Professionalism. What Is It?



A recent tweet by Sarah Noll Wilson got me thinking of my earliest experience with “professionalism” in the workplace

Merriam-Webster defines professionalism as "the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person;" and a profession as "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation." 

Nowhere does it mention coming to work every day in a suit. And yet, if you asked a child, even today, to draw a “professional” - they will likely draw a person in a suit, probably a man, carrying a briefcase.  Thankfully, much of the world has moved on. But how do we untangle the notion of professionalism being tied to dress - and should we? One of my early workplace experience tied dress code and professionalism together for me - and it stayed that way for far too much of my career.

During my first professional (full-time) job after college, I worked in an environment where I had to wear a suit - AND PANTYHOSE - every day. I was twenty-two, and considered myself very professional. I worked in an office, wore a suit every day, and carried a briefcase! (I didn’t need to, it just made me feel very professional). When it came to my first review, I was actually pretty excited. I performed well, had lots of positive comments from managers, and I had no reason to expect anything negative. I had all 4’s (out of 4) across the board... and a 2 for professionalism. I was surprised and horrified - and my male supervisor was embarrassed.  He told me, “I gave you a 2 for professionalism because - I’m just going to say it - your skirts are too short!”

There’s a lot to unpack here (is the review really the right place to have a dress code conversation? Should that conversation have been had after all? Or at least at the time it happened?) However this was the 90s, pre-kids, I was 22, and probably wore short skirts. But with pantyhose, so I am sure I thought I was professional enough!! I was obviously embarrassed and reacted like the quiet, studious, professional 22 year old I was - and went full-on “Little House on the Prairie” with my skirts for the rest of my time there! I made sure you couldn’t even see my ankles in the skirts. Now I was PROFESSIONAL!

A few years later, when I was at a director level position and responsible for policies and procedures, I recall chasing people around like the dress code police.  “You can’t wear THAT!” “Your dress is TOO SHORT!” My earliest experiences with “professionalism” set the tone for what I viewed as professional. And you were going to hold to that five page dress code to the letter!

Flash forward to a few years ago.  I’ve undergone a radical transformation at how I look at my career, the workplace, Human Resources - and myself.  I’ve also relaxed (a lot) in the last decade. As I write this, I’m wearing a denim jacket and Toms wedge shoes - something that would have been unthinkable in a “professional” setting for me even in the last decade.  I wear jeans to conferences (thanks to my friend Michelle Strasburger) - who wears them at her job daily. (Who says jeans aren’t professional?) I got rid of all my suits. And, I no longer chase people around who dress maybe not quite to the dress code.

I now coach leaders on how to handle this - by looking at their own biases of what is and what isn’t professional. And by making sure we aren’t holding women to a different, stricter standard than men. This is still a tricky and confusing area. And I’m still figuring it out. But I do know that if you are a professional, you should be defined by your knowledge, skills and abilities - and not whether or not you wear jeans every day. At my first SHRM conference, I wore dresses and skirts every day. This year, I’m speaking and blogging at #SHRM19 - and you will find me walking around in my jeans and Toms. And I will still be professional.


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