Why Professionalism Needs to Die


Why Professionalism Needs to Die

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Idon’t know about you, but I’ve always had a categorical problem with going to an office to do my job. What I’m against is that it almost always requires being at a desk. And other activities like sitting for pointless meetings whose purpose could well be met with an email and can be executed perfectly well from the confines of my home too. I’ve also never quite understood the shame around acknowledging that you’re only there to make money, as exemplified by the potential number of nuanced answers to the famous interview question, “Why do you want this job?” The only correct answer seems to be, “To do stuff for you, get paid for it, and go home.”

That shame leaks over to other areas too. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve asked a peer at an equivalent position as me about his/her salary, only to see them jack up in discomfort, as if I had asked them to marry me. Discussing salary is, as I’ve found out despite my persistence to change it, really not cool, even if we’re all, in every sense of the phrase, on the same side here.

Asking people what they’re paid, whether they like to wear what they’re asked to wear to work, or being able to rekt stupid interviewers may sound like ridiculous things to demand or complain about, but if you think about it, those are only stepping stones to a world of what people are now referring to as “professional behaviour”. But to me, this warped idea of professionalism is a pretty shit thing to live by.

If you ask a bunch of people what they think professionalism in 2018 means, you’d get a wide variety of answers. For some, it’s just learned occupational conduct for increased productivity, but for others, it’s wearing polished shoes and pants to work, and for yet others, it’s keeping yourself from pooping on office time for the greater good. Either way, all of us are walking around with some (very strange) ideas of what it means to be a professional in this day and age.

The biggest part we can play in dismantling the old idea of professionalism is just being aware of it, and choosing not to enforce it when we’re in those positions.

If you look closely around your workplace, you’d notice that some wholly random stuff has entered our current idea of professionalism, and people follow it like a gospel. Professionalism of today involves showing up at your office on time to do your job in a world so futuristically connected that most of the work – even a surgeon’s – could be done better from anywhere else, not asking questions above your pay grade (which usually has to do with legality), and wearing a shirt not folded at the elbows.

The idea of being a professional, is as old as humanity itself. It probably began in the age of hunting, originating from a need to trade. In especially tense negotiations, I can imagine them taking great care to present themselves in the best leaves possible and keeping the number of shit- flinging incidents to a minimum. If nothing else, this code of conduct definitely kept the body count from infection low. All that naturally led to good business practices which in turn let trade and civilisation flourish, as it’s tough to trade when you’re dead.

The idea of “being a professional” today, however, has somehow morphed into an overarching system of conduct you are expected to follow, as a default state of being, slightly harming us all in its own tiny ways. It has very little to do with productivity or good practice anymore.

When you’re required to wear a tie and formal shoes to work (even though you are a nerd in data analytics), it’s an implicit message that you’re required to follow protocol without asking questions. Ever wondered how you started doing so much more at the job you were hired for? You were hired to do those things anyway; they just didn’t tell you, and made it incredibly unprofessional to ask questions, which affects other far more serious things as well.

Take the gender pay gap as an example. Only recently, the World Economic Forum figured that there’s no country in the world that has managed to close this gap, with Iceland set to be the first one to do so in… eleven goddamn years. Even in India, the statistics are up there for everyone to see. Yet how many men in the IT sector are aware of the fact that women in their industry are paid 38.2 per cent less than them? Were you? Obviously not. Because you were being professional.

I’m not being sassy when I say that “asking questions above your pay grade” is a good thing because often those questions and your pay grade – and, in some tragic cases, the world economy – are often closely related. Almost all white-collar crimes could be avoided, if we just allow anyone outside the board of members of a modern corporate organisation to ask “what the hell is going on” and be officially required to get an answer.

Start-ups and their bean bags may be on to something with their open-plan offices, lack of hierarchies, and casual culture. All of it promotes and rewards being true to yourself and your work without trying to behave as per expectation – though it’s going to be a while before it changes out in the larger world. It will take time to change the old guard. The biggest part we can play in dismantling the old idea of professionalism is just being aware of it, and choosing not to enforce it when we’re in those positions.

Until then, try to not poop on office time.