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The Professional Life: Keep it That Way

10/29/2013 --

New research shows U.S. companies harbor a bias against overt displays of personal life at work.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The company holiday party — a time to relax and "be yourself," right? And the office desk — a space to personalize because you spend so much time there.

Maybe not if you work in the United States, suggests new research by U-M Ross Professors Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Susan Ashford. A strong (and unwritten) cultural norm against overt displays of one's personal life underlies the U.S. workplace. The research shows that those who violate this norm are seen as less professional, and suffer career consequences such as negative evaluations by hiring managers and colleagues.

But this norm doesn't hold outside the U.S., which can make it difficult for expatriates to navigate the office culture at a new job. In other countries, displays of personal life are fine at work, and the direct, formal, U.S.-style way of doing business may be seen as unprofessional.

"This information reveals a fundamental tension in so many workplaces," Sanchez-Burks says. "Everyone knows it's important to be perceived as professional, but that involves a lot of implicit, unspoken norms that might only be apparent when they're violated. We want to shine a light on what some of those are."

Sanchez-Burks and his co-authors performed three studies to find out how people view professional behavior. They found differing attitudes based on country of origin.

The paper, "Acting Professional: An Exploration of Culturally Bounded Norms against Non-Work Role Referencing," was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. The other co-authors are Eric Luis Uhlmann of HEC Paris, Emily Heaphy of the Boston University School of Management, and Luke Zhu of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.

In one study, the authors asked people in managerial positions to picture the office of a hypothetical co-worker with a reputation for being either professional or unprofessional. Participants, who were born in the U.S. and other countries, used stickers of common office objects to complete a picture of what the hypothetical person's office would look like.

The U.S. workers imagined a greater proportion of personal artifacts in the unprofessional colleague's office than in the one described as professional. While an outright ban on personal objects wasn't observed, the amount to be considered professional was minimal.

In addition, the longer the foreign-born participants had lived in the U.S., the greater the bias was about personal life references.

"This shows that how we think about professionalism isn't universal," Sanchez-Burks says. "The conventional wisdom is that U.S.-style capitalism is globalizing workplaces. But we're seeing that cultural differences remain in the work setting, particularly when it comes to how we view professionalism."

How high are the costs of being viewed as unprofessional in the U.S.? Two additional studies show they're pretty high.

In one, U.S. and Indian participants judged a pretend job candidate. Two different answers to one question about building rapport with a client were randomly assigned. In one version, the candidate said he would make small talk about family and children. In the other version, he said he would make small talk about the person's office.

The U.S. participants negatively evaluated the candidate who said he would make small talk about family. The Indian participants, by and large, did not.

Another study repeated the exercise with U.S. job recruiters. They negatively evaluated the candidates who said they would use non-work small talk to build rapport with a potential client.

"This norm of keeping work and non-work roles separate is strong, and you will be judged by it," Sanchez-Burks says. "People are significantly less likely to be asked for a second interview if they violate this norm in a very subtle way. It also shows how these norms perpetuate themselves. These are the gatekeepers of companies, the ones who make the hiring decisions."

So how can you educate someone on a cultural standard that's so common nobody thinks to mention it? A first step is to recognize the idea that professionalism isn't universal, Sanchez-Burks says.

"If we can have an explicit conversation, it might bring out into the open things people might not be aware of," he says.

"We take our views of professionalism for granted, so we need to realize that there are cultural differences to be aware of. It's difficult, because for people in the culture, it's like water to a fish. You just don't think about it."

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For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502, terrykos@umich.edu