Work Wednesdays: Hair Length and Hair Color

May 14, 2014

Every spring the e-mails pour in from soon-to-be-graduated women, “Is my hair too long?” they ask.  Usually, a mother, an aunt or a friend has pointed out that they’re “teenager hair” needs to go if they expect to be taken seriously.  So I’m here to tackle this follicular conundrum for all the ladies who like long hair, but don’t want to look too young or unprofessional.

My take?  If your hair is longer than your body strap on your bra, it’s time for a haircut.  For me, that’s the southern limit.  This doesn’t mean that I think you must cut your hair to shoulder length in order to be taken seriously.  (Mine is longer than that.)

Also, unlike many professional women, I don’t think straight hair is more professional than curly hair.  I think that as long as the hair is styled and well-kept, curly or straight is no matter.

As for dying your hair, I find over processed hair to be a distraction, so I caution against it, but it’s not a hard line stance.  For example, the chunky highlights that were so big in the late 90s are overkill.  I once had an intern who dyed her hair platinum, almost-white blonde, and some took her hair color to mean she was high maintenance.  And obviously, colors like purple, blue and the jet black can lead people to think that you spend your weekends going to raves.  Natural-looking is usually better.

Beyond hair that’s too long or dyed purple, the only hair situation that I consider a serious, almost unforgivable faux pas is dirty, greasy hair.  One of my old staff assistants used to come in with hair that hadn’t been washed in three or four days.  It made me insane.  So however you choose to wear your hair, at the bare minimum, keep it clean.  Dry shampoo is your friend.

So what do you think ladies, are there any hairstyles that strike you as completely faux pas for a professional office?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Hairstyles, Work Wednesdays

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  1. arya h. says:

    I have some version of a spiky pixie cut since I was young. While that might seem odd for a lawyer, it so far, has not caused me any problems.

  2. DCQ says:

    I personally think a pony tail with no other effort is not the most professional. It take two sections to make it look more sleek — wrap some hair around the elastic, for instance. Updos like a simple bun are much nicer.

    I was walking behind a girl to the metro this morning and found myself thinking, if she only had her hair in a bun and was wearing walking flats instead of sneakers she would look so much more professional.

    Down works… unfortunately the humidity gods are coming out and my hair is frizzing again. It’s time to stock some finishing cream in my desk again…

    • DCQ says:

      seconds, not sections. ugh.

      • Rae says:

        a lot of people wear sneakers on the metro though. I’m sure she had flats or heels to change in to at her desk.

        • J says:

          Thank you Rae! I was about to say the same thing– breaking in new summer shoes and gym trips after work mean I wear sneakers on the metro. That doesn’t mean I wear them in the office as well.

          On another note, I do think that when people walk into work with unstyled, wet hair it comes off unprofessional. Wet/damp hair makes a wonderfully sleek bun!

          • DCQ says:

            It just look so wrong to me to wear ugly sneakers with a nice work dress. Yes, change shoes when you get to the office but at least wear a comfortable pair of walking flats instead of sneakers!

          • Brittany says:

            Totally agree! I think this is a must for those of us who prioritize going to the gym regularly. If someone wants to judge me for minimizing what I have to carry (and being more comfortable) by wearing gym shoes with work clothes, go right ahead 🙂 Not to mention, sneakers with professional clothes is all over the fashion blogs this season. 🙂

    • Thelma says:

      Unfortunately it’s not a great option for those of us with thin hair. My ponytail is sad enough already, without making it smaller by wrapping hair around the base. :/

  3. MM says:

    I don’t mind a “plain” ponytail (sometimes that’s necessary and especially if you know it’s going to rain or be really humid, it can look better than the alternative) but the “look” that drives me nuts is the ponytail that’s then been looped halfway through again (like a faux “bun”). THAT is sloppy and though I know we all have those days, I’m pretty sure there is always a better option.

  4. Anna says:

    I could not live without my twist pins, especially when my hair is looking a little icky. Keeps my bun up all day without a bunch of bobby pins. I cut my hair to shoulder length when I graduated college since I already had a baby face and wanted to look like a big kid, but now that I’m 28, I’m letting it grow back out. It’s about bra strap length, maybe a little further, but the layers in the front make it look shorter than it is. I’d like it maybe an inch or two longer, but I definitely keep the hair cut fresh so it doesn’t look like I have a wet dog on my head.

  5. Joules says:

    I don’t personally think that long hair looks unprofessional unless you leave it totally unstyled. Long, layered hair can look very sexy and professional at the same time. I dislike the idea that we all have to have “mom” hair to look professional.

    Style by Joules

    • Laura says:

      Joules, I agree with you 100 percent!!! Also the idea that you must have shorter hair as you get older! I personally believe that a lot more women would benefit from having longer hair for many reasons. You can be professional and very feminine at the same time, it comes down to your manner,,,,

  6. Helena says:

    I actually think buns piled right on the top of the head look silly and not particularly professional. Luckily, that trend seems to be fading.

    • Anonymouse says:

      Especially when the hair at the bottom is a different color than the roots. It always looks like a bunch of fake hair stuck on top of the head.

  7. My hair is a couple inches past my bra strap. I’ve tried shorter, but it’s just not me. FWIW, I don’t have any problems being taken seriously as a lawyer or a manager. I dress professionally, and I wear my hair neatly–meaning I get regular trims so the ends aren’t gross and straggly. In the summer I usually wear it up, because the humidity makes it unmanageable otherwise.

  8. Ashley says:

    I agree completely with the “over processed” hair being a distraction. As an older woman, I cringe when I see women my age and older with obviously dyed hair. Something about it does the reverse of its intent: to appear youthful.

    Hair styles that can be pegged to an era or age group are a no go too. Big hair of the eighties, the aforementioned chunky dye jobs of the 90’s and I will be very glad when the “ombre” dye goes far, far away. Yes, I have seen pigtails in the workplace. And I cringed.

    In the same light as greasy hair is the short hacked off hairdo some women embrace when they reach a certain age. Similar to the “cutting off your school girl hair” stage of life is cutting off your “sexy” hair (around menopause) in favor of some kind of mannish cut that favors no one.

    (I am over 50 and my hair is a little past my shoulders. 90% of the time I wear it pulled back or in a twist for work. My hair stylist is my age and her hair is almost to her waist, but she is an artist AND it looks gorgeous on her.)

    • GoGoGo says:


      I’m under 30 still with few grays so I don’t have much expertise in this area. For all I know, I may well be one of those folks for whom lopping my hair very short holds some appeal at a certain point.

      That said, one day I would love to be a long-haired silver fox, especially when I get up to my 60s and beyond. (See: Jane Goodall, Julie Christie…)

      • anon says:

        Jamie Lee Curtis rocks the silver pixie. There is nothing wrong with a cute, short ‘do. I am talking about the one that looks like a weed whacker or a bowl on the head was involved.

        Also there is an older woman on History Detectives that sports a short punk ‘do and it works for her.

  9. Brittany says:

    As an attorney with longer than bra strap hair, I’ve had no problems being taken seriously at all (I probably would not let it go more than an inch or two beyond where it is). If hair is kept clean and it’s clear you did not just roll out of bed, I think there is no problem being perceived as professional. I often wear my hair in a simple bun or ponytail. More important, I would say, is making sure your entire look is professional. To me, that means clean, not wrinkled, and appropriate clothing plus a touch of makeup.

  10. I see women curling/flat ironing their hair in the office bathroom in the mornings!

  11. Rachel C says:

    Belle, and fellow readers, I would love your input on the topic of grays – do I dye/cover them or not worry about? I am 30 and started getting grays when I was in high school. I have extremely dark brown hair, and the grays are evenly spread throughout my whole head. In a lot of ways, it looks like I have a very high end highlight job. I never had a problem with the grays, and didn’t feel that they made me look old or unprofessional; however, my husband HATES them and argues that it makes me look unkept. So, my question is – do grays (not fully gray, but definitely more than most 30 year old and enough that they are very noticeable) look bad, unkept or unprofessional?

    • Mary says:

      I have been a coloring-devotee since I was 19, thanks to premature gray. A few years ago, when I was 33 or so, I seriously debated stopping. Coloring is high maintenance. My hair was over 50% gray then and the rest is dark brown, so re-growth is very obvious. I decided to keep coloring then. Now I am almost 37. I have an appointment next week to cut it into a pixie and transition to my natural, now 60%+ gray.

      I am an avid researcher, so I have read lots about how to transition, why to, why not to, how to care for it. I’ve been paying close attention to women with gray hair that I see when out and about. My conclusion is that people who take care of their appearance in general (well-fitting, clean, appropriate for the occasion clothing, even if not exactly current styles) and have neatly styled, well-cared for gray hair that doesn’t embarrass them, look awesome. Women with gray hair who have sloppy clothes or unkempt hair look dowdy.

    • Nancy says:

      Highlights and lowlights are your friend. You are waaaay too young to go gray. And get a really competent stylist. They will be worth it! By the way, in some areas, what your husband thinks is important!

      • AJNE says:

        Totally disagree re: being too young to go gray. My mom went fully gray at 30 and got/gets compliments every day about her hair color. Her hair (and she!) is gorgeous.

    • Anna says:

      I think if your hair is styled, it should like fine and professional. When I think of women with gray hair who look unprofessional, I think of those with frizzy hair with wiry gray sticking out all over the place. If your hair is smooth and sleek, gray strands shouldn’t make a difference.

    • Belle says:

      I just started going grey last summer. Woof. I don’t have enough to stop dying and go grey yet, just enough to annoy. It was bugging me, so I had Ismail at Four Seasons give me baleyage (?) highlights. It conceals, but doesn’t cover.

      • k says:

        Ooh – could you explain more about why baleyage highlights in particular? I’m about one-quarter white (not gray – it’s pretty obvious in dark brown hair), but only 34 and job-hunting, so I need to do something. Do highlights let the roots grow in less noticeably?

        • CynthiaW says:

          Yes – highlighting totally helps with the roots situation. I have dark brown hair and my grey is white (and I’m over 50% white at this point). My roots are super-noticeable within a few weeks if I don’t highlight. I can make it almost to my next appointment without it looking awful with them.

          I’m totally thinking about highlighting it, cutting it short and letting it grow out at this point though. I’m tired of the maintenance and cost at this point.

        • Mary says:

          I tried that for awhile. The roots were still pretty obvious after about 2 weeks, but not as obvious as straight all-over color.

  12. Ann says:

    For me, a huge consideration, is if you are comfortable with your hair/hair style. We have some young women who 1) don’t wash their hair every day, ewww and 2) adopt numerous hipster/pinterest hair styles. Inevitably they feel self-conscious and end up playing with their hair throughout the day (making it even greasier). If you keep playing with it and look uncomfortable it just makes everything worse. This goes for so many life/wardrobe choices.

    • Jenn L. says:

      Daily washing is not necessary or even beneficial for all hair types and scalps. I personally wash every other day with dry-shampoo in between and no one is the wiser – and my scalp is happier.

      • Debbah says:

        Agreed @Jenn L. With my long (almost to bra-strap) naturally curly and very thick hair, I can wash 1-2x/week and no one would ever be the wiser. My hair actually looks/behaves better a few days without washing as it gets less frizzy/poufy.

        That being said, if my hair LOOKED greasy/dirty (it does not, because it isn’t) then that’s a different issue.

        • Belle says:

          As long as it looks like you’re washing, I care not. But if I can SEE you’re not washing, then we have a problem. For most people, they need to wash every other day at a minimum, but for others it’s more lax. I’m just tired of greasy hair on professional women, esp. in a world where dry shampoo exists. It’s unnecessary.

  13. I am a big believer in following your hair’s lead. Be that a natural curl that is better long with lots of layers or stick straight hair that can be kept in a short bob. Fighting your hair almost always become distracting and obvious.

    I really dislike when professionals incorporate crazy headbands or hair accessories into their look. Not to say a classic headband doesn’t have it’s place but nothing beaded, bohemian or channeling Catholic School plaid should show up in the work place. At least formal office settings.

  14. I should note that I don’t wash my hair every day, I only wash it when it starts to LOOK greasy and dirty. Otherwise I find it strips my scalp and creates dandruff.

    I too, hate headbands..

    I think extremely long hair is unprofessional, like when it reaches your waist and keeps getting tangled into everything you carry/do and around people you interact with. I find people with hair that long tend to NOT trim it properly either, so it just looks scraggly …

    I have long hair down to my bra strap but I get it trimmed and I am not planning on turning into Rapunzel any time soon

    • MM says:

      I don’t wash my hair every day either–it’s far too thick and coarse to do that–it would look extremely frizzy and “broom stick” like. I actually get more compliments on my hair when it’s not been freshly washed (go figure). I do think it’s taken time to “train” my hair though but it’s been totally worth it.

  15. b says:

    Can we talk about this trend to shave the under part (typically about 2″ above the ear on one side) of your hair and leave the rest long? I don’t get it, isn’t the growth period just horrid? Also, how do these girls expect to be taken seriously?

    • Cait says:

      Agreed @b. The shaved side of your head look is terrible. It does not belong in the professional workplace. At all.

  16. GingerR says:

    I don’t mind dyed hair, but try to keep big switch-ups down to quarterly events. I work with a cute woman, but it seems like everytime I run into her she’s got a different hair color.

    • CH says:

      I just don’t get this comment. Why does it matter to you whether your coworker is blonde one month and a redhead the next? As long as her hair looks cared-for and appropriate for the level of formality at your office, why shouldn’t she change the color or style as often as she likes?

  17. Amy says:

    “Work hair” is such a loaded issue for me! Length is fine, so long as hair is styled. My hair is well past my bra strap, and it takes a lot of work to make it look “finished” everyday, but it’s totally worth it. Then again, I do work in management for a huge, international hair loss treatment company, and so great hair is an actual job requirement for all of our employees- male and female. If an employee needs help with his or her hair, they do get it as a perk of the job. I love my industry!

  18. rar says:

    I just cut my hair, but I had long hair past my bra strap and never had any problems being taken seriously as a corporate attorney. It was well-kept and I’m relatively certain that it was never a style that anyone would label as rapunzel-esque. That hairstyle just works much better for me – I have very thick, wavy/curly hair, and with the length I could let it air dry and still have it look good.

  19. Emily says:

    I saw this on fivethirtyeight yesterday and thought it was interesting. It appears that hair does matter when it comes to businesswomen.

    I’m curious as to whether this is a trend that will change over time. As more and more women are reaching more prominent positions I’m hoping that there will be more variety in hairstyles.

    • GoGoGo says:

      I gotta say, I checked out this fivethirtyeight link I’m not wild about it. I don’t think there’s much substance there.

      The writer looked at the hairstyles of Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women for 2013 and observed that only 8 of the 50 had long hair. Well, yeah, that’s true.

      After clicking through the profiles of the 50 women though, I was struck by the fact that, 1) the women with long hair are almost all in the media and entertainment industry, which makes sense. If the implication is that those 8 women were somehow “doing it wrong”–no, I think they probably look in a way that suits their industry; 2) they all look like people with great hair, who would wear their hair that way whatever they were doing. Most are in their 50s and as we’ve said, a huge chunk of the general population wears short hair at that age so I don’t think we can conclude much; 3) they are all really accomplished interesting people and now I feel shallow clicking through making observations about their hair…

      • Belle says:

        I wish it had been more substantive too, but I think the fact she even felt she needed to write it shows there is still some lingering belief that one hairstyle reigns supreme.

  20. Kristen says:

    One of my coworkers has long hair; it’s easily 4-6 inches past her bra strap. I don’t think it looks very professional. It is gorgeous though; very thick and shiny and healthy. But it’s almost distracting. Sometimes she wears a sock bun, but because of the length and thickness, the bun is out of control! She is in her mid 20’s, and I think if she got a trim, she’d come off as much more professional.

  21. Cait says:

    Thoughts on hair color? I have highlighted, but natural-looking blonde hair. I’ve felt that, especially in DC and in the national security realm, I don’t get taken as seriously because I’m a blonde. Has anyone else dealt with this? I keep my hair very professional–slightly longer than shoulder-length and always styled or in a bun. I’ve heard of blonde women going brunette before going to work in the Pentagon or related workplaces.

    • Meghan says:

      I would also love to know people’s thoughts on this. Although I am a natural blonde, I do periodically (maybe 3 times a year) add some highlights or lowlights, just for dimension. I get asked constantly if my hair color is “fake”. It’s not, but I wonder if people would take me more seriously if I went a few shades darker.

  22. KRF says:

    This was such a great discussion thread to read and participate in this week. I am 35 and I started coloring my hair at 32 when bright white hair starting growing like weeds (both my Grandmothers went gray early). I stick to my natural color, which is almost black. I feel like I have had a life long struggle with my hair. It is frizzy and very wavy and is currently touching my shoulders (I get it thinned out at the salon). I have spent countless hours and money straightening it because despite my best efforts I can never get it tame enough to wear naturally. The majority of time it is pulled back in a clean and professionally looking way–but when I do blow dry and straighten people always seem to notice and tell me how nice it looks (if they only knew what it took to do it) but if I wear it down and let it go wavy I find that I pull it up about mid-day because I feel like its puffing out by that point. Sometimes I feel like because I pull it back a lot it gives the appearance that I am not as approachable or sort of authoritarian? Has anyone experienced that?

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