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The Punk and the Professional

The generational clash over corporate dress

Email icon  ankersey@gmail.com

Journalism major Eddie Ebbert, 21, wore a mohawk to his interview for an internship at Esquire. His mother had suggested he get a new, more conventional haircut, but he refused.

“If you’re not going to hire me because of my hair, I’m not going to work there,” he said.

Three interviews later, no one had mentioned his hair, and he got the position. The first day of the internship, Ebbert, his mohawk still intact, showed up in a button-down shirt and pressed pants, following the example of his 35-year-old boss.

Generation “Be Yourself”

Since Gen Y entered the workforce, conflict over casual or self-expressive dress has been a major issue for older managers, for whom the depoliticized mohawk might still appear countercultural. Millennials – as those born between 1980 and 2000 are sometimes called — may bring creativity and enthusiasm to the office, according to experts. But they also show up in flip flops, jeans and “extreme” hair.

These under-30s value self-expression at work more than any earlier generation, according to psychologist Nicole Lipkin, co-author of “Y in the Workplace.” “This generation has been taught to express themselves no matter what.”

But self-expression through clothes or hair shouldn’t overshadow the dress code at work, Lipkin added.

“The people who are going to be successful are those who respect the culture at the corporation,” she said. “In the creative industries, it’s a different story, but in more formal industries, there are presentation standards that need to remain in place. It’s hard to trust someone who looks like a punk.”

The New Punk Professional

Daniel Martinez, a stylist at Astor Place Hairstylists in New York’s East Village, has cut mohawks for many young professionals.

“Because it’s trendy, you can be taken seriously,” he said. “You can look punk rock but keep your nine to five.”

Mark Heiner, owner of New York’s Slate Salon, said clients who requested mohawks were men aged 20 to 40. During consultations, Heiner asks clients where they work and how extreme he can cut their hair.

“Guys in this area want to wear it conservative for work, and funk it up for night,” he said.

Different definitions of “extreme” might account for some of the conflict over appropriate appearance at work. Older employees distinguish punk from professional based on whether a candidate wears a mohawk or a crew cut. But for Generation Y, the group a few years older than millennials, that distinction isn’t so rigid.

Employers have to change management styles to fit the new work ethos, Huntley writes in “Y.”

“They are going to have to keep a long leash on Generation Y employees, or risk losing them altogether,” she writes. Whether or not that means loosening company dress code from “business casual” to “business anything goes” is still uncertain.

Alexandra Levit, author of “They Don’t Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something’s Guide to the Business World,” sees a trend toward casual dress.

“Regardless of the work environment, I think that millennials are more likely to wear what is actually considered very casual (jeans, tee-shirts) as opposed to the more traditional casual of khakis and button down shirts,” Levit wrote in an e-mail.

But she advised young employees against wearing mohawks to work.

“Look at how everyone else is dressed, and aim to fit in as seamlessly as possible,” she said. “In the business world, the goal is not to make a statement with your dress.”

Corporate Crackdown

Just as Gen Y was getting comfortable wearing jeans at the office, the recession has turned dress expectations and behavior more conservative.

“I have seen organizations cracking down on all sorts of behavior that they let slide before, because they feel more in control now,” said Levit.

Young people today should look conservative in order to get or keep a job in corporate America, said Gretchen Neels, the founder of Neels & Company, a business etiquette consulting firm.

“In this new economy, it’s folly to express yourself by [wearing extreme hair] and tick off your employer,” she said. “For the past 10 years, employers have bent backwards for the millennial generation. Now, employers are less inclined to accept an employee who looks so different so as to be disruptive.”

Still, some millennials, like intern Eddie Ebbert, disregard expert advice and pull off extreme hairstyles at work.

After wearing his mohawk for several months, Ebbert tired of it, and got a buzz cut instead.

“Every six months I try something else,” he said. “With the mohawk I had style, but now I’m classy.”
Amanda Kersey studies journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

Punk or professional? Job counselors say companies are less tolerant of hip or expressive dress during downturns.

Photo by Lorenzo Novia