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Sep 13, 2012

Every company that employs teens and young adults wrestles with the boundaries of professionalism.

How do you get the emerging workforce to set aside, if only temporarily, the supposed “personal right of individual expression” in favor of representing you and your organization without completely zapping them of their enthusiasm, creativity, and energy?

Sometimes their personal preferences line up squarely with your organization’s needs, but often, especially for the emerging workforce, they don’t. A professional puts the job ahead of the personal.

Biggest complaints about the emerging workforce

The biggest frustration many leaders experience with the emerging workforce comes from a seeming unwillingness on the part of these workers to dress and act like professionals. The examples of “unprofessionalism” I hear about most often generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Appearance. Don’t think this is just a problem for those who employ low-wage, frontline workers. In 2010, Swiss banking giant UBS gave employees at five of its offices a 43-page dress code that detailed what its staff could and couldn’t wear.
  • Language. Profanity, vulgarity, and obscenity are commonplace in the vocabulary of many members of the emerging workforce, and all too often they don’t turn it off or even dial it down when they get to work.
  • Manners. This big umbrella covers common courtesies. Are your workers opening doors for others? Allowing others to speak without interruption? Calling their supervisors Mr. or Ms until given permission to go with a first name?
  • Overtness. Anyone that has an opinion now has a platform to share it, thanks to the advent of social media. They’ve been raised to believe that if they have something to say or an interesting take on a popular topic, they’d be depriving the world if they “didn’t put it out there.”

Non-conformity is the New Normal

Young workers arrive in the workplace saying, “My identity is wrapped up in how I look and the way I talk, and I don’t think I should have to change my outward appearance for the sake of a job. You should accept me for who and what I am.”

Their message: I have to make this uniquely mine or I’ll lose me and become you.

Getting the emerging workforce to dress and act professionally is far easier when you hire professionals from the get go. But because this is becoming increasingly more difficult, so you need to be proactive in developing the professionalism you desire within your new workforce.

Clarity is Crucial

When addressing something as controversial as a dress code, don’t simply mention it or expect them to read it in the company handbook. Instead, show photographs of employees wearing what is deemed both appropriate and what is unacceptable. Leave nothing to chance. Don’t surprise them with the specifics of your dress code after they’ve been hired and are making their way through your orientation.

Do the same when describing the language and etiquette that is acceptable and appropriate in your culture. Don’t wait for a major infraction to bring this to their attention. Take time to build your relationship around more positive things as this will establish trust and respect; key when addressing more sensitive issues.

When workers realize and embrace the idea that part of their job is to help promote the image of the organization rather than their personal image, they are more inclined to dress the part, speak the part, and act out the part that the job requires.

That’s professionalism in its truest sense.

You can hear Eric Chester talk about generational changes in the workplace at the 2nd Annual TLNT Transform conference in Fort Worth, Texas April 3-4, 2013. Stay tuned for more information on this event. 

This was originally published on Eric Chester’s Reviving Work Ethic blog. His new book is Reviving Work Ethic: A Leader’s Guide to Ending Entitlement and Restoring Pride in the Emerging Workforce. For copies, visit