One of the things I’ve been thinking about in this crazy season we are in is our language. I’ve always been fascinated by words. I’ve studied foreign languages and seen how much our words and our language are shaped by our culture. Language these days feels very divisive to me, and I’ve even noticed differences in how we use words encroaching into the recruiting process.

Just a few years ago the term “ghosted,” for example, referred to the complete disappearance and unresponsiveness of someone you thought you were dating. Then, job hunters started talking about being ghosted by recruiters. And now, I’m hearing recruiters complaining about being ghosted by job hunters! “Rando” recruiters are even “sliding into our DMs!”

While all that is fun to observe, I’m more caught up with an entirely different word. LinkedIn has tapped into it with its new advertising campaign that what “professional” means is being redefined. It certainly is. But, its sister, professionalism, or professional, as an adjective has not caught up.

In a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a whopping 86% of employers responding ranked professionalism as a top priority in selecting new recruits. But these same employers said only 44% percent of college graduates demonstrated a level of professionalism that met their expectations.

What’s going on here? Do I know that some college students can be rude, entitled and disrespectful – especially as viewed through the lens of a hiring manager who is from a different generation? Of course I do; I teach and work at a university. But those are issues that can be easily addressed with some training and guidance.

Sadly, I don’t think that fully explains what this “professionalism” gap is about. I’ve observed “professionalism” or perceived lack of it, wielded as thinly veiled discrimination. It can be conscious or unconscious. Regardless, the impact can keep people who are different from moving up. And, professionalism has long been used as a justification for firing the person who speaks out about unfairness, without getting into any specifics about actual performance.

Professionalism is also the perfect nebulous, ill-defined go-to rationale to offer when a manager can’t really articulate what’s wrong. It’s lazy. And it is too often used to mute vital voices and keep traditionally disadvantaged people “in their place.”

What seems to have changed (I hope!) and contributed to this massive gap is that the current generation of folks entering the workforce aren’t having it. They are not going to be quiet and wait for things to change. And if that is perceived as a lack of “professionalism,” I’m all for it.

What if being a professional means:

  • Making a fuss when we see unfairness.
  • Saying the uncomfortable thing.
  • Speaking up when something is wrong.
  • Demanding better for ourselves and others.

Sure, these conversations can get messy, and there’s a learning curve when it comes to speaking up effectively. But, a professionalism gap? I’m seeing something else. Are you?


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