Workplace Culture

Professionalism’s Not Dead, and Millennials Aren’t Killing It, Either

By Max Mihelich

Jul. 24, 2013

Max Mihelich is guest-posting for Ed Frauenheim today.

I get a lot of ridiculous press releases. But this week, I think I received the most ridiculous one of all.

Here’s the first sentence: “Have you noticed that openly texting during meetings is now considered OK? Has it become common to see the millennial workers in your office stroll in late to meetings, with no apology? Has the dress code gone from business casual to resort casual?”

My first question is, what the heck is resort casual? And secondly (just in general), what?

The release was titled “The Death of Professionalism.” Whoever sent it to me was trying to connect me with “Professionalism” expert Dana Brownlee. And according to Brownlee’s press release, millennials are successfully redefining professionalism in the workplace and “most of us are silently suffering and may not realize it.”

Give me a break.

First off, her assumption that professionalism was a static concept that recently underwent a revolution at the hands of the millennial generation is laughable. Using one aspect of her own argument against her, wouldn’t business casual have signaled a decline in professionalism long before the millennials arrived?

For example, my grandfather could look at my dad, who prefers to wear polos instead of a shirt and tie to work, and say he has a lower level of professionalism just because he dresses less formally for a business day than he did. Different time periods, different industries and different companies have their own standards of appropriate attire for the workplace.

As a professional writer, I don’t see the point in dressing business casual every day. Typically I wear a nice pair of jeans with an oxford or polo shirt. One of my best friends is a tattoo artist. Is he less of a professional because he wears T-shirts to work? I don’t think so. I’d rather have him use clean equipment to give me a tattoo than see him wear something “business casual.”

My roommate is applying for jobs as a teacher. It would be unprofessional if he wore anything less than business casual to work. Another guy I knew in college works in the financial industry. I often pass him on the street at the end of the day. He wears nice dress pants and a dress shirt (sometimes with a tie) every day because that’s what’s demanded by his field and employer. What’s most important is how people act, not how they dress. I try to act in a way that reflects my upbringing: punctual, polite and reverent of social and office etiquette.

When it comes to texting during meetings, I’ve never seen any of my fellow millennial co-workers do that. I’ve never done that. I’m sure 20 years ago, nobody saw young, new hires texting during meetings either, which can easily be explained by the lack of cellphones with that ability. Some people probably thought it was OK to check beepers during meetings 20 years ago. And like the lack of texting during meetings, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced my millennial co-workers being late to meetings either. But the idea that only millennials don’t care to apologize for being late to meetings is absurd. An arrogant boomer or Gen Xer could just as well arrive late to a meeting and offer no apology.

So please, give the stupid criticism of millennial professionalism a rest. Professionalism is a fluid concept that’s dependent on a given time period, industry and organization. There have always been jerks, and there will always be jerks who won’t care to act professionally as dictated by their employment situation—or even as dictated by one simple idea: respect.

Max Mihelich is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax.

Max Mihelich is a writer in the Chicago area.

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