People spend about one-third of their lives at work. Every day, employees are held to a set of standards on how to act when they do their jobs. We may not be aware, but we are heavily influenced by our biases, a tendency to prefer one person over another. It is important to examine what these are and practice tips to create healthy workplaces.

It is not unusual for people to be approached and told they ‘look’ and ‘sound’ like a leader. These situations explain why it is time to challenge our idea of professionalism.

What are the written and unwritten rules of the workplace? What is approved of and what is frowned upon? In other words, what does it mean to be a professional?

There are a few factors to take into consideration.

The Unwritten Rules of Professionalism

First, the dominant culture shapes which behaviors we consider important to the success of our jobs and organizations. People are often referred to as professional or unprofessional because of their name, their style or their cultural attire.

Second, marginalized groups including women, LGTBQ, the disabled and people of color can be judged on traits that may not be relevant to their jobs. These could include their ways of communicating or their interactions with others.

Third, workplace policies can exacerbate inequities. Employees may be held back because of unpaid internships, after-hour events and out-of-pocket travel expenses. These differences can lead people to move more quickly into leadership positions.

In addition to these factors, bias also affects our perceptions of leadership.

Businesswoman leading a meeting
Businesswoman leading a meeting. Challenging traditional ideas of professionalism requires identifying our current biases.
PeopleImages / Getty Images

How Bias Impacts Perceptions of Leadership

In some cultures, promotions are given based on differing criteria. Harvard Business School found that Americans and Asians had varying perceptions of leadership.

Leaders in the U.S. are rewarded for being directive, participative, empowering or charismatic. Executives in Asia are valued for having self-knowledge, political connections and family control.

Employees can benefit from training on how to challenge our idea of professionalism. Catalyst shares the types of biases that show up in our workplaces.

Along with racial and gender bias, there is also:

  • Age bias: Occurs when people form opinions based on someone’s age.
  • Appearance bias: Occurs when people form opinions based on how others look.
  • Affinity bias: A preference toward those who share similar interests and experiences.
  • Proximity bias: A preference toward those who are close by and have frequent in-person interactions.
  • Halo bias and horns bias: When positive impressions of people in one area positively influence feelings in other areas—or when negative impressions of people in one area negatively influence feelings in other areas.

There is also the proliferation of media images that associate white men with leadership, the preference for Western-sounding names, the tendency to hire for cultural fit, the discrimination faced by non-native English speakers and bias in resumes and interviews.

In 2021, the American Association of Retired Persons shared that 78 percent of older workers have experienced age discrimination in the workplace. Also in 2021, the Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal shared that Black women with natural hair were not recommended as often for interviews compared with Black women with straightened hair and white women with curly/straight hair.

This eventually has an impact on who becomes a leader. In 2019, Bloomberg showed we often gravitate toward working with people similar to ourselves, known as mini-me proteges with 71 percentage of executives saying their mentees were of the same race and gender as them.

How To Challenge the Traditional View of Professionalism

Here are some practical tips to challenge our idea of professionalism:

  • Update dress/hair/style grooming policies to make sure they are non-discriminatory, and that attire is gender-neutral.
  • Familiarize oneself with accents and dialects as well as communication that develops when speakers of different languages come together.
  • Recognize non-formal education and non-traditional qualifications while rewarding continuous learning as a workplace skill.
  • Introduce audio features and phonetic spelling in email signatures for name pronunciation.
  • Acknowledge work achievements over work hours and offer flexible timings to accommodate caregivers.
  • Take meeting notes to prioritize the message rather than a style of communication or tone of voice.
  • Audit your organizational culture for words like ‘clean appearance’, ‘proper manners’ and expectations to be ‘competent.’

The idea of professionalism has led us to deny opportunities and overlook perspectives from people who sometimes think and act differently. The World Economic Forum shared that well-managed diverse teams outperform well-managed homogenous teams when it comes to productivity.

What if workplaces then, invited people to share their unique differences and how it leads to the growth and profitability of an organization?

Companies are adapting to the future of work. This includes taking the time to challenge our idea of professionalism and how workplaces have traditionally functioned. Everyone can benefit from these changes and the outcome of more diverse, equitable and inclusive environments.

About the Author

Diya is a Global Diversity Equity Inclusion speaker, facilitator, consultant with 20 year of experience in profit, non-profit and tech. She worked at Amazon where she led CORE+ (Conversations on Race and Ethnicity), an annual internal conference for 1.3 million employees. Her work is focused on developing DEI programs, strategies and policies at scale. She has developed global work plans for 14 Employee Resource Groups and led courses on the Future of Work and How to Rebuild Workplaces from an Intersectional Lens. She is a proven subject matter expert and is known for big vision and tactical implementation.