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What does professional look like?

I applied for a job a few months ago, a Senior Educator position in an early years setting, which could have been a career-building move for me. It transpired that I was a little inexperienced for the initial role I was interested in, however after much discussion with the hiring manager, another role was put forward to me with the scope to progress to the one I wanted. I was invited for an interview and was emailed some further information about the company, including the dress code and expectations of employee appearance in order to look “professional”. I had been excited about this job prospect and what it could mean for my career, however as I read through the dress code, my enthusiasm began to waver. Allow me to explain.

I describe myself and my style as ‘alternative’. I have tattoos, multiple ear piercings, a nose ring and a penchant for dyeing my hair bright colours (its currently pink). I have worked in education for about 15 years now; over that time my hair colours have got a bit brighter and the number of piercings and tattoos has increased, but neither have ever been an issue in the workplace. In fact, I have had many a small child sit and count my earrings or name the colours or animals in my tattoos. I have no problem with a smart dress code and in previous jobs I have managed to do this successfully while still keeping with my style. In other jobs I have worn a uniform, as is the norm in many early years settings and indeed in the one I interviewed for.

The information I received about employee appearance seemed to place a lot of emphasis on the need to “look professional” which by the company’s ethos meant no facial piercings, a maximum of 2 earrings per ear, no “extreme” hair colours and no visible tattoos. I gave all this considerable thought, as I personally don’t think the way someone looks has any bearing on how professional they are. I also don’t consider my appearance to be that extreme; I have 5 tattoos, which are usually covered, and my nose ring is the only piercing not in my ears. Having learned this information about the company, I had reservations about whether the job was right for me, however I decided to accept the interview as I felt I had nothing to lose.

I approached the interview as I would any other; I dressed smartly but still true to myself and didn’t remove or hide any of my piercings. All but one of my tattoos were covered. I felt the interview went well, I answered everything I was asked, expressing my knowledge and experience as best I could. I was very upfront about my appearance and a conversation followed where the hiring manager explained the company expectations in a little more detail. It was made clear that the majority of my piercings would need to be removed, the pink hair would have to go and I would be expected to wear long sleeves and trousers all year round to keep my tattoos covered. I left the interview feeling positive about the way I had presented myself and my experience, but very unsure if this was the right work place for me. After a lot of thought, I decided that if I was offered the position I would turn it down, as having to change so much of myself for a job just didn’t sit well with me. A couple of days later, I received an email to say I wasn’t successful. There was no interview feedback given.

This experience has been very thought provoking; it has prompted me to have discussions with colleagues and with friends about what can and should be perceived as professional appearance when working in education. I have a friend and former colleague who was once told by a member of her senior management team that she didn’t “look like” a nursery manager because she had pink streaks in her hair and a tongue piercing. The general consensus among my colleagues and friends was that appearance doesn’t affect your ability to do a job successfully. From a personal perspective, I have spent my career as an educator constantly learning and developing myself to be the best I can be for those I teach. I have gained a lot of experience and knowledge through a variety of roles, which I feel makes me a strong candidate on paper. The number of earrings I wear or the colour of my hair has no bearing on my ability to do my job.

I would love to get some additional views on this subject. As a fellow education professional, do you feel that how a person looks makes a difference? Would you consider someone who embraces an alternative style to be less professional than someone who doesn’t? If you’re a parent, what would you think if your child’s teacher had tattoos or an un-natural hair colour? As an employer, would you feel it necessary for a prospective employee to change elements of their appearance to be “suitable” for a role?

Please comment and let me know!

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