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What Does It Mean To Look ‘Professional?’

I once knowingly hired a young woman who had pink hair.

I did not know about the hair the day I interviewed her, because she wore a brown wig, but a colleague, who was researching her background online, came upon a photo and subsequently alerted me. To the young woman’s credit, upon receiving an offer, she told us about her hair color and offered to wear her wig to work if that was what I wanted.

I grew up in the 1960s. Hair was on a lot of people’s minds back then. The Beatles had a lot of it, and they even made a now-classic Broadway musical about it. Personally, I don’t have as much of it as I once did, and what I have has gone from black to gray, but I don’t think about it very much. When my prospective employee asked what I wanted her to do about her pink hair, I told her not to worry about it. She could wear it to work.

Maybe you have some stereotyped ideas about a young person who dyes her hair pink. I know I did, and all of them were wrong. This particular young person was not only extremely intelligent, but also shy, quiet - quite introverted, really - and hard-working. She came from a top-tier school and had serious career ambitions. It turned out that my willingness to accept her as she was made her much more comfortable working for my firm. She fit right in, and I was very disappointed when she left us after about a year to pursue graduate studies on the West Coast.

It so happened that this employee worked in an internal support capacity, not in a client service role. Recently I got into a discussion with some of my younger colleagues about professionalism generally, and pink hair specifically. We asked ourselves whether we would hire a client service associate, who we typically expect to become a manager with extensive client contact within a few years, who had pink hair, conspicuous tattoos or more than the usual amount of hardware attached to his or her body.

My co-workers were pretty uniformly opposed. They don’t think these characteristics look professional. I get their point, but then I recall how often stereotypes are misleading. So I ask myself: “What’s professional anyway?”

Or to put it another way: Axe me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.

Like a lot of people, I think some forms of colloquial speech are perfectly charming (U.K. “received pronunciation”), some are barely tolerable (Boston - but then I was raised in New York), some grating on the ears (New York, even though I was raised there), and some just plain wrong - like using “axe” for “ask,” or George W. Bush’s inability to correctly utter the word “nuclear.”

NPR is having this same discussion with itself, as some journalists ask whether public radio broadcasts sound “too white” and thus, presumably, alienate other parts of the prospective audience. The discussion gained traction not only among journalists, but more broadly on Twitter and other social media forums.

Of course I don’t have any answers about anything as personal and subjective as this. But I do have some opinions. Mostly my concerns are practical: Will a certain deviation from tradition unduly get in the way of what we are trying to accomplish?

If NPR announcers suddenly start axing questions and waiting for interview subjects to respond, I will waste a lot of energy trying to get past my perceived misuse of our common language. NPR is, after all, a national broadcaster. I'm not surprised or critical if a Hawaiian radio announcer uses local words or vernacular in passing, because the audience understands it. But the same language in a national broadcast can create a barrier to comprehension. If a local, cable or Internet channel operates heavily in nonstandard English, I have no objection; address your audience whatever way seems best. But Standard English is standard for a reason.

Then again, what is vocally distracting is somewhat in the ear of the beholder. Recently, female voices, especially those belonging to young women, have come under fire for “vocal fry,” a creaking lowering of pitch that certain listeners find grating and unprofessional. But others have pointed out that there is no good evidence that the phenomenon is either new or restricted to women. Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life” and the owner of a voice frequently mentioned in the “NPR voice” debate, mentioned in a recent story on vocal fry that he can hear the phenomenon in his own voice. But he also observed that no one has ever complained about it - except when they identify it in the show’s female reporters.

In the current hit show “The Americans,” actor Matthew Rhys plays a Russian KGB agent whose mission is to blend into suburban American life. He speaks Standard American English at least as well as I do, and sounds pretty much the way he did in the earlier series “Brothers and Sisters,” which was set in Pasadena, California. But Rhys himself is Welsh; when he speaks in his own voice, he does so in the accent of his native region. It’s fine at home, and fine when he is speaking as himself, even to an American audience. But it would not work in his dramatic roles given the characters’ origins and surroundings. We would spend all our time trying to get past his speech patterns, and we could never take his characters at face value. While an actor is a very specialized example, the answer to what counts as “professional” in a certain job is at least partly determined by the job itself.

Would my firm’s clients reject a financial adviser who had pink hair or conspicuous tattoos? Certainly many would wonder about it, and a few would likely make judgments based on these superficial characteristics. However, I have a lot of respect for my clients’ intelligence and thoughtfulness. Some might avoid an adviser who does not look “professional” in the stereotypes or standard way, but others would be inclined to judge an adviser more on the advice and service offered, and less on the appearance presented. Isn’t that what I want?

So I am not ready to make too many hard-and-fast rules. I do have a few standards, or maybe stereotypes, on which I will insist. No jeans on non-holiday weekdays; no clothing that is simply inappropriate in a business setting. Do your best to correctly pronounce “ask” when we are together. Give me that, and maybe I can overlook a couple of tattoos.

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