It’s always bugged me when we talk about “professionalism”.
It bugged me when I worked for organizations (as an employee) because it always felt like there was an assumption made about what constituted “professional” depending on who I was talking to.
Now the older and wiser I’ve become (and the more objective I can be now that I work for myself), the more I’ve realized in the word “professional” there’s this shared buy-in and support of what we now understand as a white patriarchal standard for what is considered appropriate…
- Gender role/expression
- Cultural reflection and representation
While updating some HR policies a few years ago, I got stuck with a colleague on the word ‘professional’. We were approving one sentence in the new employee handbook:
Employees will present themselves appropriately and professionally.
What the hell does that even mean?
I’ll tell you what was meant when we said “professional” in that HR guideline. We meant…
- No hairstyles were sanctioned that suggested anything other than traditional hierarchical white heteronormative orderliness – and that reflected the current standards of beauty – not coincidentally, that also came from the predominantly hierarchical white heteronormative aesthetic.
- No jewelry that was not traditional white gender heteronormative fashion accessories.
- Tacitly, we also encouraged language code-switching in communication if one was not using white heteronormative traditional American English.
In this one sentence, we blocked so many things that add value to the workplace. We were limiting personal authenticity, cultural representation, creative expression, and the unique contributions to the diverse community we were paying a LOT of lip service to. What a shame.
One of my favorite leadership quotes – that I share with my clients who are getting a handle on how easy it is to stifle diversity – is from the wise wonderful (and personal hero of mine), entrepreneur, cultural leader, history-maker, artist, and drag queen extraordinaire, RuPaul Andre Charles!
RuPaul says, “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.”
Do you hear the wise leadership advice in what RuPaul tells us? Think about it … each morning (for most of us), we wake up and make decisions about who we are going to be that day. We pick our clothes … our look … depending on what is needed by the day. Who will we be interacting with? What are they expecting we “should” look like? What do we want from the day?
The clothes, hairstyle, makeup, and accessories we choose each day is our “drag”. We are presenting a calculated, culturally informed appearance to be most effective in what we want from the world each and every day. At least that’s what we want to be doing.
As I’m writing this, I’m hearing an interview with Brandon Kyle Goodman, author of the book, You Gotta Be You: How to Embrace this Messy Life and Step into Who You Really Are. What timing! Thank you, Universe! Brandon tells us…
You are enough exactly as you are.
From the time we’re born, a litany of do’s and don’ts are placed on us by our families, our communities, and society. We’re required to fit into boxes based on our race, gender, sexuality, and other parts of our identities, being told by others how we should behave, who we should date, or what we should be interested in. For so many of us, those boxes begin to feel like shackles when we realize they don’t fit our unique shape, yet we keep trying because we crave acceptance and validation. But is “fitting in” worth the time, energy, and suffering? Hell no it ain’t!
“Professional” is often code for the oppressive, stagnant, popularized look that hasn’t changed much for generations. What I love in the new work world we find ourselves in (the “post-COVID” work world) is that we’re starting to break the mold on so much of what constitutes “appropriate” and “professional” at work. We’re integrating (at least boldly attempting) true diversity values into our organizations – and STARTING to examine the many different beautiful ways we can execute our work expectations. We are bringing our deeply held personal values to our work. In doing that, we can start to dismantle “professionalism” – we can have challenging, powerful conversations with each other about what is most important in our new world … or more to the business imperative, how do we get the best and the most from our people so they are most productive, engaged, and committed to their work? Those are the questions and conversations of discovery to have … not “How do we ensure that our people are professional?”
I have a vision of our workplaces – where leaders and managers challenge themselves every day to be in service to the excellent work ethic their people have – an ethic born of humanity, sanity, and authenticity.
It’s time to retire the word “professionalism”. It’s time to redefine the expectations we have of our colleagues and our people. It’s time to nourish everyone’s innate drive to add value to their work and to invite authentic creative expression of who they are. It’s time for valuing and treating people as the “humans” in Human Resources – and moving away from the exploitative thinking of our people as “resources”.
I think RuPaul got it right. Let’s get back to being naked. Strip away the artificiality and arcane mundaneness of our baby boomer notions of what is to be professional and start making our own decisions about what professional looks like. It’s not “How can I be professional today?” Instead, it’s “How can I be my most authentically effective self today to make the greatest impact and add the greatest value to my life and my work?” We can set our own boundaries and expectations around ‘professionalism’.
After all… RuPaul also reminds us, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
Preach, Ru, preach.