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The New Professionalism

It's not what you wear—it's who you are.

I remember the first time someone called me unprofessional.

It was 1995. I was dressed and ready to go see a client. One of my first. My boss approached me and said, “Hey, that’s a cool shirt… I wouldn’t wear it to a see a client. But I really like it.”

It was just a plain white dress shirt, but it wasn’t an official-bought-it-at-an-anchor-store-in-the-mall-dress-shirt. It wasn’t made of extra-starched cardboard. And it didn’t have a button-down collar in a time when that’s just what you wore to work. But I got the point.

He never actually used the word “unprofessional.” Probably because he was a good guy and a good boss. I was young and he wanted to send a message. But he didn’t want to make me feel bad. These days we call that a teachable moment. But it’s what he meant. I was apparently dressed unprofessionally. But you know what? I went to see the client anyway. They let me in the door. They talked to me. It was actually a very productive meeting. Turns out the client cared only that I knew what I was talking about and that I could help solve his problem. What a weird way to do business, right?

That was over two decades ago, and—to borrow a phrase from my good friend, Sam—there is still much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over what people wear to work. Or what hours they work. Or even where they do their work.

A few years ago, I went to work for a big senior living company. I had been there about a week, going through the massive tome of company policies I was supposed to follow. Yes, Paul Rosenthal, I used the word tome for you. I think of you every time I use it or hear it, which is not nearly often enough. I hope you are well.

But back to the tome. I’m not sure how far I was into it or how many times I had dozed off when I saw it in black and white. No tattoos. I actually called my boss to ask her if I was allowed to work there. The conversation went something like this:

“Hey Karen, it’s Michael. I have a very important question.”

“Sure. Is everything going okay?”

“I hope so, but I’m not sure I can work here.”

“Wait. What? Why would you say that? What’s wrong?”

“Well this policy says you can’t work here if you have tattoos. And I may have one or ten.”

“Say that again.”

“Tattoos. I guess they’re like my midlife crisis thing. Some men get mistresses. Others get sports cars. I get tattoos.”

“No, not that. The policy. What does the policy say?”

“That you can’t work here if you have them. It’s actually in surprisingly straightforward language for a company policy. I doubt an HR or Legal person even wrote it.”

“Well that’s stupid. It’s probably just for the communities. That stuff tends to make the seniors nervous.”

“That seems equally stupid. Did the seniors complain, or are we deciding for them?”

“I don’t know. Don’t worry about it. You’re staying.”

“Okay, cool. Thanks, Karen.”

Fast forward a few months. I’m doing a communication study across the senior communities. I’ve been to about 20 and in every one, I see coworkers with visible tattoos, multiple piercings, and all manner of crazy hair styles. You know what I don’t see? Seniors cowering in fear of these unprofessional mutants.

So, I did what I do. I asked a few of them how they felt about it. Not only did they not mind—they actually appreciated the way our people expressed themselves. Many of them told me their caregivers reminded them of their grandkids who also had piercings, tattoos, or pink hair. Sometimes all three. The seniors loved to tell their stories, and they loved to hear about ours. Why did we choose that particular tattoo? Why that color? Did it have personal meaning or did we just like it? They felt real and alive and normal.

One of the last stops in the study was a community in Colorado Springs. My friend, Sara and I interviewed the activities/wellness director there. I apologize that I don’t remember her name, but what I do remember is that she had multi-colored hair and the most funky, original outfit. Much like my dear friend, Sue Schmidt. And she was just as interesting. She told me how she had been offered the job of Executive Director there and turned it down because she was afraid she wouldn’t get to spend as much time with the residents if she took it.

I was so taken by her story that I forgot to turn the stupid camera on to record it. Thankfully, she was also incredibly cool and agreed to repeat her story for the camera. We highlighted her in a companywide townhall meeting—funky clothes, colorful hair, and all. People smiled. They laughed. Some even cried. But not a single person complained or called her unprofessional. Know why? Because she wasn’t. She was quite the opposite. She lived the company’s purpose. She made it her own and she was damned good at it. The seniors and her teammates loved her. We did, too. Because she was also an amazing human.

Sometimes it’s just that obvious. Other times it’s more behind the scenes. Like those self-proclaimed nerds in the dark recesses of your office. The ones wearing the torn jeans and concert t-shirts to work every day. You don’t really notice them because they come in before you do and don’t leave until long after you’re gone. And you never visit them. You know—the IT department. So what if they wear flip-flops to work in February! The point is they keep our machines working so we can do our jobs. They’re good at it, and they’re generally good people. They’re fun and they help us enjoy what we do.

So, who gets to decide what is and isn’t professional? Do we crowd-source it? SurveyMonkey? Maybe ask the president? No, scratch that last one for sure. Maybe ask Kid President… he gets it!

Be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody. – Kid President

How about if I just throw something out there? I feel qualified because I have tattoos and used to wear an earring. Let’s undercomplicate this thing. Dispense with all the silly rules and policies and boil it down to three simple things. Come on now. Some of you know me. You know it had to be three:

(1) Is she a good human?

(2) Is she a strong example of the company’s purpose and values?

(3) Do people want to work with her?

These people aren’t as rare as you think. You just have to look past all the stupid, outdated notions you’ve been conditioned to think are important and train yourself to look for the things that really matter.

This certainly isn’t the first thing ever written on the subject. It’s probably not the best. And it undoubtedly won’t be the last. So next time you find yourself in a meeting and you decide someone is unprofessional because she’s wearing jeans among the important folk with all the letters in front of their titles. Or because she has a nose ring. Or because she takes notes in a Trapper Keeper. Or because she drinks her coffee from a Hello Kitty thermos with a crazy straw. Just stop. Close your eyes and listen to what she has to say. Does she sound like a real person? A good human? Does listening to her make you think about the company’s values? Are her teams and projects successful? Do people want to work with her?

Open your eyes. If you’re still troubled by how she looks, maybe you’re the problem.

Cheers!

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