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Professionalism as Assimilation: How and Why We Should Change It

Author: TL McMinn

The term “professionalism” began as a way for individuals to determine those who did and did not ”belong” to a certain profession and was often distinguished by the use of a shared language and expertise (Roiphe). The goal of professionalism was and still is, an act of silencing differences across race, creed, ability, socioeconomic status, and more, in an attempt to solely focus on being able to do the job. Supporters of “professionalism” claim that erasing differences would make it so that characteristics such as a proven commitment, intelligence, and moral worth would be all that mattered. However, professionalism has evolved from an occupation marker to a policing of how one conducts themselves (Sah). It is important to remember that these are not practices that were only done in the past; the invocation of professionalism and professional behavior is still used to control the actions of those who are systematically excluded in society broadly and labeled “unprofessional” in the workplace (Cheney & Ashcraft). 

The continued “erasure” of differences within professionalism is an exclusionary practice performed in order to keep out those viewed as unfit or unworthy. This is why the idea of professionalism is, at its core, an act of assimilation. Professionalism standards assume Western, white, binaried masculinity/femininity, middle-class, Christian, heterosexual, and able-bodied norms of behavior. Because of this, these assumptions legitimize some behaviors while delegitimizing others (Goldstein Hode). These qualities are then hidden, disguised, or dismissed in the pursuit of “professionalism.” The eradication of the “uncomfortable” then forces those who do not “naturally” fit to feel as though they need to regulate their behavior and/or appearance in order to perform their jobs in a professional manner and can produce increased feelings of anxiety

Characteristics labeled “professional” are defined by fine lines. For example, the line between confidence and cockiness. Confidence is an attractive quality, particularly in a business setting, but a person who shows too much confidence can be labeled as cocky, which is not considered an attractive quality. These delegitimizations are particularly clear when examining instances of “unprofessional” behaviors or appearances in relation to Black folks who have had their hair criminalized, deemed “unkempt,” and “unprofessional” when worn in a natural or braided state. There are reasons why Black people wear their hair the way they do (protective/cultural), but we have been conditioned to believe that only white aspects of beauty are accepted and that Black aspects of beauty are not. “Professionalism” impacts religious freedoms through the restrictions of what should and should not be worn in a workplace, impacting an individual’s right to wear religious clothing for reasons of ‘safety’ (USAToday, NationalPost) and even ‘vanity’ (CTVNews, CNN). But for those that wear religious clothing, it is more than just a “fashion” choice that they are making, they are proudly displaying their faith and their connection to their belief system, and isn’t something that can just be taken off at work. Characteristics such as ‘poise’ — which includes the ability to maintain eye contact — don’t account for the fact that there are a lot of ways that a person can maintain focus and that just because a person is not looking at you does not mean that they are being unprofessional. Neurodivergent folks often have trouble maintaining eye contact because staring into someone’s eyes is uncomfortable, distracting, and can be physically painful, so instead, they look away which allows them to give a person their undivided attention. Similarly, the standards of  “professional” communication skills often fail to create space for people who stutter, have a thick accent, or speak in a dialect that may be associated with a lower socioeconomic class. These attributes automatically assume that the way they communicate would not align with “professionalism” because they do not align with Western ideas of proper speech, 

Perhaps instead of keeping and redefining “professionalism,” a word that has caused a lot of harm, we imagine instead what it might look like if our norms were not based on policing particular characteristics that are often based on or around someone’s identity. Instead, we need to continue to question our gendered, raced, and classed ideas of what it means to be a ‘professional.’ We need to imagine what a workplace would look like if what mattered was being genuine, kind, and vulnerable; if a wanted quality of professionalism was being mindful and appreciative of those that you work with?

To get you started on what inclusive professionalism could look like, we’ve listed six signature traits to start: 

  1. Self-awareness vs. Poise
    • Self-awareness and poise both highlight the need to be able to control their actions and emotions at work as well as being able to take challenges in stride and react in a calm manner (Wilhelm, Galvin). However, people who are self-aware are able to reframe situations and view them positively rather than negatively (Wilhelm). Being self-aware means that you are able to articulate who you are, how you are feeling, and that you understand the impact your emotions and behaviors may have on others, even if that means admitting that you don’t know (Anderson). Additionally, self-aware people are able to recognize and identify underlying issues in their mental and work processes, meaning they are better able to articulate what they need in order to do their job (Wilhelm).
  2. Courage vs. Accountability
    • Courage and accountability both require a person to take responsibility for their mistakes, but to have courage means that we not only take responsibility for our mistakes but are able to admit that when we make mistakes. Courage is also needed in order to learn and grow, as it takes courage to ask for support, apologize when we are wrong, take personal risks, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable (Anderson). 
  3. Authenticity vs. Ethical behavior
    • Ethical behavior includes following a dress policy, coming to work on time, and following the rules, people who are authentic aren’t afraid to be true to who they are. Because being authentic at work can be viewed as “disobedient,” this has historically been considered an ‘unprofessional’ quality. However, bringing your full authentic self to work has been known to increase employee satisfaction in their work, boosts their confidence, and can even improve their relationships (CareersIndepth, BetterUp). 
  4. Curiosity vs. Following the company line
    • To have curiosity means having an openness to different ideas and experiences. Having curiosity encourages connections with others and promotes empathy and perspective-taking. This can have a multitude of benefits, such as fostering a more constructive exchange of ideas and decreasing susceptibility to bias (Deloitte). It also causes us to think more deeply and rationally about decisions invoking more creative solutions (Gino).
  5. Compassion vs. Respect for others
    • Compassion, unlike simply having respect for others, isn’t just about being nice or caring about your coworkers. It involves elements of empathy, care, and a component of altruism (Anderson). Being able to recognize compassion is an essential aspect of a productive work environment and is vital to sustaining job satisfaction and motivation (Dutton, Workman, & Hardin)
  6. Cultural humility vs. Cultural competence
    • Cultural humility and cultural competence are similar in that they both involve an ongoing critical examination of one’s attitudes, awareness, knowledge, and skills to negotiate cross-cultural differences (SyracuseUniversity). However, culturally humility goes beyond the concept of cultural competence in that it includes the ability to recognize that not everyone sees the world the same way they do and they embrace that their norm isn’t necessarily the norm. Individuals with cultural humility embrace insights and input from everyone, they are interested in learning about other people and understand that people are intersectional, meaning they are influenced by a multitude of different identities (Anderson).

Interested in changing your ideas of what professionalism should look like? Book a meeting with one of our associates. 

Header and Feature Image by Brett Zeck on Unsplash ❤️

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