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Workplace Style Gets Scrunched Up

long hair held in a ponytail by a scrunchie
photo by Ralph Hockens

Do not adjust your calendar: It really is 2018, and scrunchies really did just appear in a Wall Street Journal headline.

Many readers may be much more shocked than I was. I am so unfashionable that before reading the article, I could not have told you whether scrunchies were acceptable fashion accessories or not for the past 25 years. I know that my daughters used to wear them when they were kids in the 1990s. I think my wife used to wear them too, but I’m not sure about that.

For many other people, though, wearing a scrunchie today is a divisive issue. The functional hair ornament is reportedly returning to the mainstream, to the relief of certain parties and the disgust of others. As Katherine Bindley wrote for the Journal: “Some in the pro-scrunchie camp say they’re gentler than elastics and easy, like sweatpants for your hair. Scrunchie haters say…they’re like sweatpants for your hair.”

Given my general obliviousness and my own short hairstyle, I ought to have no stake in this fight. But part of the great scrunchie debate centers on a question I may need to address as a boss: Are they appropriate office wear? Some of the individuals who spoke to Bindley for her article expressed strong opinions that scrunchies are juvenile and lazy. Others were fine with some scrunchies, but drew the line at the most eye-catching colors or fabrics.

Nicole Belyna, a recruitment manager who serves on a panel for the Society for Human Resource Management, drew a distinction between her personal taste and her professional opinion. “Do I think it’s professional? Would I wear a scrunchie? Absolutely not,” she told the Journal. “But if it’s not a customer-facing situation, then it becomes a matter of taste.”

At Palisades Hudson, I’m the boss, and if someone wants to wear a scrunchie to the office, I will not object. And that goes for the guys too. At least until my wife or someone else who works with me tells me to be quiet and go back to my cave.

In some ways, the scrunchie debate is a miniature version of a larger shift in workplace norms surrounding a variety of hairstyles. Long hair on men and unnatural dye jobs were once understood to be off the table in most professional settings but, at least in some workplaces, that is changing. And it isn’t only young adults who are taking advantage of a more tolerant attitude toward what constitutes a professional look.

Part of the shift reflects changing standards in the wider culture. It may also reflect growing awareness among employers of the ways that more conservative stances on hair have sometimes had disproportionate impacts on racial or religious minorities, intentionally or otherwise. Even in circumstances when employers have the legal right to set rules about their staff’s appearance, overly harsh positions may alienate excellent potential employees. As business writer Suzanne Lucas observed, “Regardless of hairstyle, employers should focus on results and not on appearance.”

I myself have hired an employee with pink hair, though her role was not customer-facing, and was very glad to have her on staff for the time she was with us. Would I hire a pink-haired financial adviser? As I wrote in this space a few years ago, I respect our clients’ intelligence and thoughtfulness, and I think that most of them would be more likely to judge an adviser’s skill than his or her hair color. I have always been more liberal on this point than some of our younger folks; I guess there were a few advantages to growing up in the 1960s.

Hair should not be a workplace issue if it does not get in the way of the business’s product or service. At Palisades Hudson, we are even a hair-optional workplace, since some of us lack it (by choice or otherwise). So I am unlikely to object if my employees want to wear scrunchies, try out new styles or dye their hair unusual colors. That is, assuming I notice.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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