August 17, 2021
Keith Plummer, MSc, BA, SHRM-CP (They, Them) & Sarah Saska, PhD, MA, BAH (She, Her, Elle)
There is an enormous issue in the way companies go about their work, and we aren’t discussing it. In fact, leaders across industries and institutions operate under the false assumption that the rules of “professionalism” enhance their brand, productivity, and relationships. This isn’t always the case. Let’s unpack the bias of professionalism standards.
We would like to think that “professionalism” is apolitical, that it is simply enforcing an intuitive code of conduct for how our colleagues ought to be behaving, presenting, and communicating in the workplace to be taken seriously and prevent chaos. However, in so many ways, professionalism has refused to transform with our culture, stubbornly enshrining white supremacy and rejecting Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), women, members of the LGBTQ2+ community, disabled folks, neurodiversity, immigrants, and so many other identities who are just trying to lead and live out loud in the labour market.
What it boils down to is that what we consider “unprofessional” frequently upholds racist, sexist, classist, ableist, ethnocentric, colonial, and cis/hetero-normative standards. Let’s ask ourselves, who gets to decide what is appropriate in the first place? Artifacts of colonialism and white supremacy cling to our workplaces under the guise of “professionalism.” Professionalism has conditioned us to encounter difference and natural human variation with skepticism and stigma. Professionalism has conditioned us to repress our humanity in service of a robotic and inauthentic persona. Professionalism has conditioned us to deny opportunities and dismiss perspectives from people who live or think outside the box.
As September approaches and many of us return to work, school, and the office , it might be unnerving to face the judgement of modern professionalism in full force once again. Now is not the time for business as usual. Professionalism should serve us, not the other way around.
Written into so many company dress codes relating to clothing and grooming are discriminatory and bias-laden professional expectations that prevent people with marginalized identities from bringing their whole selves to work. Dress codes should never stigmatize or discipline an employee for who they are. However, policies around professional dress are often:
One of the biggest catches of professionalism is that it asks us to segment ourselves into two separate people: one for work and one for home. At work, we must remain stoic, efficient, and impersonal. While at home, we are allowed to indulge in being human. Professionalism puts these two dimensions of our lives in opposition and competition, rarely allowing us to have a healthy synergy even during a pandemic when ostensibly these boundaries are more blurry than ever before.
Caregiving is a fundamental aspect of so many people’s lives, whether for children, ageing parents, friends, or pets. The fact that the professional world is reluctant to affirm our home and work lives in tandem and provide necessary flexibility for caregivers is indicative of its continued entrenchment in patriarchal values that assume that people with careers don’t have responsibilities in the home. This professionally mandated dichotomy also makes mental health—already a tough topic to broach in any circle—something that we must repress in service of productivity. Mental wellness in the workplace should never be taboo or an afterthought. Under current professional expectations, it is nearly impossible to find balance and practice self-care.
Professionalism repeatedly requires people to suppress or hide themselves, and it demands this most from people already at the margins. It's easier to be who you are when who you are is all around you. There is immense pressure on neurodiverse people to mask or “cover” their natural movements and communications methods for fear that it will harm their reputation or opportunities for advancement. People are warned that ink on their bodies (oftentimes with immense emotional or cultural significance), the colour of their hair, or a piercing in the wrong place will spell disaster for their career prospects. Members of the LGBTQ2+ community fear coming out, expressing themselves authentically, or discussing mundane parts of their lives because they will be sensationalized and shamed.
There are massive costs to productivity, psychological safety, and turnover when your team members expend an unrealistic amount of energy downplaying or concealing their identity. In the desire to “be professional,” people sacrifice comfort, comradery, and the ability to do their best work. Professionalism should call people to leverage their unique differences to move the company forward, but it often asks them to do the exact opposite.
Not everyone speaks or communicates in the same way, and that’s a good thing. However, people’s professionalism is frequently placed under scrutiny for no other reason than that they talk differently or defy unspoken conventions imposed on their social group. This is super apparent for people with accents in which their inflections are used as an unreliable proxy for their class status, citizenship, and heritage, favouring more white and Western accents to varying degrees.
Black people that speak Ebonics are often considered less credible, intelligent, and competent at their jobs. At the same time, other colleagues might pepper Black Vernacular English (BVE) into their ways of speaking to sound more edgy or relatable. This double standard extends to different areas of communication in which people of colour and other marginalized communities, especially Black women, are tone-policed or told to “calm down," while toxic workplace cultures might demand that men behave insensitively and combatively to earn respect.
The list goes on, but the pattern is the same—stay in your place and play the game the way you’re supposed to, that is, a way that plays into societal inequities, prejudices, and the status quo. The ideas and contributions of our colleagues matter and should be assessed on their merit, not a racist, sexist, or xenophobic technicality. People from marginalized groups should not have to face a maze of respectability politics to be heard or valued.
We spend around a third of our lives at work. Yet there was an epidemic of loneliness at our companies when we were at the office in person, and there is a quieter epidemic of loneliness as our teams have shifted to remote working due to COVID-19. The majority of people are unhappy at their jobs. This is very much symptomatic of professional directives to compartmentalize our lives and avoid forging intimate relationships with our colleagues. When we cannot confide in our coworkers or share personal aspects of our existence, we end up going to a workplace populated with strangers and small-talk. This feels exhausting and empty.
Professionalism can also frame the topics of bias and discrimination as too “political” or “uncomfortable” for the office, eliminating any recourse for team members that are struggling with these problems in real-time. Nothing changes or improves without difficult and vulnerable conversations. Companies should initiate and facilitate courageous conversations around issues affecting their workforce.
No one should have to divorce their humanity from their professionalism. No one should have their character or capacity questioned prematurely through unwritten or antiquated ideologies. The arbitrary rules and norms that define “professionalism” should never supersede the empathy and understanding that we should instinctively have for the mosaic of people and lived experiences that inhabit our workplaces. For certain, the idea of what it means to be a professional needs a decolonized reboot.
Reimagining professionalism does not mean that we then do not still have obligations to one another such as avoiding harassment, bullying, intimidation, and other potential forms of harm. It means that our first step must be to educate ourselves about the bias we have uncritically accepted and assimilated to thinking it was our only way to succeed. It’s not right, nor should it be expected, that people suspend their truth when they enter an office door, virtual or otherwise. We are not cogs in machinery or a means to an end; we are fully human and fully deserving of work environments where we can thrive exactly how we are.