Headshots – Often your first impression

While headshots are not used on resumes in the United States, they appear prominently on LinkedIn and Executive and Board Bios. Headshots used to be included on resumes, for example when I received my MBA somewhere back in the dinosaur age. However, within a few years of the creation of the EEOC, employers were directed “not ask for a photograph of an applicant. If needed for identification purposes, a photograph may be obtained after an offer of employment is made and accepted.” As a result, most employers either remove photographs from resumes or more likely disregard a resume with a picture altogether. (At the end of this posting, see a copy of EEOC Prohibited Practices for Pre-Employment Inquires and a link to the complete section on Prohibited Employment Practices/Policies).

That doesn’t, of course, mean that recruiters and employers don’t want to see what a person looks like and how they present themselves. With the advent of social media, especially LinkedIn, and for executives their bios, photographs are easy to find – just not in the candidate’s file in the company’s Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) used, among other things, for compliance and reporting.

Guiding Principle: Even though pictures shouldn’t be on resumes, they should be in lots of other places – and they need to be done right

A great headshot is one that captures the energy and professionalism of the subject and engages the audience. In most cases, it is worth the investment to have a professional photographer take the headshot.

General Guidelines

  1. Wear what you would wear for an interview, whether a corporate look or business casual.
  2. A fashion-forward look is OK depending upon your industry and level. This is not to be confused with a casual look from a vacation or an event look from a wedding.
  3. Your headshot should be of you – not you and a group, not you and your pet, not a sketch and not an icon.

Photographic Guidelines

  1. The headshot should be cropped at your upper arms with the focus on your face. It is a head shot after all, not a book cover photo. We recommend that the head should take up, on average, 50 – 60% of the picture. Most photographers take vertically rectangular pictures but there will be instances in which you will need to crop the headshot to a square format.
  2. Avoid certain poses, such as folded arms, hand under chin or hands in pockets, that reflect closed body language, too cute presentation or unprofessional posture. Many photographers routinely take these poses, so you have to guide them away from that.
  3. Shoulders should be slightly turned. A full front headshot looks like a mug shot.
  4. Head should be directly forward and straight up and down. Any tilt to the head communicates subordination.
  5. Background should be plain, usually gray. A gradient gray (lighter by the face, darker toward the edge of the picture) helps to focus attention on the subject of the photo.

Background Alternatives

  1. Gray is not the only option for a solid color background. For solid backgrounds, some photographers use blue or tan. It is important that whatever color is used, it showcases you, does not conflict with your skin color tones or clothing and will print well.
  2. Another style is the mottled background – in whatever color, it is a background that has a dappled or blotchy design in it. If you select a background like that, be sure that it does not compete with your face or body.
  3. Finally, there is an increasing use of backgrounds and especially fade-out backgrounds, for example with a wall, an office or an outside scene. Similarly, make sure that it is an appropriate choice and does not compete with you.


Retouching is the photographic process of cleaning up a picture. I am constantly amazed at the number of professional headshots I see that have not been retouched, since it makes all the difference in the world. The best retouching keeps the person appropriately natural while smoothing out some features. The worst examples are so fully air brushed that the person turns into a “china doll”. There is some art to this, but it should neither be so complicated nor expensive to require forgoing this final step.

Retouching can include some or all the following:

  • Skin improvements (smoothing/softening, color/tone correction, removal of blemishes and hot spots, lessening forehead shine/creases and darkness under eyes)
  • Whitening teeth (and removal of hot spots!) and brightening eyes
  • Remove eyeglass glare (and reduction/removal of lens tinting) and fly-away hairs
  • Remove extraneous objects from background (outdoor headshots)
  • “Subtle slimming”

EEOC Guidelines


Pre-Employment Inquiries (General)

As a general rule, the information obtained and requested through the pre-employment process should be limited to those essential for determining if a person is qualified for the job; whereas, information regarding race, sex, national origin, age, and religion are irrelevant in such determinations.

Employers are explicitly prohibited from making pre-offer inquiries about disability.

Although state and federal equal opportunity laws do not clearly forbid employers from making pre-employment inquiries that relate to, or disproportionately screen out members based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, or age, such inquiries may be used as evidence of an employer’s intent to discriminate unless the questions asked can be justified by some business purpose.

Therefore, inquiries about organizations, clubs, societies, and lodges of which an applicant may be a member or any other questions, which may indicate the applicant’s race, sex, national origin, disability status, age, religion, color or ancestry if answered, should generally be avoided.

Similarly, employers should not ask for a photograph of an applicant. If needed for identification purposes, a photograph may be obtained after an offer of employment is made and accepted.