“…need not apply.” If you’re a boomer like me, you may recognize these lyrics from the song, “Signs” by the Five Man Electric Band. The rest of the line continues, “…so I tucked up my hair under my hat and went in to ask him why.”

It turns out that things haven’t changed that much since this song was written 1970. The world was in turmoil and many people, especially young people, were having trouble finding work.

There are two lessons in the lyrics to “Signs” that at first may seem mutually contradictory. The first lesson is that sometimes you have to conform. The second lesson is that conforming rarely works. What??

The young man in the song, let’s call him “Jack,” takes his long hair, and hides it so that he can talk to the shop owner. Jack understood from the sign that he would need to change his appearance to be considered for the job. What happens next? He walks into the establishment and the owner says, “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do.”

This is an example of assessing the culture of a prospective employer, and making a few accommodations so that you will be viewed as a good match for the job and the workplace. Are the other employees at the company you’re targeting clean-cut and conservative? Maybe you’ll have to lose the beard if you want to be considered. Does everyone work through lunch? Perhaps you’ll need to give up your regular date with your girlfriends.

So Jack made a small adjustment and he got the job. Hooray, right? Not so fast. It’s so tempting when you need a job to do whatever it takes to get it. But how far should that go? At what point is an accommodation too much? At what point do you lose yourself in the process of assimilating to corporate culture?

This is the second lesson. Conforming, when it goes against your values or when it’s in conflict with who you are as an individual, rarely gets you what you want.

This is illustrated by what did our friend Jack did after he was offered the job. “…So I took off my hat, I said imagine that, huh, me working for you!” It was obvious to Jack that he would never want to work for someone who evaluated his potential based on his haircut (or lack thereof.).

If you’re job hunting, be aware that you may want to make some accommodations to fit in. But beware that you don’t compromise your personal values or wind up working with people who only accept you because of who they think you are, rather than your true self.

“Signs” by the Five Man Electric Band: