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Crystal McPhee remembers a time in the 1990s when she was preparing a young Black man with dreadlocks for an interview in sales. She worked in the staffing industry and her goal was to have him present in a professional manner to fit in and get the job.

Back then, professionalism was about looking the part: the right clothes, the right hair, the right demeanour.

“I told him to tie his hair back. If it was Friday night in the club, I would have thought it was all kinds of nice, but it was a 9-to-5 [job]. And I told him to tone it down so he could go in and win the job,” she says. “He didn’t get the job and didn’t become a long-term candidate for me. We never spoke again after that, but as I reflected on it, I realized what I had done was taken his Blackness away.”

A lot has changed over the past 30 years, says Ms. McPhee, now a human resources professional.

For many non-white people, the idea of professionalism means assimilating. For example, it may mean changing ethnic-sounding names to more common ones or hiding accents to not stand out as different. The Stanford Social Innovation Review found in a 2019 piece that professionalism “has become coded language for white favoritism in workplace practices that more often than not privilege the values of white and Western employees and leave behind people of color.”

The work culture of today is changing. People can be more authentic and creative with how they present themselves. T-shirts and ripped jeans at work, pyjama bottoms during Zoom meetings and natural Black hairstyles aren’t frowned upon anymore. But are changing standards around appearance enough when it comes to changing the definition of professionalism and truly making it an equalizing force?

The Globe interviewed workers from different generations to ask what professionalism means to them and how it has affected their experiences. How can Canadian employers make the concept of professionalism more inclusive their workplaces? They all agreed that redefining professionalism isn’t simply about appearance, but creating more inclusive environments at work. For some, change isn’t happening fast enough, but others see even having the discussion as a “seismic shift.”

Henry Khamonde, 22, a recent university graduate, has seen white favouritism disguised as professionalism for himself.

“Make sure you talk a certain way, make sure you arrive on time otherwise there will be consequences. Make sure your hair is all done, no tattoos, suited up ready to go,” he says. “I believe those are grounded in white supremacist ideals. And obviously, that leaves no room for Black people to express ourselves.”

Mr. Khamonde’s parents encouraged him to look a certain way to fit in. “They told me, no piercings at the workplace. If you’re a man, and you wear piercings, that’s a huge issue. If you show up with tattoos, that’s a huge issue,” he says. “My parents, and a lot of immigrants that have migrated to this country, have subscribed to the notion that these principles are to be followed.”

For Trisha Dayal, who has worked in the accounting and technology fields for 20 years, professionalism has mainly changed in terms of what we wear to work, but that’s where it ends. She believes professionalism is a problem for everyone because it punishes the most marginalized in the workplace: women and people of colour.

“I’m very direct, and that is not a good trait for women, generally, because people think it’s rude in written form,” she says. “That’s a sexist thing, because [society] think[s] women should use more flowery language or be more deferential.”

Ms. Dayal recently complained to her employer about a white colleague leaving her off client conversations. And when she called it out to management, she became the problem and labelled unprofessional.

“The people who get away with things I feel are unprofessional are always white people and mostly white men. Basically, that white guy is given more grace than me,” she says. “I don’t know how to actually help people understand how their behaviour is contributing to nothing changing without [them] feeling under attack.”

For Jacqui d’Eon, a strategic communications consultant and principal of JAd’e Communications Ltd., professionalism is based on conduct. Ms. d’Eon has been in the work force since the 1970s and has seen changes to notions of professionalism over the years.

Professionalism is living up to a set of values at work and respecting others, Ms. d’Eon says. “It’s almost like the Golden Rule. It’s not about professionalism in the workplace so much as it’s a marriage of values. Values and culture are very intertwined.”

And when the values don’t align, that’s when problems arise. “If people are in a work culture that accepts them for who they are and are able to bring their best selves to the office, that’s where professionalism really is. It’s where we’re able to get the best out of everybody,” she says. “And I don’t think we’ve talked about that ever before. That’s a real seismic shift in the workplace.”

For Ms. McPhee, it’s simple: Leaders need to listen to their employees and get their input. “Because as long as it’s just a myopic group that’s defining it, you’ll just have that antiquated definition of professionalism.”

For young people, Mr. Khamonde says, professionalism needs to include and appreciate all aspects of the employee, including their principles, values, traditions and heritage. And maybe, as younger people continue join the workplace and older people continue to retire, those in leadership roles will be more open to redefining professionalism to make it more equitable and less biased.

“Employers have to hold themselves accountable, be more open to accepting criticism and having that awkward discussion,” he says. “That could be the catalyst for change and fine tuning the definition of professionalism.”