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:

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  • 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.

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  1. I guess I must be more hard-hearted than the OP because I would not advise, or even think of, shaving my head during economic times like these. First, if you don’t know that she’s going to lose her hair for sure, don’t shave your hair. My uncle – who died of leukemia – never lost his hair even though he went through multiple rounds of chemo.

    Second, is there another way you can show solidarity with her? I am being serious when I say that I think that shaving your head would make you stand out in a way that’s NOT going to be good. You simply don’t want to be remember as “the bald girl” when they’re trying to narrow the choices down to one or two. As someone who does interviewing for my firm (and I know I’m going to be vilified for this here), first impressions DO matter and people DO remember quirky things about applicants. A bald head is definitely a “quirky thing.”

    Third, as a grad student with no job, your first priority should be YOU. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do everything you can to help this girl and make her feel supported. But, basically, you’re one of possibly thousands of applicants. Don’t be the one who gets an interview based on stellar qualifications and then gets cut out of the running because people can’t understand why you shaved your head (or don’t remember or don’t care). There are comments up there that say, “Well you wouldn’t want to work for those people anyway.” Maybe not. But that sentiment is not going to pay your salary or keep you warm at night after you graduate.

  2. Woman of Color :

    I agree with rocking the wig look for a bit – especially if you’ve never had short hair before. You really have no idea how your head is shaped until all of your hair is gone (lumps, bumps, and crevices may be awaiting). That being said, I have a very close cropped haircut (less than one inch), and it suits me me very well. I am a dark-skinned African woman, and I think my facial features are accentuated by the short hair. But I did however used to wear wigs, ’cause I could, and they are fun. Wigs have come a long way, and would provide you with the best of both worlds.

  3. I am so sorry to hear about your friend. I have been in a similar situation and the need to “do” something to help can be very overwhelming. However, here are a few suggestions to hold you over until you decide if shaving your head is the right way to support her:
    1. Contact the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to see how you can help. They have a Light the Night Walk in several cities that I have done the past 3 years and it is a very inspiring and moving experience. Consider starting a team with your friend’s name and recruiting people to walk for (and if her treatment allows, with her.) LLS also sells “relentless” plastic bracelets which I have worn for a number of years (for petite women, the kids size fits better) and is cheap enough to buy a bunch for family/friends.
    2. Be supportive. If visiting is not possible because of various stages of her treatment, call regularly or send cards or postcards of encouragement (daily, if necessary!) Ask her family what you can do to help, and remember that sometimes supporting the patient’s support people so they can support her is the best thing you can do. Offer to bring meals to the hospital or run errands for her family if they are tied up.
    3. If she does lose her hair, American Apparel makes great scarves that stay in place better than silk on a bald head. We used to wrap the long tails into a “bun” at the back of my friend’s neck so she felt like she still had her long hair!

    If you do decide that shaving your head is the best way to support her, consider doing it as part of LLS: http://totallybaldacious.llsevent.org/

  4. Don’t shave your head. You may have the best of intentions, but you risk interviewing with a cynic like me, who would have the fleeting thought that you invented the story and shaved your head just for the extra attention in an interview.

    Yes, I have a cold and mean little heart, but if I do, others do too.

    • I must have the same cold and mean little heart because I view it as a ploy to get attention. Much better to do something concrete, like spend time, which is a private matter that maybe only your friend will notice, as opposed to some useless public gesture.

    • I had the same thought: shaving your head can also be interpreted as your desire to show the world how compassionate and caring you are; rather than actually doing the hard work that it takes to support a family in crisis. I don’t mean to say that the OP’s intentions were impure, just that they can be interpreted that way. I was raised that drawing attention to your own good deeds negates them, and I’m worried that I would interpret her actions cynically if I was to interview her.

  5. Don’t do it!
    I am a cancer survivor myself (I was diagnosed with lymphoma when I was 24 and will be 2 years cancer free this Monday!) and I can tell you having a shaved head is horrible. Wigs are horrible – hot, itchy, and expensive (not to mention the embarrassment of realizing after hours that it’s askew in some way). I still look in the mirror and hate my hair. At the time, of course, I had more important things to worry about and I didn’t feel too emotional about it but post-treatment I was surprised how much the hair bothered me.

    When I was first undergoing treatment my mom made some allusion to cutting her hair in solidarity. I was horrified and demanded she stop the madness. Of course, I was an adult, but the idea of someone else shaving their head just seemed so embarrassing and senseless.

    However, two things that really really touched me were a) a bunch of friends chipped in to help buy me a nice human-hair wig and b) a friend of mine ran a race in my honor.

    Of course, I can’t speak for a child, but she’d probably be more happy if you went to a few chemo sessions with her or came over and watched Happy Feet (extremely cute – I recommend it). To me the physical pain was much more bearable than the pain of being so so lonely and missing out on normal life.

    Just my two cents!

    P.S. The Leukemia and Lympoma Society is amazing. I’ve since trained for a marathon with their Team in Training and they often have patients and their families as honored guests at their events. The website is lls.org if you want to know more.

  6. Professional women with a bald heads wear a wig in the office (I know at least 4 who have) so to the extent you go through with this, I think the professionally appropriate thing to do is to wear a wig. Of course, if one of these woman (all of whom have undergone chemo) want to wear a head scarf instead, or rock the bald look, I’d say more power to her. But your case is different, and if you showed up bald or nearly bald, I would wonder why you couldn’t pull together a more professional look, as people going through much worse (i.e., the women in my office with cancer themselves) had been able to do.

  7. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I heard stories of patients leaning their heads on their hands and having entire sections of hair fall out, so I shaved my head and donned a fabulous lace front wig soon after my first chemo treatment. DC work environments, including mine, are generally conservative. It was awkward enough having to explain my “new hair” to my co-workers and would have been even more awkward had I gone bald. Unless you are of African descent and have great cheekbones, I don’t recommend shaving your hair. And while your motivations are admirable, maybe you could show solidarity with the little girl by visiting her frequently? Or by asking her what she would like to do and taking her to do that activity? Maybe I just have the perspective of an adult who has survived cancer, but symbolic gestures (i.e. head shaving) meant much less to me than genuine interaction. And if I were interviewing you, I would probably think that you had a good heart, but wouldn’t hire you for failing to take seriously the professional image you project to potential employers.

  8. I just want to say, reading the comments, that I am sorry so many of us have lost people we cared about to cancer. Cancer terrifies me, more than almost anything else. I hope someday we get to a place where no one has to fear losing a loved one to cancer.

  9. two thoughts:

    “I do have some issues about the whole thing — but none of them outweigh my desire to do something concrete to help the girl.”

    Shaving your head will not concretely help her. It would be a symbolic gesture, albeit a thoughtful one. But it would be almost the opposite of concrete help.

    “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 w/ those people anyway.”

    That’s reality. All interviewers are going to judge someone, even if subconsciously, on their appearance. For women, part of that is their hair. Just make an informed decision based on that knowledge. And who in this economy is able to pick and choose to only work with those we’d “want to spend the majority” of their time with, anyway?

    • Just wanted to add–and maybe it’s just my mean, cynical heart as someone above said–I think I would also wonder if you weren’t trying to make this little girl’s cancer a little bit too much about . . . . you? And I know that’s horrible to think, but it would pass through my mind, meaning, it would pass through at least a few other folks’, too.

  10. I agree with the posters who recommend finding other ways to show your support. Many are presenting a black and white image of how your interviewers will react – impressed with your loyalty and commitment or won’t hire you because it’s weird. I think the reality is a little in between. Most people will feel…awkward. They will be trying not to look at your head while you talk, and they’ll be so busy worrying about whether they’re looking that they may not pay attention to what you say. It’s like the C post and commentary on why women shouldn’t dress in a way that turns men on – it’s not that people will consciously judge you for it, but they may still miss what you’re saying because they’re distracted.

    I also think that if I were an employer, I would approve of your loyalty and heart, but question your judgment. You’ll be sending the message that you’re more into dramatic statements than practical, small gestures (which in my business are what matters most). Great if you’re in advertising or show business; not necessarily great for other careers. Given that there are all these other ways to show support, I’d wonder why you chose this particular one (and then, as mentioned by another poster, chose not to wear a wig to the interview). I certainly wouldn’t *not* hire an otherwise qualified candidate for that reason, but it would affect my overall impression of the person, in both positive and perhaps negative ways.

  11. I think there are both selfish and selfless reasons in favor of NOT shaving your head, and would advise against it.

    The selfish reason is that, in this economy, you really don’t need to make it any harder on yourself to find a job, and this could be a big setback.

    But the most important and selfless reason is that, IMO, this is one of those “grand gestures” that doesn’t really require that much effort on your part and is nowhere near as noble as those gestures that cannot be seen by others. Many other posters above mentioned other ways to help out this girl, and all of those have the added benefit of not being a “look at me” type of thing. Even if it’s not your intent, you are going to get some respect points for shaving your head, so it *will* be about you. But I think you get more “heaven points” (or whatever) for doing things that are truly the most helpful for the girl, such as spending your free time with her when frankly you’d rather be at home watching a favorite show or sleeping or out with your friends.

    And if this sounds judgy, I freely admit that I probably wouldn’t do any of these things unless it really was an immediate family member.

  12. I lost my mom when I was 22 after a 2 year battle with breast cancer. My mother went through extensive radiation and chemo treatments and did not loose her hair (I’m not sure if there’s any rhyme or reason as to why some people lose their hair and some don’t, but not EVERYONE loses their hair). That being said – I can say with absolute certainty that if she had lost her hair and I shaved mine to show solidarity, she’d have killed me (she loved my long blonde hair).
    Time is what people in this kind of situation appreciate, more than just symbolic gestures. Time together and the ability to “normal” activities was what meant the most to my mother (watching TV together, going shopping or out to eat). Spend some time with her, watch movies, have dinner with the family, do her nails, and go with her to some chemo treatments.
    If you really want to do some sort of gesture (which I could see to a 7-year old may be nice), my question is if you were to cut your hair pixie-cut short, do you have enough hair that a wig could be made from? Maybe your hair could be used make a wig for the little girl? Otherwise, chip in to get her a NICE wig and some really cute scarves.

  13. I’m having hair issues of a far more trivial nature, but I couldn’t resist your post anyway.

    I let my hair grow for about a year after a lifetime of short hair. It was a big mistake (I’m now seeing with fresh eyes how my very difficult hair has led to a lifetime of extremely short cuts) and is generally driving me crazy. I can’t wait to be rid of it and since I, too, will soon be looking for a job following a resume gap, I also worried that people on the other side of the desk would decide I must have had cancer instead of just the hair from Hell.

    My vote for you is to wait and see how chemo affects the patient–maybe by then you’ll have a job, where (hopefully) you will have made friends who will get the “shaved head” gesture OR the patient’s hair doesn’t fall out at all.

  14. I work in public policy in DC.

    You do not want to stand out because of your appearance in a job interview. DC is a conservative town full of conservatively-dressed people.

    Sorry. I think it would be fine to shave your head as soon as you get the job offer, and invest in some tasteful scarves to wear at work.

  15. There’s a reply to a coment upthread, by (a different?) AC. Thing is, I did submit a reply to my own comment, but referencing that one (by cb); however, the one I submitted, while along similar lines, was a little less, well, baldly stated [pardon the pun]. Just wondering what’s going on with commets?

  16. Hi all — OP here.

    Thanks for the support for my friend and for all the thoughts on the head-shaving. For those who have survived cancer or lost close friends/family, thanks for sharing the stories, and my best wishes to all.

    The majority of commenters don’t seem to think shaving my head a smart idea, and I think you’ve just about convinced me. A couple of things as I skim through the comments:

    1. She hasn’t lost her hair yet. There’s no way I’m going to go through with it if she doesn’t lose the hair, and even then, only if I know she’s having a really hard time with it.

    2. Spending time with her or other meaningful gestures. I agree with the thought. Part of the motivation for the head-shaving is that I go to school in Virginia and this family is in Connecticut, so I only see them when I am home. I would love to be able to visit more than I can, so I was looking for an additional way to show support. However, then the obvious question is: is it still supportive if she never sees it? Which is a big part of my hesitation. I appreciate all the other suggestions re wig, scarves, etc., and I’ll look into the LLS more.

    3. In interviews, I would be worried that the employer thought I was weird or flaky or a skinhead or generally not a good candidate. That’s another major concern I had, and based on some of these comments, it seems valid. I don’t want to get a wig, so I think this whole issue is another check mark in the “don’t do it” column.

    4. Re “the lie” — if I knew I was fudging it even a little bit, I’d probably be so nervous and stutter-y that it wouldn’t work. I think there’s a time and a place where C’s suggestion is perfectly appropriate (i.e. most places that aren’t an interview) but I just wouldn’t feel comfortable.

    5. I’ll think about a pixie cut as a good compromise. The girl and I are different ethnicities, so my hair won’t suit her skin or match her natural hair color at all. Can they dye the hair when they make wigs (to black from light brown, in this case)? Maybe it would be best just to get her a nice one that isn’t my hair.

    6. AC’s comment above mine about “baldly stated” cracked me up. Sorry. Had to say it.

    • Thanks for all the follow up info! I think if you’re in VA and she’s in CT, that pretty much settles it unless you’d consider tying it in with a visit to her.

      I had surgery as a kid that kept me in bed and out of school for several months (not cancer) when I was about that age. Here are a couple things I remember, not all of which would work or make sense today:
      – A sticker book in the mail and follow-up cards and letters with full sheets of stickers from a favorite babysitter who’d moved out of town
      – A new 7-CD changer player from a group of friends’ parents and then a new CD from one of the friends on a weekly basis
      – Visits at lunchtime; one friend (and her mom) would get my order for an ice cream sundae from TCBY and we’d all have ice cream for lunch! This happened maybe 2-3x but it was SO COOL!

      There were also tons of prepared meals, offers to babysit (especially helpful from the couple where one of them was a nurse), and offers to do grocery and other shopping for my parents. I know they really appreciated this.

      • Ditto to Eva’s suggestions. I have 7 and 8 year old sons. Getting packages in the mail is THE highlight of the day for them. Since you can’t be around frequently, mailing her stuff (a card, a letter, a coloring book, DVD, whatever) would be a meaningful thing you could do frequently. My middle son’s godmother sends him postcards from her travels around the world and he loves getting them. She often ends up mailing them from the States after her return but he doesn’t notice; he’s just happy to get the card/mail!

        Babysitting == absolutely awesome. We’ve had our bumps with our kids over the years (including major kidney surgery on #3 when he was a newborn) and the hands-down best help for me as a parent was someone coming to help with the kids, let me out of the house.

        And I’d like to echo what others said about chemo and hair loss. It may or may not happen, depending on the specific types of chemo drugs she gets and how her body reacts. If it does happen, it may take time — it will most likely not happen after the first treatment, but some time down the line. So this head-shaving, IMO, is premature, in addition to not being all that helpful if she’s not seeing you much.

        BTW, one more reason not to do it: if you don’t explain it very clearly up front, employers may be scared to hire you because of insurance issues, not just all of the leave involved with needing treatments and dealing with major illness. My son’s godmother, mentioned above, is living with Stage IV metastic breast cancer. Interviewing is a Big Deal for her b/c she does not want to let on about the cancer.

        And BTW, she’s rocked some pretty cool wigs when bald, though she did prefer the bald with head scarf/hat look for comfort. She’s in chemo now (round #5 or 6, I’ve lost count) and hasn’t lost it this time around. It’s scraggly and cut short, but still there.

  17. Liz (Europe) :

    Having once shaved my hair, I can say wigs are really unnoticeable, you don’t even have to go for natural hair, mine were like 25 euro and no one noticed a thing. But they become super-itchy and hot once you have short hair of your own, and by short I mean very very short, but by then you may already have the job so. Besides, even short hair is so much more acceptable than none at all.

  18. I am a cancer survivor and lost all my hair within two weeks of my first chemo treatment. It depends on what kind of chemo you are taking. I’m an adult, and I don’t know what it’s like to be a child or even know a child with cancer. Maybe they would feel better with the solidarity thing. That’s cool. From my perspective, it’s important to show love and caring, but going that far makes it more about you and not about them.

  19. Just after I graduated high school, I shaved my head partially just because I could (free from school dress code) and partially for convenience (had a terrible summer job where I had to wear a hat in a greasy environment). It was a really liberating experience, but it actually looked terrible on me. I felt so ugly until it grew out.

    I would say that your intentions are very noble, and I think you should wait to see how much of your friend’s hair falls out. Maybe a better idea would be to cut your hair very very short, and wear a scarf over it.

    And you should tell your friend what you’re thinking about. That would mean a lot to me, knowing that my hero cared so much.

  20. Being a lawyer who has been unemployed in a pricey city before- I have to say- you might consider passing on this one in self-interest. Unless you have independent life funding, you need a job and to get your career started on the right foot. There is a LOT of competition right now. Unfortunately the world is judgy and you don’t want to end up unemployed during a recession- that won’t help your friend because you may become broke and unhappy, and won’t be much of a supportive, positive force in her life at that stage- when she may really need you. Playing devil’s advocate here in a way, but I have learned the hard way to put myself first.