According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “employers want new workers to be responsible, ethical, and team oriented, and to possess strong communication, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills.”
“Wrap these skills up all together and you’ve got an insider’s view into professionalism,” explains Chelsea C. Williams, founder and CEO of College Code and a workplace strategist.
However, Williams adds that the term “professionalism” has evolved as “work” has been defined over time.
“When we think about professionalism in 2021,” she notes, “we must also consider hybrid work environments and changing forms of interpersonal communication.”
The biggest challenge with “professionalism” is ensuring that all candidates and employees understand what professionalism means within the context of the organization they are working for and the specific job function they are taking on.
“Culture and identity often play a role in how candidates and employees connect and engage, thus parties must be clear about what professionalism means within the context of an organization,” Williams explains.
“Employers must ensure they are mindful of cultural nuances that may impact how diverse populations and individuals show up at work. Professionalism standards were typically built on traditional standards of success, highlighting white/Western favoritism in the workplace, and have not historically included experiences of marginalized populations in the workplace. Thus, organizations must ensure programs, policies, and practices promote equity and inclusion, and mitigate biases.”
For example, Williams cautions that when interview panels or hiring managers use the phrase “executive presence,” at the same time, they have to be mindful in how they relate this to professionalism.
“Employers should use caution and hold themselves accountable when they’re using this phrase, particularly because the view of executive presence tends to lean to the banner image of executives: white males,” she says.
“If we are truly trying to create inclusive and equitable workplaces, we have to start questioning the phrases we’ve used for so long and reimagine how we describe and set talent up for career success.”
Mikala Young, College Code’s content lead, says it is beneficial for the recruiting lead to have a meeting with their hiring manager.
“During this meeting,” Young says, “the recruiting lead should share the importance of having a diverse slate of interviewers supporting them on their hire, holding them accountable to only focus on the requirements of what the job entails and adding value to the company culture.”
She points out that professionalism can always be developed in candidates and employees.
“We all should be open to learning and evolving throughout our career, no matter where we are on our journey,” Young says.
As such, employers should embed professional development within their internship program. For example, Young suggests employers create a “lunch and learn” to discuss what professionalism means in the workplace and provide insight on do’s and don’ts at the start of their internship. Professionalism should connect to performance expectations and the core values of the organization.
“This can set students up for success as they maneuver through their summer internship program,” she notes.
“Kicking this off at the beginning of the program versus the end can open doors for further discussion on areas to improve on and gives students a level of awareness of their actions as they carry out their internship.”
It is important to understand that there will be instances in the workplace when professionalism and authenticity intersect and could be at odds, particularly when it comes to underrepresented groups. Examples of this type of conflict may include the following:
- Hair texture/styles in the workplace—Being asked to change/tone down hair style and organizational beliefs that non-Eurocentric hair styles are unprofessional.
- Vocal tone—Judgement around vocal tone, accents, pitch, dialect, and more. Desires for people to speak a certain way.
- Ebonics—Perceptions around intelligence based on Ebonic language and cultural practices. This often leads to code-switching in organizations or on teams where one is a minority.
- Business suits—Expectations that professional dress includes business suits, standard colors, or no prints or designs.
- Lunch choice—Many individuals from other cultures describe the stares and comments made when they eat food not known by dominant cultures. This reaction often challenges concepts of belonging.
“In these cases, organizations must be mindful that the line between professionalism and preference must be clearly communicated to avoid bias and even more concerning, discrimination,” Williams explains.
“Employers can avoid negative intent by offering cultural competence education and awareness.”
Williams and Young recommend several ways for employers and recruiters to identify and assess professionalism:
- Communicate what professionalism means and looks like within the organization—These standards should not be assumed. Further, it should be understood that professional standards at one organization are likely not the same as professional standards at another, simply due to industry type and overall culture/workplace.
- Overcome misperceptions around professionalism— For example, a common misperception is that students are not as professional if their style of dress (i.e. colors and print) goes against the typical “norm of the organization.”
- Take opportunities to educate—Marginalized communities automatically come with a stigma when viewed through the lens of professionalism. Use these moments as an opportunity to educate yourself and those around you. Ask: What is causing you to feel this way? Why do you believe this about this certain group of people?
- Ensure professional expectations are not based on preference or affinity biases—Instead, base them on true qualifications and competencies necessary for success. Where possible, professionalism should connect with performance management expectations and be rooted in fostering culture.
- Ensure their standards are not rooted in bias—This may require challenging the status quo and reconsidering what is viewed as professional, how professionalism is measured, and how the organization may be fostering a culture of conformity that goes against the desire to have employees “bring their full selves to work.”