By Nyaradzo Mushangwe, group financial controller, Simbisa brands Limited

The definition of professionalism according to the Oxford dictionary is: The competency or skill expected of a professional.  Another definition, according to the Business dictionary is: The level of excellence or competence that is expected of a professional.  The two definitions are similar and leave a reader with a clear understanding of the meaning of the word. 

We are all constantly reminded by friends, family, peers and mentors, to be professional at all times with everyone you interact with.  I think it is important that we pause and ask ourselves what the phrase “be professional” really means and to what extent this impacts the way we dress and behave at our places of business.

In organisations and institutions world over there are general guidelines for appropriate business attire i.e. what is acceptable and unacceptable to wear at work.

At my first job we were told that business colours are blue, black, grey and white and were cautioned to avoid bright colours such as fuchsia (vivid purplish red) neon pink or fluorescent green just to name a few.  These were said to be a distraction to work colleagues and unprofessional. 

I may have sold my age by the previous statement J but if we look at the business environment today, the guidelines for appropriate corporate attire have evolved significantly, with most females and some males, across all ages and management levels, embracing the brighter colours, and as a result we are enjoying more varied and interesting dress codes at work.

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In August 2016, the students of Pretoria High School in South Africa held a protest in response to new school rules that mostly affect ethnic girls with natural hairstyles.  This matter went viral all over the world and the girls were applauded for challenging racist rules packaged as a “code of conduct”

Earlier this month, 34 year old Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyongo took to social media to call out Grazia UK for photo-shopping her natural hair in the November 2017 edition.  She twitted “Disappointed that Grazia UK edited out & smoothed my hair to fit a more Eurocentric notion of what beautiful hair looks like. #dtmh”

This has made me realise that a similar issue is prevalent in a number of places of business, cleverly termed as “professionalism”

Imagine a scenario where a company is carrying out interviews.  There are two candidates of ethnic decent.  Candidate 1 has a 12 inch Brazilian weave, a silky flowing mane perfectly framing her face and candidate 2 has a 3 inch afro, a crown of thick, kinky black curls that defy gravity.  We are all familiar with phrases such as: you never get a second chance to make a first impression or dress how you want to be addressed.  Can we all say with confidence that the interview panel will appreciate the candidates’ differences in style, look beyond their appearance and focus on their qualifications and experience?   Or is one look deemed “more professional” than the other? 

I definitely cannot answer those questions with conviction. 

The fact that I cannot answer the questions with certainty is particularly disturbing.  Hairstyles such as: afros, bantu knots, dread locks or coils are part of someone’s identity.  Why does one have to question whether their hair, in its natural state is professional?        Is that to say a particular ethnic group is not professional and needs some altering here and there?  In this transformation process who or what are they trying to look like to be considered “professional”?

Another peculiar synopsis is working on the Sabbath, whether it falls on a Saturday or Sunday.  Most employment contracts have the following clause: “Your hours of employment will be determined by the dictates of your business, but subject to a minimum time of 8.00am to 5.00pm on a Monday to Friday” This is standard practice and most professionals expect this and are happy to comply.  The situation gets interesting when one is part of a team and is required to work on the Sabbath to meet a particular deadline.  Should that individual insist that they can’t work because they would like to attend church, more often than not the room goes deathly quiet that you could hear a pin drop. 

Why is such a declaration so surprising and more importantly why does it tend to be viewed as lack of commitment on the individual’s part?  After all, most companies state in their policies that they do not discriminate against race, age, gender, ethnicity, religion and disabilities. 

It is estimated that globally, approximately 1 in 20,000 people are born with albinism, and this statistic increases to an average of 1 in 5,000 in Africa.  One has to wonder why you hardly come across albinos in places of business.  Is this a coincidence or are people living with albinism are yet to be integrated into the workplace? 

These are just some of the examples of subtle ways that discrimination exists in the workplace despite the documented polices and ethos of the organisation and it is important that we become aware of this. 

In conclusion, I will leave this final thought with you……In our daily activity at work, are we pursuing professionalism or perpetuating discrimination disguised as “professionalism”.