Gray Matters: Hiding it Can Hurt a Man's Prospects

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Some say packaging is everything. But if you're a male, highlighting or dyeing your hair could be a mistake. Seriously.

"We live in a society where most females above a certain age dye their hair," says Joseph Ziccardi, chief executive of Cromwell Partners, a New York-based executive search firm active in financial services and other sectors. "That's widely accepted and I don't think anyone even thinks about that."

On the other hand, a male candidate will damage his presentation if his hair color doesn't match with his face and the age of his body.

Oh, come on. Does it really matter? Consider this: Ziccardi's firm recently worked with a candidate who was vibrant and energetic and had solid credentials to boot. But, it was evident that he dyed his hair. As a result, Ziccardi says, "Other recruiters said, 'He comes off as artificial.' They took his hair and extended it to his entire presentation."

Because so few straight men color their hair, a typical viewer's eye doesn't automatically compensate as it does with women, says Vicky Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions. Instead, people often notice the distinctive "dyed hair" look on a man.

"It may be sending the wrong message to a potential employer," Oliver says. Instead of looking youthful, a candidate could end up simply looking vain.

Even if the camouflage isn't initially spotted and the candidate gets the job, it will come back to haunt him down the line, says Dr. Ken Siegel, president of the Impact Group Inc., an executive, leadership and organizational consulting firm in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Which is better: to present yourself as youthful, or to present yourself as authentic?" he asks.

Siegel says a male applicant who colors his hair is making "a false statement about who you are, and it will be discovered at some point. In fact, it is usually obvious."

"I know a number of executive males who do, and the water-cooler buzz is that they do," he continues. "It is seen as more duplicitous for a man than for a woman. In the long term, doing this does undermine your credibility."

Better Ways to Stay Young

Of course, there are advantages to looking young and vigorous. For those who want to maintain that appearance, career experts offer several options:

Upgrade your body: "Taking 10 pounds off will help you look five years younger," says Oliver.

Upgrade your face: Botox treatments, which remove facial wrinkles, are less detectable than hair dye, Oliver believes. She also recommends that both men and women protect their faces by applying sunscreen when outdoors, even in winter. Sunscreen won't turn back the clock, she notes, but it will slow down its effects. Facials and manicures also can help men look younger.

Update your wardrobe: Siegel suggests shopping at Hugo Boss instead of the more traditional Brooks Brothers.

Take the bull by the horns: If you're concerned your appearance raises issues associated with age, Siegel suggests revealing facts about yourself that show strength in the very areas where popular stereotypes point to weakness. For instance, talk about incidents where you demonstrated physical vigor, comfort with working long hours, and computer-savvy.

You could even say something like, "I realize my hair conveys a more senior image, but in fact I work extraordinarily hard." He likens this approach to a blond walking into an interview and "laying her Ph.D on the table."

"It can come off well when you highlight things that seem to countermand what you think others' perceptions might be," Siegel explains. "You're rewriting the script for that stereotype."

We'd all like to think things like hair don't matter all that much to our career prospects. Alas, think again. Have any stories about how your packaging impacted your job search? Post a comment below.

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