My friend Abhilash, a trainer, has a great story about professionalism.
A senior member of his audience once asked him about “these young people coming to work in t-shirts and jeans.” Abhilash tells that story in the context of conflict management, but a portion of his answer is about how formalwear has evolved over the years.
“Back in the mid-20th century, formalwear meant a 3-piece suit, and a 2-piece suit was considered casual. The shirt and trousers you are wearing would be considered unprofessional,” he shares.
The definition of professional-wear has evolved over the years.
What does the word “professional” even mean?
A professional is someone who engages in an activity as their profession i.e. they get paid for it. The opposite is an amateur i.e. someone who doesn’t get paid for their work. That’s it.
But in our corporate culture, these two words have taken on a moral connotation. If someone gets paid, they must be really good at what they do. If they don’t, they must be bad.
But we know that is not true. There are plenty of underperforming and unskilled people who get paid a lot. One such person just recently surrendered the nuclear codes in a different country.
Because professionalism has taken on a moral context, plenty of people use professionalism to dictate others’ behavior — whether it be through stuffy dress-codes, an insistence on formal language, or inefficient processes.
A few months ago, I saw a poll on whether emojis were unprofessional. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
Professionalism only matters when it comes to things that actually affect your work.
- Do you respect other people’s time?
- Are you able to get your job done?
- If not, are you able to notify people and ask for help in a timely manner?
These are the things that matter, not vague and meaningless moral impositions. People who make a difference understand that. People who suck don’t.
That is why my colored hair doesn’t disqualify me from working in any professional context. The people I work with understand that I’m very good at my job, which is the most professional I can possibly be.