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Is ‘Professional Presence’ A Euphemism Meant To Discourage Diversity?

Companies are often mired in conformity. Managers often reject candidates because they lack a secret sauce called “professional presence” or “executive presence.” But a company’s path to diversity and success is marked by questioning assumptions and recognizing bias about presence.

As a career professional in human resources, I have been exposed for years to hiring and promotional conversations where managers rejected candidates because they lacked a secret sauce called “presence.” This concept comes in different packages, often under the guise of professional presence, executive presence, personal brand and more. What it really means is how you look, how you talk and how well you adhere to the company’s self-image and “fit in” with the prevailing company culture.

First, Define Presence

“Presence” is defined very differently from one company to the next. But it boils down to trying to emulate the company leadership, the majority of which are white males. This might mean dressing like everyone else — whether it be a blue suit at a bank, jeans and a hoodie at a high-tech company, a conservative haircut at a big corporate office, or green hair and a nose ring at an edgy nonprofit. It can also mean aggressively pounding the table to get your opinion across, or quietly building consensus behind the scenes.

The idea of the appropriateness of your presence, however, is how I believe companies can tacitly discourage diversity. A fashion-forward employee might not want to wear a tech-company hoodie every day to fit in, any more than a recent college grad may want to cover up a tattoo and get a short haircut to look “professional” in order to get ahead. By normalizing certain behaviors and choices about appearance as being part of a company culture and others as not, a condition of your employment is effectively about becoming who the company wants you to be, rather than continuing to be who you already are.

Recently, at a conference, I was speaking with another HR leader who wanted to coach one of her up-and-coming managers to have better “executive presence.” This individual was smart, was educated, had performed well on big projects and had essentially earned the trust of the leadership team. However, his presence was considered a problem from a promotional perspective because of his unruly hair and non-standard American business attire — as a European, he wore sweaters and jeans as opposed to the usual company uniform of Dockers and a blue button-down shirt. Additionally, he had a strong accent. The HR leader was wondering how to coach this manager to succeed. My response was that it didn’t sound like the employee needed coaching; it sounded as if the leadership team did.

Next, Challenge Yourself

We all have biases. To say we don’t would show a lack of awareness. It’s a part of being human. The key is to be aware of your biases and challenge yourself and your assumptions, as well as the assumptions of others.

This is not about lowering your standards or those of the company; it’s about broadening your horizons with regard to acceptance and realizing that different perspectives and styles add value. It’s about focusing on the things that really matter. And guess what, it’s not your hair or your flip-flops or your ability to play foosball.

Then, Challenge Others

Hiring decisions and promotions are largely made by groups of people who are focused on “fit” and “presence.” Alas, this tends to be based on preconceived notions of what success should look like, rather than facts. Of course, people joining my team will be a better fit for me personally if they all went to the same school I did, are roughly the same demographic and so forth. But those are qualities to look for in friends. Colleagues can and should come from all different walks of life, because to be successful in business, diverse perspectives add value and promote innovation.

Become more fact-based in your hiring practices, take risks, challenge yourself, be uncomfortable, allow yourself to be challenged and make room at the table for different voices.

Finally, Improve Your Business

Equality and diversity are powerful contributors to innovation and growth as well as to retention. According to 2019 research from our partner Accenture, workplaces with a robust culture of equality have an employee mindset for innovation six times higher than in the least-equal companies surveyed. A Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study in 2018 found that companies reporting above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity. And more than 60% of women in a 2017 PwC survey said they looked at the diversity of a prospective employer’s leadership team before accepting their most recent job offer.

Make room for different voices. Let other people be heard. Take a risk. Take a chance. And don’t buy into the faulty concept of “presence.” Focusing on increasingly dated concepts of what “success” looks like is a trap that will prevent your company from hiring and promoting the best people for each team.

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