And, again bring up questions of health.

    Could you buy the same hats or scarves and bandanas for yourself and your little friend? And a couple bald caps so you can see what you would both look like? Joking around may make it less scary, and having a big-girl friend with a matching hat may make her feel like the coolest girl in the world when you two are out and about.

    • I especially like the last idea here. Buy yourself and your friend matching headscarves. You can even put your hair up in a bun.

  12. I agree you should show solidarity with your friend, and trust me I don’t want to take anything away from that. But you also need to think of the big picture.

    Get a great job and then make a donation in her name to her favorite charity or to her. Or find another way to show you care. Don’t shave your head.

    You will make a greater difference in the world if you get an amazing job that will afford you the opportunity to make an impact. You said you’re applying “all over the place”. How many times are you going to explain your story instead of what you have to offer? It may even start to sound like a sympathy ploy to some. For others, they may hire you BECAUSE they felt a connection. Neither answer is a good one. You need to find the right job for the right reasons, and right now you do need to focus on that, even as you care for your friend. She probably would agree.

  13. Smaller, liberally focused non-profits in DC will not care. I worked for one, have many friends in them, and know the city well. They are generally fairly laid back and I took all sorts of risks when I was in that field, including wearing brightly colored suits to job interviews. Friends had piercings, tattoos, and weird hair colors. It didn’t impact them.

    If those are your priority, you’ll be fine.

    Think tanks are a slightly different beast, but considering many overlap with the non-profit scene, they probably won’t be shocked. I’d wear a super conservative but stylish suit, and I can’t see it being a huge issue.

    Finally, the federal government is the single worst dressed collection of people ever. You will look presentable if your clothes match and aren’t stained.

    DC has some conservative parts, and I probably wouldn’t advocate this look if you are going for jobs at CATO or in Sam Brownback’s office or something. But if you are going for liberal or more centrist places like Brookings, as well most government offices, I really cant see this being a problem.

  14. Wig, wig, wig. Wigs are no big deal!

  15. Don’t shave your head. This is a tough, tough market. You aren’t selling out your ideals to stay employable. Also, there are those, including interviewers, who may view a voluntarily shaved head on a woman as showing off, or a ploy for sympathy. Many here are reverting to the “well you wouldn’t want to work for these people anyway.” Perhaps that is true. But in this market, early in one’s career, I think it is ill-advised.

    • Thanks for saying what I wanted to say. It’s a great gesture. However, there are other gestures that could mean as much (or more) than shaving a head to the person who is sick. My godfather died of lung cancer after a five-year fight. He had never been to Europe, so his students did a fund-raising drive and just before he passed, he and his wife were able to go. He was a history teacher and it meant an incredible amount to him, for his students and coworkers to do that, so he could see things he had only read about in books. There are any number 0f things the OP can do for her friend that would mean just as much as a shaved head – I would emphasize that time spent together is priceless to people who are going through a serious illness, as there is a tendency for people to stay away from them (either because they are terrified of the illness/infirmity or because they feel like they don’t want to impose. Either way, it leaves the sick person feeling like, great – I am sick AND I’m a social pariah). A shaved head is a great gesture, but it’s just a gesture. There are others the OP can choose. Doing something else and leaving your hair intact so you can get a job is not a sign you don’t have solidarity with the person going through the illness. God bless the little girl and her family. I will pray for a speedy recovery for her.

  16. Instead of sister, say “someone very close to me.” Say it quietly and with dignity and no one will be able to tell whether it is your mother, best friend, whatever.

  17. Heartbreaking story. That’s all I can think about, even as I read the debates about being employabiloity. I have an 11 year old girl. She loves dolls, she’s fragile about her appearance and looks. What ever would I do to comfort her if she lost all of her hair? May God help this child and her friends and family. I think C’s advice is compassionate and spot on. I didn’t think twice about “the lie” either.

  18. PurpleViolet :

    Wig!

  19. As some one else said, I think a pixie cut is as short as you should go. And if your cut hair is long enough, consider donating it to Locks of Love.

  20. I agree – Lying in a job interview is never good – simplifying your explanation so that the point of “I’m a good/loyal/not unhealthy person” is excellent – I don’t need to know your life story, I do need to know that you’re not crazy or likely to have to quit.

    Frankly, shaving your head is impulsive and while it’s a nice idea, its not practical. Help and support comes in many forms – it comes in the form of raising money for treatment, being tested as a donor, spending time with her to keep her from thinking about the pain she will be in. Get her pretty scarves and yourself matching ones if you think looking the same is a big deal, help her find ways to match havng a central line look less alien…
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