The issue with traditional definitions of professionalism for neurodivergent workers and why we should redefine what it means to be a professional.
The workplace is not a friendly place for people who are neurodivergent. It's difficult to be authentic when you're expected to be perfect and static in your presentation. Many people expect that the person they meet at work will always look, sound, and act the same way as they do on any given day. It can be difficult to show how your brain works differently without being judged as unprofessional or "weird." For neurodivergent people, being themselves can mean going against what's considered "professional."
From stimming (which involves self-stimulatory behaviors) to needing sensory accommodation. The concept of "fitting in" is a normal part of society. However, this idea is dangerous to the well-being of neurodivergent people. Conformity is a requirement of the majority, but it does not bridge any gaps. Instead, it creates an unequal environment that professional neurodivergent adults are not welcome to join. It requires an intense amount of energy to get through the day interacting with people that do not understand being neurodivergent.
What is considered unprofessional?
Sensory overload is a real issue in all office settings. This can include working remotely if you are required to interact with virtual groups for work. Loud noises during a Zoom call can be debilitating. When you join a Zoom call there is an intense rush of sound once you join the audio. This can be sensory overload for neurodivergent people who are sensitive to sounds. Sudden bursts of sound can lead to panic attacks and barriers to communication due to anxiety induced by sensory processing overload. There is also the issue of not being able to express yourself appropriately in work settings. Many neurodivergent adults struggle with having a conversation or working on projects that require teamwork and collaboration. It is often assumed that it is the responsibility of the neurodivergent person to bridge the communication gap to make others feel comfortable. This is not the case!
Communication is a two-way street. It is the responsibility of all parties involved to make sure the information is received clearly. When information is not understood the right way, it can lead others to become frustrated with you. It is assumed that you are being rude on purpose even though you might really be trying your best to communicate clearly. It's difficult to have conversations with people when you are not given enough time or respect. Employees of all neurotypes need more patience from supervisors, co-workers, clients.
Unequal treatment based on neurodivergent status
People with disabilities and/or neurodivergent status often face discrimination in the workforce, but when this issue occurs within a company that claims diversity as part of its corporate values, it creates an uncomfortable work environment for everyone involved. Having a policy on paper doesn't mean it will be fairly enforced in the workplace. Sometimes people that are neurodivergent will have lower expectations from supervisors for work output. On the other side, some employers will test the neurodivergent employee more than their neurotypical counterparts.
The neurodivergent person must prove themselves over and over again for their work to be recognized in the same way. It often feels like they must work twice as hard to be recognized and this can lead to burnout. The nonacceptance of neurodiversity means you have to hide your true self as much as possible, or risk being fired for not fitting in with your co-workers. Neurodivergent people are not the only employees who feel misunderstood in a professional environment. Everyone wants to have an authentic understanding of each other, but when we judge others based on how well they fit into our pre-constructed idea failure of the working relationship is inevitable.
Employees are expected to behave in a certain way and adhere to an idealized version of what is considered professional. The definition of what it means to be professional is changing. People are more relaxed and casual than ever before about their appearance, personal life choices, and hobbies. This has made the world a better place in many ways but there have been some unintended consequences on how employees interact with each other at work. A new divide has emerged between those who fit the traditional definition of professional and those that are outcast for being authentically themself. Professionalism isn't the way you dress, communicate, the color of your skin, your hair, or if you have tattoos. Professionalism should be measured by the quality of the work, the dedication and loyalty of your employees and maintaining the wellbeing of your team. Being authentic and true to yourself is essential in building a strong company culture.
Instead of promoting an outdated idea of what professionalism looks like, embrace change and accept your neurodivergent team's authentic selves.