June 24, 2021

It’s time for professionalism to make room for inclusion and authenticity.

When asked to define “professionalism,” most people describe poise, good manners, and respect. In dominant corporate culture, people have strived to be professional by dressing in business attire, keeping themselves well-groomed, and leaving personal matters “at the door.”

Professionalism is considered a baseline requirement for success; those who fit a professional ideal are the most likely to be promoted or assigned to high-profile projects. But, as with so many other norms, the accepted definition of professionalism is being challenged and transforming.

One motivator of this shift is the widening effort to build a more equitable, inclusive workplace. Organizations that take this work seriously must look at how their constructions of professionalism clash with their professed advocacy for employees bringing their whole selves to work.

Bravely participated in a recent webinar hosted by From Day One, in which several HR Pros discussed tactics for building a culture that celebrates diversity. The conversation turned to the need to evaluate our standards of professionalism.

“The pandemic has been a great equalizer, not necessarily because everyone had the same experience with the pandemic response, but because it’s brought everyone back to recognizing each other as human.” – Rocio Lopez, Tech Lead Strategist at Accenture

Why is professionalism getting a rebrand now

In the mid-2010s, Millennials ascended to their status as the largest population in the US workforce. In 2016, they comprised one-third of employees. Whenever a new generation enters the workforce, it brings its own set of expectations and norms. Workplaces have already embraced a higher tolerance of internet slang, casual dress, and increased autonomy over where employees choose to work. 

The workplace is a microcosm of the world at large. In 2020 and 2021, we’ve witnessed a shift in focus to equity in our policies and cultures. HR Pros and leaders are seeing a sharp spike in demand for DEI initiatives and support. Younger generations are coming into the workforce looking for more cohesion between their values and work lives. People of color and other marginalized identities are rightfully asking for policies to respect cultural and social differences, and they have more support than ever from well-placed allies. Workers are holding organizations accountable for how they’ve historically excluded and harmed many marginalized people. The “professionalism” we know today will someday be understood as an outdated idea linked to cultural bias.

Dion Bullock, (DEIB Strategy Lead, Bravely) used the example of facial hair. In some cultures, beards are associated with reverence. In Euro-centric workplace cultures, we’re conditioned to see facial hair as unprofessional or unkempt. As companies aim to be more inclusive, they must first look at what’s already in place that is possibly culturally insensitive or ignorant. The benchmarks of professionalism don’t account for cultural nuance or social differences found in any diverse group. To genuinely invite employees to be their full, authentic selves at work, we need to allow room for employees to express themselves in ways that feel authentic and examine how asking them to be “professional” might impede their ability to do so. 

A Glassdoor guide is one of many that advises that one should speak up in meetings only when they have “valuable and important input,” “keep their cool,” and not let others see their emotions. At first blush, the advice seems aligned with common sense, but how do we square it with a newer, more inclusive approach of taking risks, speaking up regularly, and cultivating belonging? Moreover, when companies’ broad, undefined policies ask employees to be “professional,” individual authenticity must stand back in favor of comfort and conflict avoidance.

How can employers invite authenticity while remaining professional? 

Denise Reed Lamoreaux (Global Chief Diversity Officer, Atos) was among the panelists who mentioned the importance of collective buy-in. When a policy is dictated from the top down, it’s less likely to be embraced and implemented. “Collaboration will lead to employees walking the walk and talking the talk” while becoming more authentically themselves at work. In addition, by allowing employees to collaborate on collective social agreements of professionalism, leaders can increase commitment to these agreements.

As with so many conversations in DEIB, this one starts with “why?” Why do we care about professionalism? What do we want to achieve by imposing standards of professionalism? Answers will vary from one organization to another but will likely include a need for trust, consistency, and safe personal boundaries at work. Are there less restrictive ways to meet these needs?

The future is self-determination.

Start by creating the space for this conversation to occur. Acknowledge this significant (and wildly difficult) moment in the world. As the world starts to turn back on, remember that this can’t be a true return to normal after 18 months of uncertainty, fear, and collective trauma. Embrace your team where they are, and continue to ask how you can support them through this time. We will be dealing with the emotional fallout of this COVID-19 era for a while. Be sure to check in on your people, even if they seem fine.

La Toya Haynes (Director – Racial Equity, Intuit) suggests opening up the dialogue by asking what’s currently not working. Give people space to speak up and explain why something doesn’t feel right to them, and encourage them to include unwritten cultural expectations in the conversation. Notice who is speaking up and out against which expectations or policies — have your company’s policies been historically exclusive or culturally insensitive? If so, ask your employees what suggestions they might have for course-correcting to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace. 

To gather this information before a dialogue, conduct surveys and stay interviews. People are familiar with exit interviews, but “stay interviews” are a necessary counterpart: do you know why your employees continue to want to work for your organization? 
Some ideals of professionalism (respecting each other’s time, communicating clearly, and honoring personal boundaries) are likely evergreen, even as specific policies evolve with the times. Professionalism isn’t over; it’s just changing with your people. The next normal can be whatever your people need it to be. As we shift back to in-office work, notice the ways that policies are becoming more employee-led. Increasing levels of self-determination in how we work, how we work, and how we look when we work will make for happier employees, higher retention rates, and a more cohesive work-life balance.

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