Millennials and the Future of Professionalism

Picture a businessperson.

What do you see?

Chances are the picture in your head right now is of a man or woman wearing a high-end suit, perhaps carrying a briefcase. Looking the part has long been a hallmark of how people define professionalism. But for millennials like Russel Mommaerts, a software developer from Seattle, Wash., that image may be starting to fade.

“I think of [the look of] Don Draper as a relic of the past,” Mommaerts said. “As long as you do your best work, it doesn’t matter what you wear.”

Mark Zuckerberg

That attitude represents what seems to be a growing rejection of more conservative workplace attire. While the casual dress of Steve Jobs was an outlier for those of his generation, millennial moguls like Mark Zuckerberg seem to be redefining what it means to be professional. Often dressed in a hoodie and blue jeans, some have criticized Zuckerberg for not having the traditional look of a CEO. But in a blog post titled “Businesspersons should dress as human beings,” Virgin CEO Richard Branson defended Zuckerberg’s look.

“It’s sad to see that it is still such an issue, with some people on Wall Street complaining about his state of dress,” Branson wrote. “It would be brilliant if businesspersons didn’t feel they had to wear a uniform, and leaders could let people be more natural.”

Still, despite companies like Target and Ford allowing employees to dress casually, norms about professional dress largely remain intact. To Kay Hunter, an image consultant from Orange County, Calif., this is a good thing. Though supportive of the unique culture of companies like Facebook, she believes that in most industries, traditional business attire must be maintained. “Every statistic shows that we are judged by how we look,” Hunter said. “If you show up and you don’t look the part, you’re gonna have to work 10 times as hard for people to hear what you have to say. Some people can do that, but they will have to work that hard before people feel there’s credibility there.”

Michael Jorgensen, a millennial who owns his own driveway sealing business, agrees that appearance in the workplace remains “extremely important.” “It’s the first thing you see,” Jorgensen said. “If someone’s looking sloppy, you have the mentality that that person isn’t going to get the job done. If you see them looking disheveled, that’s the kind of work they’re going to be providing for you.”

Clearly, appearance remains a significant factor in the business world as it exists today. As part of a 2013 survey of human resource professionals done by York College, respondents were asked to rate the importance of appearance in the hiring process on a scale of one to five. Eighty-one percent of those surveyed rated appearance as a four or a five. When they were asked to what degree appearance affected their perception of a candidate’s competence, 57 percent answered with a four or a five. However, the study also found that the younger the respondent was, the less likely they were to consider appearance to have an effect on perceived competence. Could millennials be the generation that redefines what it means to be professional?

One potential parallel could be the changing norms surrounding tattoos. Once looked at as marks more akin to Hester Prynne’s “A” than as legitimate art, tattoos are increasingly accepted as a normal part of self expression. While workplaces will often ask that tattoos not be overly extravagant, few companies still have formal policies in place — even though no-tattoo policies have been declared legal. Even large corporations are starting to become open to hiring tatted-up talent due to fear of missing out on high-potential individuals. Bank of America Spokeswoman Ferris Morrison told Forbes in 2013, “We have no formal policy about tattoos because we value our differences and recognize that diversity and inclusion are good for our business and make our company stronger.”

While 20 percent of Americans have tattoos, that numbers is doubled among millennials. As millennials begin to comprise the majority of the workforce, it seems likely that any remaining stigma attached to tattoos will disappear entirely. Sonya Luhm, an administrator for a global equity management company, believes that physical characteristics like tattoos have little to do with how professional someone is.

“You never know what someone’s background is — and that’s where I think the ‘respect’ factor in my definition of professionalism comes in,” Luhm said. “My 34-year-old sister has about 12 different tattoos from her late teens and early 20s…She’s now an MD in emergency medicine. She’s one of the most skilled and professional young people I know. When her patients and peers engage with her … her tattoos usually aren’t even noticed.”

Given the relatively rapid shift in attitudes about tattoos and the data suggesting that millennials place less importance on physical appearance in general, perhaps the business men and women of the future will look less like the cast of Mad Men and more like the cast of Silicon Valley.