Unshaven: unprofessional. Mohawk: no worries!

It's OK to have a mohawk at work ... if you're landing a robot on Mars.
It's OK to have a mohawk at work ... if you're landing a robot on Mars.

In an attempt to demonstrate how serious they consider professionalism to be, RailCorp sent several employees home last week for being unshaven and poorly dressed. But a few days later, there was another example of what could be interpreted as unprofessional … and yet the reaction was very different.

I’m referring to the NASA Mohawk Guy of whom you’ve undoubtedly heard. His name is Bobak Ferdowsi. Social media went nuts over his hairstyle, turning him into an online superstar. For 15 minutes, anyway.

He was precisely the kind of guy RailCorp would have sent home. Grungy, non-conformist, a little eccentric – you know, too unprofessional to be selling tickets at a railway station but reliable enough for landing robots on Mars.

It’s unfair to single out RailCorp. Society at large would have judged him harshly under different conditions. We love seeing someone like Ferdowsi on television, but if he were selling us a used car, offering us an insurance policy, or serving us at a fancy restaurant, many of us would be on guard, inclined towards distrust.

Oh, but we adore it when he works for NASA!

What this highlights is an unusual bias that lies at the core of professionalism. In workplaces, professionalism is often referred to in terms of whether an employee looks professional rather than whether an employee is professional.

That’s why professionalism policies dedicate so much space to the clothes people wear, the way they style their hair, and the mandatory neatness of their desks. Because, as RailCorp’s guidelines suggest, “first impressions count”. Unless, of course, you’re an astronautical engineer who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Perhaps the starkest place we can find the incongruity between looking professional and being professional is in politics. Politicians are almost always dressed smartly. The men have suits complete with ties, the women are adorned with the female equivalent, and this occurs even on weekends when they can get away with dressing down.

And yet, despite their professional attire, their conduct is anything but professional. They yell, backstab, and verbally attack each other, all in the interests of democracy. The donning of a suit doesn’t enhance their credibility.

In contrast, when a politician is reasonable and well-mannered, like Malcolm Turnbull for instance, they can wear a leather jacket on a national current affairs program and still get a lot of respect. In a contest between professional attire and professional behaviour, the latter wins hands-down.

A study conducted earlier this year by the York College of Pennsylvania revealed that managers and HR leaders associate a lack of professionalism with younger employees.

The expectation is that those employees should be made to conform to professional standards and that those standards shouldn’t have to change. That’s an odd notion. As cultural shifts occur within society, surely established standards should adapt. An organisation that expects employees to change must be prepared to change itself, too.

The research also noted that an employee’s appearance affects management’s perception of how competently the employee can perform at work. What this means is that rather than judging an employee’s performance by his or her, um, performance, managers are influenced instead by how that employee looks.

Personally, I don’t care if a call centre operator has facial piercings; I just want my problem solved. I don’t care that my accountant is tattooed from head to toe; I just want my tax return submitted correctly. And I’m not fussed that my uni lecturer has his shirt untucked and unironed; I just want to learn from a brilliant mind that loves to teach.

When reflecting on his debut album, Nirvana’s frontman Kurt Cobain said in an interview: “We've never cared much for professionalism as long as the energy was there.”

There’s something in that for workplaces. As long as the energy is there – the passion, the service, the talent, whatever – looking professional shouldn’t matter so much. Even with a mohawk.

What are your views on professionalism? Is it overrated? Leave your comment below.

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This story Unshaven: unprofessional. Mohawk: no worries! first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.