Professionalism in the Workplace: Who Decides What is Allowed?

By: Maddie McCarthy

People express themselves in many different ways such as their wardrobes, tattoos, piercings, hair styles, or hair colors. Our differences in expression help us stand out.

As a young adult, I am just figuring out how I like to express myself. As a college student, I, alongside my peers at UT, am also currently preparing to enter the workforce. A big part of that preparation is learning how to be professional while still valuing my own self-expression.

Professionalism encompasses many different things, such as attitude, preparedness, punctuality, and behavior. On top of that, it also includes outward appearance.

Professionalism and self-expression seem to be constantly at odds. Unfortunately, there are employers that will pass up an extraordinarily valuable candidate due to the way they choose to express themselves all in the name of professionalism.

The simplest form of self expression is style. This can be difficult in the workplace because generally, our work attires  are much different from our everyday closets. 

Wardrobe policies are understandable as long as they are consistent. For example, women should not be held to different standards than men. I also believe that people should be free to express their gender identity if they do so within a reasonable and consistent dress code.

Tattoos in the workplace, while more common today than ever before, are still not acceptable on the employees of every company. They are probably one of the most controversial ways to express yourself due to their permanence.

Piercings are similar because they are also a form of body modification. Companies often have a policy in place to directly address tattoos and piercings based on their culture and values.

An article on Indeed, which discusses tattoos in the workplace, lists the advantages and disadvantages of allowing tattoos. For the advantages, it cites the promotion of expression, creativity, and diversity, as well as a larger pool of potential applicants.

The article also details some of the disadvantages, saying that customers may not approve, or that tattoos can be distracting. 

The disadvantages to tattoos in the workplace appear weak compared to the advantages. For one, there will always be a customer or a client of the company who disagrees with something the company does. It is impossible to please everyone.

Additionally, tattoos are much less of a distraction than an employer who micromanages the way their employees choose to express themselves, resulting in constant stress over appearance instead of focusing on work. Happy employees result in more productive and reliable workers.

If the tattoo is offensive, whether it be misogynistic, homophopbic, racist, or overly sexual, that is when it should be considered distracting, and therefore unprofessional in the workplace.

Hair is another aspect of professionalism. There are plenty of articles, blogs, and even YouTube channels that show examples of which hairstyles seem professional, and which ones are considered unprofessional.

Issues arise when certain natural hair types are more likely to be considered unprofessional. The C.R.O.W.N. Act, which was first created in 2019, addresses the disproportionate discrimination that Black people may face due to the way their natural hair is styled. 

According to their website, the act is “a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists or bantu knots.”

As of right now, only 14 states have this act, or a law inspired by this act, passed in legislation. That means that in 36 states, people can be denied employment because they do not have a “traditionally acceptable” hair style or texture. 

On top of that, a majority of the people deciding what is acceptable come from one demographic which is white men.

When top positions are filled by one demographic, such as a demographic that has been in power since the beginning of the United States’ inception, there is a lack of different viewpoints when making company policy. Therefore, people who don’t fit the mold of those in power are left out. The cycle of the lack of diversity continues.

Ultimately, respectful forms of self expression do not take away from a candidate’s skill, experience, or potential contribution to a workplace.

I have personally found that being around people with different forms of self-expression is valuable. I can see that judging someone solely on their form of self-expression yields no productive results. I would not want to limit myself or others based on something so arbitrary.

If companies or institutions decide to restrict their candidate pool based on outdated societal norms of acceptable self-expression, they might miss out on a candidate who could change everything for the better.

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