How professionalism standards bar entrance to the workforce

Photo by Blake Israel

With campus entering the thick of recruiting season, students — more than ever — are faced with the question of professional standards and how to conform to them. However, we at the Technique think that there is a bigger and more important question at stake: do these standards of professionalism still have a place in today’s workplace?

The current professional standards are set up in such a way that they benefit certain communities to the detriment of others. Professional standards, such as expectations of dress codes, serve as another obstacle for people in lower-income communities to enter the workforce. Minorities are put in a position where they have to choose between being themselves or conforming to professional standards and, consequently, being able to get a job.

For example, the dress code for women is often far more strictly scrutinized than it is for men. Furthermore, the standard for approprite workplace apparel is higher, and in many ways, is catered to the male gaze. Looking at common workplace accessories, many items, such as heels, are deeply impractical and painful, but are still an expected part of the workplace. Another example is how many jobs, especially those in the service industry, require female employees to wear makeup to be considered “presentable.”

Moreover, these standards are even stricter when it comes to people of color, especially women. The topic of Black hair has been highly politicized, despite the fact that it is an unchangeable genetic trait. 

The idea that Black hairstyles are not “clean” or “neat” sends an underlying message that any outward presentation that does not fit neatly into the idea of the European-centric standards of beauty is not welcome in the workplace.

Even more damaging is that oftentimes companies leave these standards vague while enforcing them harshly. While they may not explicitly state that certain styles of clothing — for example, a certain length of a skirt — are frowned upon, you will still receive criticism in the office regardless. 

The looseness of these standards forces minorities into a position where they feel the need to overcompensate and change parts of themselves that may come into conflict with these very loose standards to avoid risking their chances at getting a job. The fear of being singled out at your job due to your outward appearance is a very real concern for many people, and can very easily impact many other aspects of your life.

The possibility of missing out on future opportunities keeps many people from expressing themselves creatively through mediums such as tattoos and piercings. In addition, for people who are gender fluid, it can be very difficult for them to determine how to conform to dress code standards which can force them to feel like they need to hide that part of themselves. 

At the end of the day, professional standards are a way to maintain the homogeneity of the workplace and prevent further diversification.

As we name every slightly differing feature of a person, from accents to hair, as “non-professional”, we are effectively labeling them as outsiders. The problem does not just stop at the workplace; it affects how we raise our children and how we see the world. 

As young as elementary schools, kids are taught to hide their accents, look a certain way and essentially conform to a standard of unity. 

Dismantling the professional standard and redefining the workplace environment will not be an easy task.

Companies such as Google and Facebook are perfect examples of how workplace professionalism is not required for success. As we reframe the definition of professionalism, we can also begin to reframe how we view standards.