Our team at the CQ Center recently participated in a session on Professional Presence facilitated by one of our very own facilitators. The facilitator did a fantastic job. The purpose was to facilitate dialogue about appropriate professional behavior, particularly when interacting with our clients and partners around the world.
The conversation was rich and robust. Strong views were shared, especially by the younger generations on our team, regarding how professional presence is defined. None of that surprised me. However, what did surprise me was my own internal struggle with the topic. We see the challenges connected to this issue everywhere. For example, the CROWN Act (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) is a hot topic. The act was created to prohibit women of color from being discriminated against because of their natural hairstyles. Then there’s the Sikh man who recently won a lawsuit against a London-based company who fired him because of his beard, which he keeps for religious reasons. And, just recently, the French Senate voted to ban the hijab for Muslim women under the age of 18 in public places. These are just a few examples of why the conversation around professional presence is so sensitive.
The facilitator did a masterful job explaining that we all have a responsibility to demonstrate we care about our appearance and how we present ourselves at work. They also underscored our need to apply cultural intelligence to discern when we may need to adjust our appearance out of respect for another culture or different cultural values. For example, several of us recently met with a team of leaders from the UAE. We understood the strong religious values and the importance of modesty, so we used cultural intelligence to adapt how we dressed.
But all of this raises the question — Who gets to decide what is “professional”? And how do we know when we’ve crossed the line of forced assimilation and discouraging people from being themselves at work? When that line is crossed, employees feel pressure to cover or play down their cultural identities to blend in with the dominant culture. While research reveals that most employees cover at work, underrepresented and marginalized groups feel the greatest pressure to do so. Covering can be one of the biggest threats to creating an inclusive work environment. In contrast, when employees can freely express themselves, the higher their job satisfaction, engagement, and performance.
So how do we deal with being professional versus threatening inclusion?
A first step is becoming aware of signs that may reveal when an organization or leader has crossed the line into forcing people to Cover. The second step is proactively identifying ways to discourage it. You might be asking your employees to cover more than others when:
Expectations are dictated by the dominant culture’s values
The dominant culture is the shared culture of the largest and usually most powerful group in an organization. Their status and privilege position them to establish policies and organizational routines based on how they define professionalism. This might include a requirement to wear a suit or tie or saying that certain types of jewelry are too flashy. Oftentimes, individual expression or the cultural values and heritage of underrepresented groups are dismissed as unprofessional.
Reflect on who decides what “professional” means in your organization. Is the process inclusive, and are diverse voices considered? Invite a diverse team to express the organizational culture by welcoming individual styles and celebrating cultural differences, including cultural dress and heritage. For example, if your organization is based in the US, demonstrate support for women of color by signing the Crown Act petition. When it comes to gender diversity, make sure dress policies are as gender-neutral as possible. Also, ensure that differently-abled employees aren’t hit with professional presence practices that don’t offer reasonable accommodations.
PRO TIP: If you missed our International Women’s Day Fireside chat, watch a recording below! We discussed gender equity, women in leadership, and best practices for organizations to reach equity and inclusion goals.
Expectations are unrelated to the individual’s ability to do their job
A few years ago, Air New Zealand made headlines when they announced they were ditching their long-held tattoo ban. As tattoos have become more prevalent, employers are forced to become more accepting of them. And when qualified diverse candidates can be selective about what job offer they accept, smart employers understand the risk of losing good candidates by discriminating against things like respectful body art. Rarely does it have anything to do with the employee’s ability to do their job. And in those instances where it might impact their effectiveness when engaging across cultures, the individual might consider temporarily concealing the tattoo. That is cultural intelligence, not covering. However, outside these kinds of distinct cross-cultural experiences, an organization might be hard-pressed to rationalize how wearing a tattoo negatively impacts an employee’s overall performance.
One of the fastest ways to negatively impact your ability to hire and retain diverse talent is to allow unconscious bias and unnecessary expectations about “professionalism” to infiltrate the hiring and promotion processes. Hold yourself and others who make hiring and promotion decisions accountable for staying laser-focused on the requirements necessary for your employees to do their jobs. Period. Then supplement that commitment by creating an environment that allows them to do the work while being their authentic self and reflecting their cultural heritage.
Policies and practices create equity gaps across the organization
Individuals who don’t “fit” the mainstream look or behaviors risk being confined to entry-level positions with limited opportunity for promotion and development. Perhaps they have a nose piercing or dress in ways that express their transgender identity. They can become marginalized and disadvantaged. Over time, inequities (position, status, compensation, etc.) are created, and only certain individuals or cultural groups are represented in high-level or even middle management positions. Does everyone at the top of your organization look and act the same? If so, might one factor be a culture that only elevates those who imitate 100-year-old traditional professional presence practices?
Take a hard look at those individuals across your organization who have not been provided opportunities for advancement. Do you see any patterns and themes? If there are legitimate issues where professionalism is lacking, support them by providing training and coaching.
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In sum, it is completely appropriate to expect employees to demonstrate they care about their appearance, how they present themselves and to expect them to engage with others in culturally intelligent ways. At the same time, organizations and leaders have a responsibility to do their part and take the lead. Decisions, organizational policies, and routines related to professional behavior need to consider the impact on a diverse employee base. I acknowledge that the tension between the two sides is real. It’s not always easy to discern which behaviors are essential. Start by having a dialogue about this with your staff. Intentionally invite diverse voices to the conversation.
- What are our policies as it relates to professional presence?
- Who made these decisions and why?
- How relevant are they to our mission and work today?
- When should we expect employees to adapt?
Decide and work together as a team on what inclusion should look like at your organization.
Our recent training was one of many efforts we make to practice what we preach. We didn’t have answers to all of the questions and “what if” scenarios, but we are committed to continuing to dialogue about it together. Managers are facilitating discussions with their teams to discuss what it looks like for us to be both inclusive and professional at the CQ Center. We are committed to doing our best to create a work environment where all of our team members have cultural intelligence and feel part of an inclusive organizational culture.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sandra Upton, DSL serves as VP, Global Diversity Practice, and provides strategic direction for applying Cultural Intelligence (CQ) to DEI work across all segments and industries. She previously worked with schools and universities through her role as Vice President of Educational Initiatives. In addition, she’s a regular speaker, trainer, and consultant on cultural intelligence with companies and non-profit organizations. As a former business school dean and organizational consultant, Sandra understands how to effectively integrate CQ with organizations’ D&I initiatives and global leadership programs. She has also facilitated study abroad experiences in places such as China, Europe, Israel, and South Africa. Sandra finds her greatest pleasure in spending time with her husband and two children. She also enjoys travel, reading, watching a good film, and long walks.
About the Cultural Intelligence Center
The Cultural Intelligence Center is an innovative, research-based consulting and training organization that draws upon empirical findings to help executives, companies, universities, and government organizations assess and improve cultural intelligence (CQ) – the ability to work effectively with people from different nationalities, ethnicities, age groups, and more. We provide you with innovative solutions that improve multicultural performance based on rigorous academic research. More information about the Cultural Intelligence Center can be found on our website located at http://www.CulturalQ.com.
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