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Unshaven: unprofessional. Mohawk: no worries!


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

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. 

Managers and HR leaders associate a lack of professionalism with younger employees. 

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.

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

34 comments so far

  • I still want to know my cop from my robber; my judge from the accused; and the surgeon from the orderly.

    Date and time
    August 10, 2012, 4:32PM
    • And to be able to tell your white collar embezzlement criminals from your snake oil salesman in a suit, too, presumably?

      Latte sipping bogan
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 9:09PM
  • "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have"

    That's what I've always been told. I guess I'm lucky I don't mind looking "professional"

    Date and time
    August 10, 2012, 4:39PM
    • I think there's difference with this guy and most of the guys at Railcorp - namely that the mohawk guy is clean shaven and obviously cares for his 'do' whereas most Railcorp guys look like grubby bums.

      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 4:41PM
      • He is correctly dressed and clean shaven, hardly the "grungy, non-conformist" you want to portray him as. The whole premise for this article is incorrect.
        Your article is bad and you should feel bad.

        Date and time
        August 10, 2012, 4:46PM
        • So true. My immediate thought upon seeing him was that he must be an indispensable part of the team. However, he wasn't the only one - the team leader had a 50s style quiff adorning his head. Both had their own styles and were neatly groomed within that style. Why should there be a problem?

          However, it's a bit strange to compare professionalism in a highly technical environment (like NASA) to professionalism in a human relations environment (like RailCorp). Workers having to deal with the public should probably expect to have to conform to stricter standards, so as to appear more approachable to the more conservative members of the public.

          As a 1st year graduate engineer, I hear all the time that the people who dress down don't impress those higher up. In a technical profession with little client interaction, I don't see how casual Fridays should be a problem. If my boss were to tell me my professionalism was a problem, I'd probably think it had more to do with my work ethic than my clothes.

          Date and time
          August 10, 2012, 4:47PM
          • Amen!

            Date and time
            August 12, 2012, 8:56AM
        • "... you know, too unprofessional to be selling tickets at a railway station but reliable enough for landing robots on Mars."

          hahahahh GOLD!!!!!!

          Date and time
          August 10, 2012, 4:53PM
          • But how would unprofessional slackers get away with it without the camouflage of a neat suit and tie????

            Date and time
            August 10, 2012, 4:55PM
            • The more a country values image over actual substance (and performance) the worse the country will be in all sorts of areas.

              Sums up Australia at the moment, doesn't it?

              Date and time
              August 10, 2012, 4:56PM

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