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  • Writer's pictureLaShana Lewis

Redefining Professionalism: Why Courtesy Should Be the New Standard


A bearded person of color is talking on the phone while looking at a laptop computer and smiling. A young child is hanging on to him while a person is looking at them from the background.

We've all heard it. You know, the tips we need to follow to be considered prime for the workforce.


  • Keep your hair short/cropped and straightened within a certain color range.

  • Wear this sort of blouse, or that sort of suit, or these cookie-cutter items.

  • Conform to a specific set of behaviors and attitudes, even if they don't align with your own values or personality.


What we don't hear is that the code for this is often relegated under the term "professionalism."


Although the origin of the word had its root in more benign collegial interactions with fellow colleagues, it's now grown into a more cynical interpretation.


We think of professionalism, now, as this high standard of class in which we must all strive to fit - no matter how much of an inconvenience it might cause to our personal life or sanity.


I've decided that in my older age, to redefine what professionalism means: courtesy.


Courtesy Over Professionalism


We all lived through the horror of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.


Personally, I lost several friends and family members.


I was tired of going to funerals.


So in return, when a person needed to reschedule because their kids - who normally would be in school - had an emergency that needed to be attended to immediately, or when a person's relative fell unexpectedly and seriously ill due to the ravages of COVID-19, or when a person caught the virus and became so incoherent that speech was almost impossible, I did so with a large amount of grace.


Instead of setting professionalism to mean that people must sacrifice their livelihood for the sake of completing a business transaction, I flipped it.


To me, it means keeping abreast of what's happening in the real world in which we live and making adjustments to my expectations of a person's ability to respond.

Problem: A thunderstorm or tornado knocked out your power? Response: Understood; let's reschedule and please keep me posted on if there's anything I can offer to help.


Problem: Adopting a new puppy and it's a bit more than you expected as you've now got to do a massive cleanup you didn't intend to have to deal with? Response: Look, I've been through that... if we need to reschedule for later or a different day, totally not a problem.


Problem: Waiting on a payment from a client in order to pay me and something got screwed up (or better yet, a "we can't fail" bank closure happened)?

Response: That is definitely a pain in the behind, but since it's not your fault, I will move my own stuff around and hope things get cleared up sooner than later, just keep me posted.


I learned a long time ago that life doesn't revolve around me.


Maybe if folks who ran businesses had a bit more humility to see that they don't have to embrace the Anglo-American philosophy of occupational self-interest that has become today's version of professionalism, they'll avoid the discriminatory pitfalls that were baked into them.


Join the movement. I encourage you to:

  • Rethink your definition of professionalism and consider incorporating courtesy and empathy into your interactions with colleagues and clients.

  • Take a moment to reflect on your own biases and prejudices, and how they may be impacting your professional relationships and decision-making.

  • Share this article with your colleagues and encourage them to join the conversation about redefining professionalism in the workplace.

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