Nov 16, 2021

3 Examples of Harmful Professional Culture and How to Remedy Them

By Conrad Moore

When I was in the early chapters of my career, I worked in the service industry in a variety of restaurants and bars. If you had met me anywhere between the ages of 17 and 22, I probably had a collection of cheap blue pens and black aprons of various lengths, some from current restaurants, some form previous restaurants, all collecting in a pile in the back of my car. Aprons, as I recall, were never given to to take home from any of the places I worked, but I somehow always ended up with a bunch of them. We all did.

There were other bits of required dress at each of these restaurants, the most heinous of which was a multicolored fish-print shirt from a certain seafood-themed chain famous for its cheese biscuits. I hated that shirt. It was unflattering in every possible way, billowy, boxy, and patterned with absurd fish cartoons that dared every customer I interacted with to take me seriously. Few of them did.

But there was one piece of clothing that was uniformly required across all those restaurants jobs and that was nonslip shoes. The hazards of fast-paced walking through a crowded restaurant full of drunk patrons spilling drinks on the floor and babies chucking cooked pasta all over place cannot be oversold. And, surely, neither can the insurance liabilities, so I get why nonslip shoes were non-negotiable. I do recall, however, having to pay for them most of the time, as if they were some common tool of the trade that any service staff had lying around the house.

And I’m lucky, because that’s about as bad as professional dress codes ever got for me. As a classroom teacher I was told to wear “office casual,” again something I had to fork over my own meager dough for. In the non-profit space, dress was much more casual and I basically wore what made me comfortable. And in my sojourn through the corporate world I had to tighten it up a little, but by that point I liked the idea of wearing suits and blazers. After all, as a white cishet man, this is the pinnacle of fashion for us. Nothing says respect like a man in a suit, at least in the world of business.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started questioning the notions of dress codes and, indeed, professionalism in the workplace. If I’m honest, while the various permutations of my “work uniform” have never been humiliating or beyond my financial means, I think I would have always chosen to dress like me, if given the option.

And what if you aren’t like me?

What if you can’t afford those nonslip shoes? Or what if you’re gender nonconforming working in an office where the fashion culture appears to center gender binarism? Or that your natural hair isn’t seen as “professional?” Or, for that matter, your dyed hair with the expressive cut?

Often, “professional” culture can feel like thinly coded exclusion to many. Those “standards” of professionalism, like appearance and behavior, often map to white, heteronormative notions of what’s normal and acceptable. Like many culture issues, it can be difficult to determine if you are developing or maintaining a toxic, exclusionary professional culture, especially if you aren’t part of a historically marginalized group. Rest assured, though, there are likely some folks who find the dominant culture of your workplace unapproachable or even harmful. Let’s look at some common examples of harmful professional culture and how to address them.

1.     Professional Clothing Standards

Like the places I worked during my time as a server and bartender, you may work somewhere where there is an actual uniform. Some of the benefits of uniforms to a business include brand marketing and being able to recognize a staff member if customers need help. Personally, I think there is a great debate to be had about the basic human dignity of many uniforms, at least from my personal, fish print experience, but there are other considerations as well like:

·       Are your uniforms available in every shape and size? We humans come in a wide variety!

·       Do your uniforms enforce, implicitly or explicitly, gender binaries? If so, why?

·       Do they sexualize the employee? Is that necessary for them to do their work effectively? Do you know if they are comfortable with this? What would be different if employees could choose or give input on their own uniform? Or collectively decide on a new uniform?

·       Are you requiring employees to purchase an element of their uniform?

Even in workplaces where the standards are a little broader, such as “office casual,” consider that last question above. I find it odd that we’ve never, as a society, had a more extended discussion about the economic penalty of dress codes. What if this is my first job and I can barely pay rent? Now I have to buy new clothes too boot?

Then there’s the ubiquitous “office casual,” a style that is meant to prioritize comfort but follows a narrow definition of the word. For men, this is usually some combination of slacks and a button up shirt, maybe a blazer. Comfortable? To some, perhaps. And for women, the options seem simple at first but are confusingly and often frustratingly nuanced. Shannon Cumberbatch, Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Supervising Professor at The Bronx Defenders, Holistic Defense Externship at Columbia Law School and an attorney, writes in The Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development about the challenge, particularly experience by women of color, in finding an “appropriate” work outfit. Apart from, again, the economic penalty of having to buy clothes for work, Cumberbatch shares tales of women who…

…spent several hours in several stores seeking a skirt suit that would complement their figure, but not emphasize or unveil their curves, and were ultimately forced to splurge on a tailor to appear feminine and physically appealing without being hypersexualized, since the average suit is not designed to fit their body type. They were told to wear these skirt suits with ‘flesh toned’ stockings and ‘nude’ makeup for a ‘polished’ but ‘professional’ look, and reflected upon their frustration running up and down retail aisles seeking ‘flesh tones’ and ‘nude’ colors that actually matched their complexion, since the ‘darkest’ shade of most products still only reflect the darkest tone of white or light skin.

So what’s the remedy?

To kick off a common theme here, the solution is to solicit employee input. It isn’t necessarily uncalled for to have a dress code policy at work and there are many reasons to have one; employee safety, health regulations, company brand identity and so forth, are all reasonable factors to consider in employee dress. But equitable workplaces seeking to build inclusive cultures of belonging need to consider the experience of each employee and adjust accordingly.

If your policy already exists, ask for feedback in an anonymous survey. Ask key questions like:

·       Does this policy put undo pressure on employees with disabilities?

·       Does this policy conflict with employees’ religious beliefs or cultural expression?

·       Does this policy assume or imply gender identity?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” or even “I’m not sure,” how could the policy be modified? Often, simple standards of dress, such as “slacks, skirts, dresses and button up shirts” as the standard for what to wear creates a broad enough spectrum to allow employees to come to work in some version of these that feels right for them.

2.     Professional Grooming Standards

There is a long history of anti-black racism and gender binarism wrapped up in professional standards for hair. For many people, their natural hair can be kinky, curly, and voluminous. Even my own brown, white guy hair, when left to its own devices, can get pretty curly! The difference is that historically, to a degree, my hair left long wouldn’t elicit much commentary. For many black folks this has not been the case and we still see examples in the news of black employees and students being asked or forced to cut their natural hair. This is blatantly traumatizing and inappropriate.

Another legacy of gender binarism is who is allowed to have long hair. While this standard seems to be finally on the way out, there is no real reason to dictate hair length. If the matter is a safety issue, such as employees who work near industrial machinery, then haircaps and nets can be provided without requiring employees physically alter apart of their identity.

Ultimately, if your company appearance standards veer into hair care or beauty standards, you’d be wiser to leave those out. There is no justification for policing employee appearance to this degree and you are likely opening up a pandora’s box of harm, or even litigation exposure, for a standard of appearance society is largely leaving behind in the workplace.

3.     Standards of Behavior

Here’s where things can really get messy because many employee behavior standards are unwritten. Most of these are tied to traditional notions of masculinity in the workplace that prioritize, quiet confidence, zero emoting, and stoicism. Traditionally employees were expected to clock in, leave their personal feelings and emotions at home, and grind grind grind. We now know it’s impossible to do this and the ascension of emotional intelligence as a workplace training topic is indicative of that. But these trainings often ignore culture and lived experience and leave out how human expression differs depending on who we are and what we’ve learned is acceptable (or not) through socialization.

In largely white spaces, even having what feels like a normal conversation with a colleague can come under fire for some people of color. In an interview with King 5 News in Washington, Tish Held, described her experienc eat work:

I don't think people realize that as a Black person, Black woman, that there's a lot to consider when you just go and sit in the space. There's already an idea of who you are as you walk into the room… You have to always be conscious of how you present to other people. “Am I being too loud? Am I fitting into very specific stereotypes?”

Again, the remedy here is a combination of employee input and letting go of policing behaviors that have nothing to do with workplace safety. In fact, it may be helpful to codify inclusive behaviors, to name and stand by behavioral policies that incentivize and value cultural norms that represent everyone. Inclusive codes of conduct can lean into what a healthy culture of belonging looks like so that everyone feels they can bring their whole self to work.

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