Chances are, at some point in your career, you have been told or encouraged to “be professional”. This usually takes on one of two meanings :
- to dress well, not curse openly, practice respectable hygiene, and act in a mature and personable manner
- to soldier on quietly as promises or other things you’ve earned are not honored or given. For example, “We’ve decided to not give you the raise we discussed, but we hope you’ll be professional about this and continue to work hard for us”
While the sentiment behind the first definition is generally innocuous and, by all accounts, good advice, the second definition is not so straightforward. Despite its initial appearance of being neutral or even encouraging, it is actually a tacit admission by those in power that they’re screwing you, they know it, and they are attempting to pre-emptively end the discussion that you may want to have upon hearing what they have said.
The problem is, far too many people buy in to the idea that this unchallenged acceptance is, in fact, being “professional”. By definition, it is not. A professional provides a service in exchange for fair payment. This payment can be money, title, benefits, or many other currencies – it is the prerogative of the employee to determine what is fair to them. Should the employee overestimate the worth of their services, well, the free market will eventually reset their expectations.
This brings us to the ongoing saga of a WWE “Superstar” [wrestler] named CM Punk. In late January of this year, CM Punk left the company unexpectedly and suddenly. Since he hasn’t discussed the matter publicly, the reason for his departure is unknown, but it is widely believed it was due to his dissatisfaction with the way the WWE was using him in their productions. So, with 5 months remaining on his contract, he left and went home to Chicago.
For context, here is how professional wrestling works : everyone knows it is scripted entertainment, essentially a soap opera played out athletically in front of a live audience instead of a sound stage in Hollywood. But even in this scripted universe, there are champions, there are main-event super-stars; there are “mid-card” stars; and then there are “jobbers”, the poor guys that are scripted to lose to make the aforementioned stars look good. But since it’s not an actual competition, how does WWE decide who the champions and “winners” are, and who instead toils at the beginning of the shows as fans are still finding their seats?
The answer is, it is a combination of the professional writers who create the stories and script the outcomes, and upper WWE management. The latter seems to exert much more influence than the former in deciding who gets “pushed”, or elevated to winning at the big shows. The management makes their decisions based on practical factors like which performers draw the highest ratings on television, sell the most tickets to live shows, and sell the most merchandise to fans. They also need to take guesses as to who might be the next big star, so in the absence of the above they may push someone based on their appearance, charisma, or ‘wrestling’ ability [think of the match as a dance; some are better ‘dancers’ than others]. Anecdotally, factors as petty as being a friend of the right person, or being more “professional” by not questioning management will also increase your chances of a push.
On June 27th, 2011, on an episode of the live broadcast of Monday Night Raw, CM Punk grabbed a microphone and delivered perhaps the most famous “promo” in pro wrestling history. To this day there is no clear answer if the entire thing was staged [a “work”], or a very rare unscripted and heartfelt true expression from the performer [a “shoot”]. General consensus is that management knew he was going to do something like this, but had no idea it was going to be this honest, and being live television, they didn’t know when to pull the plug, until they did.
This took place three weeks before CM Punk’s contract was set to expire, fueling belief he was actually ready to leave. Ultimately, he came back more popular than ever, and was a top star for WWE leading up to his surprise departure this January. Although two and a half years had passed since that promo, Punk was, by all accounts, still frustrated with his stature in the company. When it was clear that he was not projected to be a top star throughout 2014, like he felt he had earned, he simply went home.
Fans of WWE are more or less split on their reaction to this; some think he is being an ungrateful whiner who should “be professional” and play out the remainder of his contract while continuing to seek resolution behind the scenes, others see him as a hero of sorts who stood up and told his boss what they all wish they could tell their bosses.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I support and respect what he did. In my experience, the workplace is littered with people who feel undervalued and underutilized. While some of them soldier forward after having done the basic calculation that they simply can’t afford to leave their current position given the projected salaries waiting for them in the outside market, and some hold still because they are simply afraid of change, a tragic number of people stay where they are out of some sort of adherence to “professionalism”, as if their continued dedication and hard work while being undercompensated will engender some brand of positive career karma that will someday…someday… pay off and right this wrong.
It doesn’t. It never does. You are an asset to a company, and they have valued you as they see you. Any promise or speech you are given to the contrary is based entirely on the inconvenience they will face if you leave – not their appreciation for your actual value. This is why your salary may suddenly skyrocket when you offer your resignation to your employer. Until that point, you were worth X to them. Now suddenly, with the same skills and experience, you are worth X+10%. Which one is your actual value? Well, capitalism and common sense says it is the higher number. Well then, why weren’t you valued at that all along?
It is because their concern is not about determining your true value, it is about finding the lowest possible point of compensation at which you will stay. Then, when you become aware of this discrepancy between the two points and want to discuss the matter, you will be asked to be “professional” and not push the matter further. But you should. The only way you will get a fair assessment of your value is to be prepared to move on to another opportunity. Yes, it’s a gamble you may not always be in a position to take, due to obligations to family, but like anything else in life, you won’t win anything without risking anything. If you’re good at what you do, and you have unwavering confidence in yourself, this approach will pay off in the long run – although you may have to change jobs once or twice when you maybe weren’t expecting to. Not only will you end up having earned more by the end of your career, you’ll spare yourself the mounting frustration of going in to work every day knowing that people who are worth much less are earning much more. You are the only person who truly understands and can accurately assess your value, and you need to fight relentlessly to realize that value. That, in actuality, is what it means to be a true professional.