Leadership and People Skills

What is Professionalism—and What Does it Mean for You as a Volunteer

Rethinking Professionalism: How you can help young, underrepresented entrepreneurs be themselves in the workplace 

As the California State Assembly moves to ban workplace discrimination based on natural hair, it seems like a good time to talk about professionalism. Can a person’s hair be unprofessional? This law aims to close a loophole in which some employers might still be discriminating based on race, which is already illegal, by citing natural hair as a reason to fire or not hire someone. This is a good example of how norms of professionalism can perpetuate bias and can shift over time.

What is professionalism? 

You already know how you expect people to act in the workplace. Perhaps it’s along the lines of what the U.S. Department of Labor outlines as professionalism: “Employers want new workers to be responsible, ethical, and team oriented, and to possess strong communication, interpersonal, and problem solving skills.” That’s a great place to start, but it’s also important to acknowledge that we all have an unconscious bias that can affect how we interpret the concept of professionalism. 

What is unconscious bias?

Sometimes called implicit bias, unconscious bias occurs without the thinker actively processing the thought. Instead, the brain automatically makes assumptions or judgments based on an individual’s or a group’s demographic characteristics like age, gender, weight, ethnicity, race, religion, etc. The University of California at San Francisco’s Office of Diversity and Outreach points out that “Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values.” That means it’s important for us to examine our actions and make sure they’re in line with our beliefs. 

How can we rethink professionalism to make room for more kinds of people?

If you’re here, you already believe that fostering diversity in the business world is important. That means we have to expand our ideas about professionalism to make room for all kinds of people. Forbes explains that “Diversity gives you access to a greater range of talent, not just the talent that belongs to a particular world-view or ethnicity or some other restricting definition.” To that end, MBA admissions consultant Jesse Meija emphasizes “embracing differences.” He advises that for young Latinos “success is predicated on the support of people who do not look like us or even understand our struggles, but creating allies is critical to our success.” You can be those allies.