What does looking 'professional' mean now?

Between new norms and working remotely, here's how the definition of looking "professional" has changed.
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

Florida-based anchor and reporter Lena Pringle made headlines when she posted photos of her natural, Afro-textured hair with a tapered cut. While Pringle is by far not the first or last Black woman to rock a natural hairstyle in a corporate setting, her viral tweet sparked conversations about professionalism.

We spoke with Lena Pringle, business owners, work experts and everyday people to weigh in on what it means to act and appear professional in the modern age — especially during a pandemic.

The challenge to look professional

Pringle, whose look was always "different," said the evolution of her professional style is powered by an ongoing self-love journey. When she first entered the newsroom at 23 years old, she wore a short, relaxed pixie cut. That look wasn't standard or normal at the time. Now Pringle said wearing her natural hair on air is "nonnegotiable."

Expanding the definition of professionalism might seem insignificant compared to major news stories right now. However, several sources interviewed for this piece confirmed that conforming to outdated standards causes emotional and physical distress. It also increases the potential for discrimination to people from marginalized groups.

New York-based content creator and licensed beauty expert Janera Rose acknowledges that the freedom to express herself in the workplace is still limited. "As a Black woman, I know the frustration of being unsure of how to present for interviews — as if my look would disqualify me from being a worthy candidate."

Gaining the right to have your natural appearance deemed professional are often hard-won.

"Hair and makeup have long been social, political statements and a means of self-expression, especially for Black women. How we wear our hair often defines perceptions of professionalism. Black women are 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. In 2019,Sen. Holly Mitchell, authored the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN), a law that prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture. So, for women of color what constitutes 'professionalism' in the workplace is changing," said Martine Charles, CEO of ASE Beauty.

Charles further explained that "Black women straightened their hair and used highly pigmented makeup containing high amounts of toxins to achieve a more 'professional' and acceptable look. Chemical straighteners harsh ingredients in skin products and makeup often lead to pregnancy-related problems, baldness and auto-immune diseases."

Changes in presentation standards aren't just limited to Black women. Alison Green, who runs the work advice site Ask a Manager, confirmed that in the past decade, people of all races are experiencing the freedom to dress more casually and dye their hair unnatural colors.

Sara Happ, owner of a clean beauty lip care brand, agreed. "Our appearance matters less, and our work matters more."

Mandy, a white woman who works for a nonprofit, shared that she shaved her head and dyed it unnatural colors and patterns in her 40s without fear of losing her job. When asked why she thinks she was able to still maintain a professional stance while having a more creative hairstyle, Mandy acknowledged that times have changed.

"Business environments in general are getting more casual," she said. "I have a more senior position, and I work in a more casual sort of office than I started in."

But while she received no push-back from her Boomer-aged boss, Mandy chose to wear an "inexpensive-but-decently-realistic wig" to meetings and other work-related events where clients or people who didn't work for her company were in attendance. "I didn't think I would be taken seriously with leopard (and later, blue) hair. (My boss) does not understand the way that the semiotics of style influence people."

Tossing on a wig for a meeting is not exactly code-switching, but the idea of switching up one's behavior or presentation to meet certain settings is something that minorities are all too familiar with. The fear of subconscious biases is what causes even non-minorities to be cautious.

Social media strikes again

Pringle thinks the influence for change in professionalism standards come from working people encouraged by social media. "People in particular industries are deciding that they will no longer shrink for spaces and that these spaces will grow to fit them. … For so long, people would just kind of bounce around their own lives, their own corporate struggles, their own whatever, and then you have social media — that has now been used as a catalyst to really push some of these things to the forefront that people wouldn't have otherwise had any idea about."

People are finding their power because representation in the media influences the world. This time though, it's not just fictional characters inspiring our career paths, relationships and adventures. Through social media, we're given a peek into so many lives that people realize that they aren't alone.

Pringle said social media has pushed corporations to stay fluid with the times by making quick changes to outdated standards.

"We're in a particular time where we're seeing immense change. We as employees, as people who are working under these organizations, have to hold them accountable ... by making sure at the bare minimum you get a little respect and get to be who you are in a professional manner while doing your job," said Pringle.

Business owners Martine Charles and Sara Happ say their policy is to encourage freedom in the workplace because it nets positive results.

"At ASE Beauty, we are helping women challenge the perceptions of beauty and teaching them how to embrace self-care and wellness. Therefore, it's only right for our team members to feel comfortable to be themselves. We don't need to compromise our well-being or personalities to fit in at the workplace," said Charles.

"In our company, we've always had a culture of 'come as you are.' I believe people do their best work when they feel comfortable. If being home and doing a zoom in a sweatshirt feels best? Amazing. If dressing up helps you mentally prepare for your day? Lovely. Do you," said Happ.

Before you let social media prematurely influence you to get too comfortable at work, Rose warns that "many companies still have policies within their handbook to prevent employees from sharing unprofessional things online that go against the company's core values. We've seen time and time again, former employees that have been released from their job because of things posted online."

Knowing when to push boundaries is trickier in these contentious times. "To figure it out, you need to be able to pick up on subtle cues, both about your organizational culture and about the people you're dealing with. Previously, when everything was more formal across the board, you didn't need to guess so much about what was expected. The trend toward less formality is a good one, but it does introduce new challenges for workers," said Green.

Getting to professional authenticity

"At this point in my career, ... it is of the most extreme importance that I carry myself exactly who I am. ... Representation is important, it's essential. ... Now my career and my philosophy is 'you take up all the space.' You take up all the space, and you allow those spaces to grow to fit you. Never shrink to fit those because there's an important thing that everybody brings to the table," said Pringle.

So, how does one get to a place of professional authenticity and comfortably take up space? Pringle said it's all about doing the personal work of discovering yourself and then finding the confidence to express it.

Alison Green and Janera Rose advise starting a dialog with your HR and management. Progress depends on your political capital and understanding of your standing in the company.

"If you don't feel that your company is progressive enough to allow you the freedom that you'd like, which can, in turn, increase your productivity, you can either propose a new idea to management or find a new place of employment," said Rose.

If we all are forced to look and act the same, then our thinking becomes similar — or at least the ideas we are willing to vocalize — and that stifles creativity and innovation. Freedom in presentation might seem superficial, but the ability for employees to be relaxed and authentic can have a significant impact on companies and organizations.