One concept that often makes me want to self-immolate is when people begin discussing professionalism in the workplace. Lest you think I’m racing to any employer and throwing buckets of water at everyone as if I’m Doink the Clown, let me explain what I mean: the whole idea of professionalism in the workplace is a one-directional work concept, which means it only applies high — → low.
Phrased another way: you can’t tell your boss “Hey, the way you behave is unprofessional,” even if you feel it.
Your boss, however, can typically say that to you — and typically other more senior people will back him or her up.
There are millions of examples of this in workplaces, with the most notable one being e-mail: if someone high up a chain wants to reply all at the 11th hour and change the course of an entire project, they can. If someone low on a chain doesn’t reply quickly enough to questions/demands, they’re seen as a slacker. E-mail is one of the ultimate one-directional work concepts, thus.
But maybe there’s a better way to think about professionalism in the workplace.
Professionalism in the workplace: The yin and the yang
At most places I’ve worked — and most places my friends have worked — there’s this essential yin and yang to everything that honestly starts with the hiring process:
- At the low and middle levels (and definitely at the executive levels), people want to laugh and joke with each other
- People want this because we’re social beings, social capital is important at work, and having friends at work is very powerful
- At the same time, there’s this giant concern around professionalism in the workplace …
- … to the point that people showing true, authentic emotions can probably get them canned
Here we go with two quick personal stories:
I got canned from my last job. That happened in November 2015. I would say I was actually somewhat popular at that gig until maybe June, July 2015 — and then it started to erode for a couple of different reasons, among them me being more vocal about a lack of job definition and some bonds I had with people starting to fray. None of that is why I got canned — that’s on me and I’ll own it — but as the social capital and bonds began to erode around me, I was clearly on an island in many ways.
Now flash forward to yesterday. I’m talking about some freelance gigs (because I do that now, so hire me baby!) with some consultants based in DC and, yes, Israel. These guys are slinging F-Bombs and off-task stories before we get into it, right? I’m tossing a few and some funnier stories I have about the workplace, and they’re laughing. It’s a grand old time. I’m on a conference call, but feel like I’m at the pub. It’s cool.
We get into the nitty-gritty and the guys are like “Look, your writing is good but sometimes it’s off-task or off-color, and we often have clients willing to spend $1–2 million. It can’t be like that.” I agreed completely. That’s how I approach all this freelance stuff, honestly … I write one way on this site, because it’s my blog, and I write a different way on LinkedIn and for clients and whatnot.
I have to straddle that line, because professionalism in the workplace is a big deal — even if it periodically is uni-directional bullshit.
So here’s what I came to, then:
Professionalism in the workplace is all about code-switching
Code-switching is basically the practice of people alternating between different languages or different language varietals; NPR, which has an entire blog named after the concept, has a good explanation of code-switching. You can also check out the Wiki for the idea.
NPR’s written another article on code-switching, this one featuring Key and Peele, that basically explains this concept I’m talking about above:
So you’re at work one day and you’re talking to your colleagues in that professional, polite, kind of buttoned-up voice that people use when they’re doing professional work stuff.
Your mom or your friend or your partner calls on the phone and you answer. And without thinking, you start talking to them in an entirely different voice — still distinctly your voice, but a certain kind of your voice less suited for the office. You drop the g’s at the end of your verbs. Your previously undetectable accent — your easy Southern drawl or your sing-songy Caribbean lilt or your Spanish-inflected vowels or your New Yawker — is suddenly turned way, way up. You rush your mom or whomever off the phone in some less formal syntax (“Yo, I’mma holler at you later,”), hang up and get back to work.
The above example is primarily linguistic, but I’d argue it’s even deeper than that.
See, there’s a two-sided angle to any conversations about professionalism in the workplace, because:
- People want the ability to laugh, be a little off-task, play, and develop real relationships
- Professionalism in the workplace demands adherence to process, protocols, and rules
To be successful at it — and to maintain a basic level of civility among co-workers — you need to be able to switch back-and-forth between, let’s say, Israeli guys tossing F-Bombs and Israeli guys telling you how to chase a $2M client.
That’s the real code-switching in any future of work discussion, and that’s also how to best handle anything about professionalism in the workplace.
Why is code-switching the best approach for professionalism in the workplace?
When I’m saying ‘code-switching’ here in this work context, I’m mostly talking about ‘reading a room’ or ‘reading a group of people.’ We don’t do that enough in work settings, unfortunately — probably because we’re all chasing The Temple of Busy — and so we make mistakes around certain individuals that lead us to be deemed as “less professional,” even though those same individuals probably are 3.5 seconds away from e-mailing their dong to a secretary at any given moment.
It’s just that they code-switch better than we do, so no one tosses grenades around about their professionalism.
There’s kind of two overlapping concepts here, both of which I’ve blogged about before:
- Workplaces often force people to be inauthentic due to a focus on process and protocols
- This interplay between hierarchy, protocol, and the need for professionalism in the workplace is where one of the biggest double-standards of any career arc will lie
In short: you go to work and you want to be yourself, but you can’t be yourself — because once you’re yourself, you’re unprofessional.
But now we have the answer.
Learn to read rooms. Learn to read people. Learn to code-switch. That’s the real backstory to professionalism in the workplace, honestly.
Would most people be able to code-switch at work?
Probably not, honestly — most people tend to operate in a self-awareness void while at work, instead racing from task to task and bellowing about their 2:30 and how they had to eat lunch at their desk. (Again, we tend to over-focus on quantity of work and under-focus on quality of work, and that’s fairly common in most workplaces.)
But if you can gradually understand how to move between different audiences and different styles and approaches to having conversations and presenting ideas, maybe we can begin to focus less and less on ‘professionalism at work’ and stop using it as a way to put people in boxes (which is, sadly, what most in managerial roles tend to use it for).
My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.