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Appearances can be deceiving

A professional look means different things to different people. Does your clinic’s policy reflect core values and a commitment to diversity?

Appearances can be deceiving
Personal presentation is a critical part of the way individuals express themselves.

Many years ago, my office initiated a dress code review. During our working group meetings, my male colleagues bemoaned how women could wear sleeveless shirts and sandals during the summer, while men were limited to sleeved shirts, neck ties and hot, confining loafers and Oxford shoes. Conversations quickly devolved into a gendered discussion about equity and fairness in professional dress, with a premise that employees identifying as women were somehow “getting away” with something in having far more sartorial choices than their male counterparts.

I remember one discussion in particular. I pointed out that in order to wear sleeveless clothing and open-toe shoes, women were expected to adhere to certain unmentioned personal presentation conventions. Women were expected to remove body hair and get pedicures. In short, all those “extra” wardrobe choices were subject to our willingness to conform to certain social standards about presentation. Failure to conform risked ridicule, isolation and perhaps even a visit to human resources, and no one really wants any of that.

This episode took place more than a decade ago, but it remains relevant today as what constitutes a professional dress continues to be subject to debate.

Hair Dye, Tattoos and Piercings

Today, what is considered professional presentation is much broader than it once was, even if it is still very gendered. Women seem to have far more choices than men, along with the social expectation and constraints that accompany those choices. Individuals who identify as non-binary might create a bridge of a wardrobe spanning choices from both ends of the gender spectrum but face hostility about their gender nonconformity. And men in professional settings are expected to don neckties more often than not.

Additionally, there is much more diversity in grooming and body art choices than ever before. A 2008 survey by the hair-dye brand Clairol found that 75% of women color their hair. Market research suggests that men are less likely to dye their hair, but more than 1 in 10 do, in fact. The spectrum of hair color has expanded to include pastels, rich jewel tones and even metallics. Trends have expanded to include lengthy beards and long hair that can be pulled up into man buns.

As for body art, or tattoos, 40% of U.S. households have at least one person with body art, and according to Pew Research Center, 38% of Americans ages 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo. More than 80% of Americans, all genders, have their ears pierced, and more than 60% of American adults have other piercings.

Adolescents and young adults are more likely to seek out personal expression through body art; so, it is a very real possibility that your incoming students and professionals will have brightly colored hair, visible tattoos and a piercing or two.

It’s not just a possibility, it’s an increasing probability.

Mentoring Can Help

Building on this fact, what is important to note is that individuals who are historically marginalized in veterinary medicine are less likely to have a solid understanding of what an appropriate look means. Such learning often takes place in the context of mentoring relationships, where the professional coaches cover a range of topics including academic career goals, personal development, and professional networking and presentation.

Publicly available statistics suggest that at least one-third of American youth do not have formal or informal mentors. Despite the relatively large number of mentoring programs designed to develop such relationships with students of color and sexual minorities, the overall number of marginalized young people in need of formal and informal mentoring relationships is staggering.

Mentoring is associated with improved academic performance, improved lifestyle choices, increased self-esteem and self-confidence, enhanced interpersonal skills, and better career outcomes. Mentoring creates opportunities for coaching and networking and “at the elbow” educational moments. Young people are learning great lessons at home and school, but it is in the context of these relationships where they learn how to model professional presentation. When you do not have a mentor, you are less likely to pick up this critical, yet sometimes nuanced, information and more likely to struggle with how you want to be seen in a diversity of settings.

Couple this with the increasing emergence of personal expression through hair coloring and styling and body art, and it is easy to see the increasing elasticity of what is considered professional presentation.

Be Generally Presentable

I reached out to colleagues at the Veterinary Career Advisory Network for suggestions on how best to advise job hunters about professional presentation. During a podcast I recorded this past spring, we discussed the challenges of affording and owning standard professional attire and whether interviews are of the working type and perhaps require scrubs or farmwear, or are more formal and call for business suits.

Our discussions also explored how job applicants who wear natural hair, braids, twists or dreads might be perceived due to a historical bias against these styles. We chatted about how to educate disadvantaged students on personal and professional presentation in ways that allow them to express themselves but still “fit” within the range of professional acceptability.

In the end, the consensus of the career advisers was for would-be job hunters to look neat, well-groomed and generally presentable.

Of course, this is good advice, but is it enough for employers who might operate on unconscious bias when deciding a job candidate’s suitability? Is it good enough for employers who are concerned about how clients might view a purple-haired, tattooed professional? (In the interest of full disclosure, this is an appropriate description of me at the moment!)

A Dress Code Makeover?

The mix of experience, clinic culture, location, generational diversity and other factors shape your expectations of professional presentation for your employees. Some locations might be fine with bright hair, a few piercings that do not interfere with job performance and tattoos concealed under a white medical coat, whereas other places might strongly reject such presentations in a work environment.

It is worthwhile reviewing your clinic’s dress code? Ask yourself and your team several questions.

  • Does the dress code reflect the business’ core values?
  • Does the policy reflect a commitment to diversity? For example, hairstyles worn by African Americans include braids, twists and dreads. Are your policies sensitized to this? What about body art and non-traditional hair color? Are they prohibited? If so, why?
  • Is the policy flexible?
  • Is it fair and equitable?
  • Are you open to routinely reviewing and updating the policy?
  • How is the policy enforced?
  • How is the team informed of the policy, and do you have buy-in?

Personal presentation is a critical part of the way individuals express themselves, and society has expectations on how that presentation is affected in specific settings. Thinking about the ways in which we can create a balanced and inclusive work environment is important, and personal presentation is very much a part of that.

As you explore the elements of your business’ brand and public persona, be mindful of how elements like a dress code can contribute to your embrace of a diversity workforce.

Diversity Toolbox columnist Dr. Lisa M. Greenhill is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. AAVMC’s “Diversity & Inclusion” podcasts are available at http://bit.ly/2APLtk4.