Professions are by definition exclusive. You cannot say that you are an accountant, or structural engineer, without the relevant chartered professional body admitting you to their club. But professionalism is something else. It is an unspoken code of conduct that can be used to create in-groups and out-groups.
Sometimes, codes of conduct are necessary. There are several obligations towards colleagues, customers, and the general public such as avoiding harassment, bullying, intimidation, and other potential forms of harm. To function effectively in the workplace, we also have to turn up when we say we are going to turn up and communicate what we are doing rather than leaving people in the dark.
The problem is that being professional—and perhaps, more importantly, being unprofessional—is often more about whether you are aligning yourself to the arbitrary behavioural and cultural norms of your organisation. Even at the expense of your individual truth and expression.
Professionalism of this type is a dynamic entity, which changes depending on time, individuals, and sectors of an organization. One behaviour could serve you extremely well in a first environment, but ostracise you in another. The informality of a tech start-up may not be acceptable in a highly corporate environment like telecoms, or professional services (and vice versa) because of their different work cultures.
However, if these arbitrary norms manifest, they can create a problem. Explanations such as, “We’ve always done this,” or “This is just the way things are around here” are not adequate explanations. This is how people are told, directly or indirectly, that they have the wrong accent, the wrong hair, the wrong dress, the wrong interests, the wrong background—that they don’t fit the mould.
It is such an easy way to exclude people. Not only does it signal straight away to some that they need not bother applying to a company, or staying there, it also forces others to divorce their “professional self” from the rest of their identity.
In a truly inclusive environment, people are not afraid to bring their truly authentic selves to their place of work. Employees will actually feel more motivated to perform as they will not be “leaving themselves at the door.” They will feel valued for who they are and the differences they bring to their workplace and team.
The new generation of workers, which has a much more inclusive worldview, believes this to be an increasingly important dealbreaker in their career. A line in the sand. They want the definition of “what is professional” to be rethought (a reboot!). They want to be energised with a sense of belonging and purpose, and will not stand for the arbitrary norms of the old employee handbook.
Traditional, bureaucratic organisations increasingly struggle to find talent among these younger people, many of whom prefer the non-hierarchical, collaborative, expressive environments found in smaller companies and start-ups.
For those companies, and for all of us, the first step must be to educate ourselves about the biases we may have accepted and assimilated about what being professional means. It is not right, and we should not accept it, if it means that people have to suspend their true identities when they walk through the office door (virtual and otherwise).
Employees are not cogs in a machine, or a means to an end, we are fully human and deserving of work environments where we can thrive exactly how we are.