Symbolic competence and discrimination in employment

Published: 2023/07/05 Number of words: 1459

This article has one single purpose – to problematise the notion of someone or something being “unprofessional”. Specifically, I unpack the underlying themes and assumptions we take for granted but which inform discriminatory and unfair practices in employment we have come to accept as normal. Essentially, my position is that the dogma of professionalism is summoned with religious conviction, all the while holding the conceptual rigour of a fairy tale.

From the outset, one issue needs to be clarified: It has been seen, especially within online spaces of engagement, that the moment a generally accepted practice is challenged, traditionalists and people with more conservative worldviews tend to immediately grasp at strawman arguments in an attempt to invalidate the challenge. In this instance, a “strawman argument” refers to a type of logical fallacy that is used in rhetoric. The purpose of a strawman argument is to misquote, misrepresent, or oversimplify information in order to create an easier target to attack and appear to show the flaws in an opponent’s position while the opponent’s actual argument is not being addressed (Aikin & Casey, 2019). This is typical of the arguments about professionalism that abound. A very common response to critiques about norms of professionalism is something along the lines of “So everyone can just do and say what they want at work?!” Of course this is not the intention of my critique. I am also not referring to the context of appropriate behaviour or the codes of conduct that govern certain areas of work. Instead, my argument here is that we need to closely examine the assumptions that form the foundation of the average person’s understanding of what constitutes “professional” and “unprofessional”.

The existing literature on professionalism focuses predominantly on issues of professionalism that are profession-specific. These include debate on what is to be considered appropriate decisions, behaviours and practices that relate to highly specific contexts such as law, medicine, psychology, education, engineering etc. The characteristics discussed are value-oriented conceptualisations of professionalism such as Altruism, accountability, and excellence in medicine (Arnold & Stern, 2006), ethics, competence, honesty and courtesy, ethics, competence and honesty in law (Thornton, 2021), or independence, conscientiousness, and determination in education (Demirkasimoǧlu, 2010). The reality, however, is that when the average person assigns the label of “unprofessional”, it is usually the result of a deviation from the white Western male standard of what constitutes “normal” (Gray, 2019). When someone refers to a person as “unprofessional” we don’t immediately think of the different ways in which the person could be violating the ideals of altruism, courtesy, or determination. When the average person hears “unprofessional”, we think of hair, clothes and the font used in their CV.

Generally, assigning the label of “unprofessional” has nothing to do with an ability or capacity for making authoritative decisions within discretionary spaces (Noordegraaf, 2020), and seems to be more related to a process of “masking” in order to comply with norms of symbolic competence that is linked to the western white male identity. In fact, nearly a century ago, Marshall (1939) had already stated that the notion of professionalism is less about the norms regarding the organising of work and more about organising society. Yet, recent empirical evidence published from this very year (Ferguson & Dougherty, 2021) shows how people mindlessly invoke the concept of professionalism in order to defend discriminatory views of people of colour in employment.

Using seemingly neutral standards of what can be considered acceptable and what cannot is not limited to race. Consider the experiences of Jules Tyler, a LinkedIn user who shared her experiences of being labelled as “unprofessional” for her appearance not complying with traditional views of what a woman in the workplace should look like: Jules works as an admin and tech consultant. No reasonable application of admin or tech skills require hair or skin which is free of tattoos, yet she is constantly faced with comments claiming her appearance is “unprofessional”. Jules lost her hair due to Alopecia. She sometimes wears a wig, but other times she wears no head covering a sports her decorative scalp tattoo which she had done partly as to not be confused with cancer patients who might only be temporarily bald. This appearance has been labelled as making her look like a “thug”, despite her running her own successful B2B business.

Jules’ case highlights how truly superficial and trivial the “unprofessional” label is. However, it is within its trivial nature where the danger lies. This trivial label lends itself to being arbitrarily applied, but once applied, this label has significant material consequences. Carrying the label of “unprofessional” may impact performance reviews, limit opportunities for advancement, and in severe cases, even cost someone their job (Gray, 2019). A common argument used in defence of superficial professionalism standards is that “the customer won’t like it” – whatever trivial aspect of a person “it” might be. Any person in a position of power should find this line of arguing inappropriate and unacceptable. Any reasonable person wouldn’t tolerate a racist customer saying they prefer being assisted by white employees only, so why would you tolerate objections to something like tattoos?

One of the reasons why I am so passionate about removing this discriminatory way of thinking about the world of work from our collective lexicon is because I have seen the destructive impact it has on young people during my time working in youth development. At the time, I found the generally accepted interventions geared towards preparing young people for the labour market essentially stripped youth of any recognisable trait of individuality. “Compile your CV like this, not like that”, “Write emails like this, not like that”, “Wear this, but do not wear that”, “Remember to write your emails exactly like this”, etc. Youth development interventions ended up being individuality sterilisation interventions. It felt as if interventions for work readiness and empowerment were more about achieving conformity with white male standard as opposed to transforming young people into the best possible version of themselves.

To address this problematic nature of the term “unprofessional”, it must be remembered that formal employment as we know it today is centred on middle-class white men. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gender, race, and cultural ideologies of the time were used to define professional identity in line with the middle-class white heterosexual male identity (Martimianakis et al., 2009). To this day, this ideal worker’s blueprint remains intact, creating a minefield of discriminatory practices that are woven into the fabric of modern organisations.

As mentioned above, we must acknowledge that the “unprofessional” brand is a systemic problem. We need to reflect on our beliefs that the white male work identity is a blueprint that hides behind the seemingly objective standard of professionalism. This means asking ourselves and others what standards of professionalism we maintain and why. We must evaluate and change policies that reinforce unfair discrimination under the guise of professionalism. Finding an alternative term for “unprofessional” is, however, easier said than done. It is recommended to collaborate and to consult widely on the development of standards of professionalism linked to the results of the work and reference to deviations from this standard as opposed to blanket “unprofessional” labels.


Aikin, S., & Casey, J. (2019). Straw Man. In R. Arp, S. Barbone, & M. Bruce (Eds.), Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Fallacies in Western Philosophy (pp. 223–226). Hoboken: Wiley Online Library.

Arnold, L., & Stern, D. T. (2006). What is Medical Professionalism? In D. T. Stern (Ed.), Measuring Medical Professionalism (pp. 15–39). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Demirkasimoǧlu, N. (2010). Defining “teacher professionalism” from different perspectives. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 9, 2047–2051.

Ferguson, M. W., & Dougherty, D. S. (2021). The Paradox of the Black Professional: Whitewashing Blackness through Professionalism. Management Communication Quarterly, 1–27.

Gray, A. (2019, June). The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Marshall, T. H. (1939). The recent history of professionalism in relation to social structure and social policy. The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 5(3), 325–340.

Martimianakis, M. A., Maniate, J. M., & Hodges, B. D. (2009). Sociological interpretations of professionalism. Medical Education, 43(9), 829–837.

Noordegraaf, M. (2020). Protective or connective professionalism? How connected professionals can (still) act as autonomous and authoritative experts. Journal of Professions and Organization, 7(2), 205–223.

Thornton, M. (2021). Legal professionalism in a context of Uberisation. International Journal of the Legal Profession, 0(0), 1–21.

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