Leadership and People Skills

What Is Professionalism—And What Does It Mean For You As An Entrepreneur?

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? 

Professionalism is a set of values that affects the way you dress, speak, behave, and make decisions in all situations related to your work. It’s important to know what the traditional ideas around professionalism are so that you can navigate whatever work environments you encounter. As an entrepreneur, you may find yourself in many different kinds of workplaces from banks and financial institutions to wholesale warehouses. If you conduct yourself in ways consistent with the values of professionalism, you’ll find that your path to success is smoother.  

Of course, it’s not that simple. As California’s natural hair legislation demonstrates, the norms of professionalism are constantly shifting and evolving. Thirty years ago, men who worked in offices almost always wore ties. Casual Friday was born as an exception to this rule. Now most office environments don’t require ties. Chances are, part of the reason you became an entrepreneur was to avoid office culture altogether. Now it’s up to you to set your own work style. 

How does professionalism work in the entrepreneur space?

You’re probably thinking: but I’m an entrepreneur so I’m basically always at work. Does that mean I always have to be on, aka “professional”? You’re at that exhilarating stage where you’re living and breathing your business. Acting professional all the time can seem daunting, but the truth is that this is an opportunity to shape your own idea of professionalism. 

Take stock of how you dress, talk/write, move, and behave. Do all of these reflect how you want you and your business to be perceived? If you show up to a meeting and sit backwards in a chair, does that accurately represent how seriously you take your business? If you start all your emails with “heya,” will your potential clients feel confident in your product or service? This one depends. If your business is a surf shop, maybe all your emails will be to people as chill as you are. But if you’re starting up a clinic to help drug addicts, the people you’re emailing might feel better if you use a more serious greeting. 

You already have the skills to enact professionalism; it’s just a matter of bringing them to the surface. Take MBA admissions consultant Jesse Meija’s advice: “As Latinos, many of us were raised to be upbeat, say hello, introduce ourselves, build relationships, be committed, work hard and stay focused. Those simple attributes are transferable skills to a [business] environment. Those skills lay the foundation for careers in business development, fundraising, marketing, sales operations, consulting, and more.” Consider what parts of your identity make you well-suited to running a business and emphasize those.

How can this concept of professionalism work against me?

The expectations of professionalism often reward a traditionally white, middle class presentation. If you don’t fit that mold, you don’t want to limit yourself and your business by trying to act like someone or something you aren’t. However, you should still be aware of these expectations, so you can decide if and when you want to code switch—that is, changing how you speak and act based on where you are and to whom you’re speaking. Meija explains it like this: “Our 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.” But code-switching isn’t for everyone. Read more about this practice and why you may or may not want to engage in it