Redefining Professionalism to Foster Inclusion
Appearance, demeanor, poise, use of proper grammar—these are all aspects of what is generally considered “professional” behavior in the workplace. In many industries, sharing religious or political perspectives are off limits, and in workplaces across the globe, women continue to feel as though they should not divulge too much information about their parental responsibilities to their coworkers. From where do these nuances of “professionalism” originate? Who decides what behaviors and qualities are considered “professional”? And is it possible that part of the definition we have become accustomed to is one where “unprofessional” actually means “behaviors and appearances that make me uncomfortable”?
As we learn more about unconscious biases and the concept of covering—where, in an effort to conform to accepted norms of a given workplace, employees feel the need to hide aspects of themselves from their coworkers—it is important to address which environmental factors are working against us as we attempt to foster more inclusive workspaces. One such factor in company culture is our definition of “professional” behavior and to what extent it includes an individual’s physical appearance, speech patterns, and mannerisms.
Diversity and Inclusion Are Not Mutually Exclusive
It is possible to achieve a diverse representation in our organizations without fostering an environment where employees feel a sense of belonging; however, feeling safe, accepted, and valued as our authentic selves is a vital aspect of inclusion.
Being Your Authentic Self at Work May Help Others to Challenge Their Own Unconscious Biases
The familiarity principle, or mere exposure effect, states that we have a preference for things with which we are familiar and that our preference increases with exposure. Several publications encourage us to fight this tendency in an effort to challenge our unconscious biases, because this principle typically indicates that we have developed a preference for “those who are like us.” What would happen if we leaned into it instead? By creating an environment where individuals are encouraged to be their authentic selves every day, we can create repeated exposure to mannerisms, cultural norms, and physical and neuroatypical traits that are different from our own and develop a preference for a wider range of qualities over time.
Your Leadership Challenge
Your leadership challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to redefine what it means to be “professional.” Create a definition that is in line with your company culture and values. Consider whether any aspects of your current definition are inherently biased against anyone in your organization. For example:
- Are emails from employees who write in a second language considered “unprofessional” because they lack a firm grasp on formal grammar?
- Does your professional dress code encourage people to hide cultural aspects of themselves?
- Are employees encouraged to speak up when they misunderstand or make a mistake and are they penalized when they do?
An Inclusive Space
An inclusive space is one where participants are fully present as themselves. We speak freely without fear of being misunderstood or judged. We share our successes and our struggles. We are accepted and valued and embrace others for who they are, even when we don’t personally understand or empathize with them. Inclusivity encourages mutual respect. We each have the opportunity to encourage those behaviors at work. To revisit a question from the beginning of this post: who decides what behaviors and qualities are considered “professional”? We do.