No matter where you work or in which industry, there’s always something that is expected of you, but nobody trains you in it, and it’s rarely spoken of. You’re just expected to know how to be professional.
You’re expected to have learned it on the job, in your first job, any job, maybe back when you were scanning groceries or flipping burgers at 16. So you’ve made up your version of professionalism as you’ve gone along through your career, probably through trial and error and observing others. Maybe you picked up some pearls of wisdom even earlier than that from your parents or a favorite teacher about how to do a job well or take pride in your work.
There are some aspects of professionalism that may be codified within an organization like policies on social media use or a dress code. However, much of what constitutes professionalism are the unwritten norms of company culture. And because it’s dependent on social norms, professionalism is an ever-evolving concept, subtly shifting over time. At its simplest, professionalism is respect. But it’s not only an attitude of respect and integrity that makes someone exemplary, it is a state of Emotional Intelligence, of knowing what to say and how to conduct yourself appropriately in every context.
This article looks at how we define professionalism in 2021. While there are differences in company culture or in industries as to the particulars of professional conduct in any given industry or role, this article explores the different variables generally applicable to any workplace. So let’s consider 12 aspects of the art of professionalism.
When you start at a new workplace, professionalism is largely about fitting in. Since professionalism involves behavior appropriate to defined social norms within the organization, fitting in becomes a complex task for a new staff member who is expected to know and respond to unwritten rules. It requires observation and when in doubt, taking cues from others. However, if you’re unsure that their behavior is correct, seek clarification from superiors. Just because you may be assured by colleagues that "everybody does it" does not mean something is OK and may not be viewed as professional by management.
For team leads, navigating the terrain of fitting in is often most complex where boundaries between you and your staff are concerned. How friendly can you get before it’s inappropriate? How do you make yourself vulnerable, personable and share your story while maintaining boundaries as a leader? This is the stuff that’s dependent both on industry norms as well as the individual workplace and it can be worthwhile consulting some leadership advice on any areas of concern or looking to your mentors and other management team members to soundboard situations you’re unsure of. Ultimately you will need to use your best judgment.
It’s OK to challenge social norms. You can challenge accepted ways of doing things if you have an alternative that is just as valid. Professionalism is about maintaining high standards and if you can show you’re doing that, then maybe the end justifies the means if you’re not following the same methodologies as everyone else. Professionalism means keeping standards and as long as you’re doing so, or even raising the bar, people will give you some flexibility as to the how.
Another expectation of professional staff is that they can get the job done well with minimum fuss. This demands competency and knowledge and is often largely the reason why you were hired. It’s your technical skill certainly, but also coupled with other skills such as self reliance, the ability to take initiative and work undirected. It’s also about your pace, being able to work in an organized manner through a range of tasks to achieve a desired outcome on time and on budget. You may also need specialist knowledge and have to keep that up to date with new training courses etc. You can improve your competency by assessing your strengths and weaknesses and making an action plan for areas you want to improve. If you need help with this, you can do a SWOT analysis.
There’s a reason why your teachers were so irritated when you turned up late to school. It was distracting both for them and the class every time a new kid walked in the classroom after the bell had gone. They’d have to take an extra 10 minutes getting everyone settled, concentrating, and in work mode. From early days your school was trying to teach you lessons about professionalism. The same thing applies in the workplace showing up late to a meeting. Just like being late for class, it takes longer to achieve focus and especially for meeting with external stakeholders, is a complete no go as it may also be interpreted as a lack of respect of the importance of their time and keeping to schedule. First jobs should have taught you the importance of clocking in on time for your shift. While you may now be in a different type of industry, even in a more flexible workspace where you can choose your hours, there is a baseline of punctuality that is expected in whatever context whether you’re attending a meeting remotely or an instant messaging thread.
If you need help with any aspect of your job or workload, professionalism demands that you seek support in a timely manner. Be specific what you need from whom and by when. Professional people have a check on their own insecurities around asking for help. They are confident in their skills and aren’t afraid of looking bad if they seek clarification or support on a task or issue. You can end up looking very unprofessional if you don’t ask for help and the problem gets too big or you leave it too late to remedy it.
Being professional means harnessing knowledge for shared gain. This means you speak up and use your skills and expertise to further the achievements of the team. Professionals are confident in their abilities and willing to share their abilities. However, it’s unprofessional to promote yourself for personal gain. And it’s seriously unprofessional and immature to boast. You need to know when to speak up and when to hold back.
Another key element of professionalism is building a reputation for being reliable. Even for new staff, this can be built very quickly, if you’re consistent. It’s about repeatedly committing to your word and doing what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it. It’s that simple. There’s nothing worse than getting a reputation around the office as being unreliable because people withdraw their trust.
Just as much as you’re dependent on your colleagues contributions to get a project off the ground, they depend on you. If they feel they can’t depend on you because you have let them down in the past - not only will you be seen as unprofessional, but you could lose out on exciting projects and promotions because people won’t want to work with you. It’s important to build trust with fellow colleagues by doing your part of the job well and on time every time.
You can also build your rapport with management by going the extra mile, saying yes to some extra work or later hours sometimes. However, there’s a difference between going the extra mile and becoming a doormat. Management will prize you as being a reliable team member if you’re willing to pull up your socks and do the hard yards in extraordinary situations. But staying late or taking on more work that you should mustn’t become the norm. Some teams and leads unfortunately can come to take advantage of reliable team members. So while being reliable is definitely an important marker of professionalism, keep a balance and make sure you’re not over-extending yourself, giving too much, or trying to compensate for your imagined shortfalls. Talk to a team lead or HR if you feel burned out or resentful.
Showing care in every aspect of your work is very much related to maintaining high standards. It’s professional to take the time to make sure things are done properly, and if you can’t make that time, to make sure you get the help you need or reprioritize your time, or whatever you need to do to make sure you are not delivering sloppy work. Being professional means that when you deliver something, your colleagues can be reasonably confident documents are free of typing errors and that any figures quoted are correct. Take the time to edit your work and make use of apps and online tools like grammarly to save time.
Especially when dealing with clients or external stakeholders, an attention to detail is important because it can often be the first impression you might be making on them and they might not give you a second chance. Double checking you’ve spelled peoples’ names correctly will never go out of fashion. This doesn’t mean you’re a perfectionist. Perfectionism is counter productive, it can hold you back and delay not only your own deliveries but affect others in the team. Perfectionism is insecurity masquerading as attention to detail and will eat into your efficiency. Put perfectionist tendencies aside and refocus on prioritizing tasks and setting deadlines to make sure you are actually getting stuff done and not procrastinating with the excuse of needing things to be perfect.
Professionalism involves being accountable for your words and action. You need to think carefully before you speak and never act in the heat of the moment if you’re upset or under pressure at work. Being professional means speaking and acting with respect and appropriateness in all contexts, even when you’re stressed out and angry. This is probably one of the hardest things to uphold as we all have those moments in the workplace when it feels like everything is crumbling all around us and we’re definitely not our best selves. But we have to put on a brave face and take responsibility.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be superhuman. It’s natural that everyone’s emotions can be triggered from time to time at work. If you’re irritated or emotional, a professional response is often to remove yourself from the situation and take a breather so that you can respond with a clear head. When you respond from a place of calm, it’s easier to stand behind your words and actions. You won’t say and do things you regret as you might in the heat of the moment. It’s easier to take responsibility and focus on solutions to problems rather than blame. And your colleagues are less likely to blame you if you apologize quickly for errors, assume responsibility rather than try to shirk it, and demonstrate that you’re committed to fixing whatever issues there may be.
The state of your desk is often a pretty good representation of your state of mind. It pays to keep it tidy, not only for your own sanity, but as a signal to your team that you’re on top of things.
Organization is key both to efficiency and productivity, and sometimes your own mental health. You’ve got to know where things are and where to find them, fast. As a workload gets busier, this becomes more and more essential. As much as you have to exhibit professionalism in your dress and behavior, you also have to exhibit it in the simple stuff like the way you archive documents and organize folders and people’s access to them, diaries, memos, and of course, how you keep your desk or office. If you want to seem super organized, volunteer to organize an office activity or purchase, like a joint gift for a colleague going on maternity leave or organizing Friday night drinks. You’ll soon earn the reputation of being organized and getting things done.
You’ve got to act the part as well as look the part, by extending manners to everyone you deal with during your day from the managing partner to the receptionist. You should have a firm handshake, a friendly smile, and a ‘how are you?’ at the ready in any situation. And even if your partner just left you or your house burned to the ground, if someone extends pleasantries to you - smile and say you’re fine, even if you need a toilet break to compose yourself five minutes later. This is not to say that we shouldn’t discuss our real feelings and problems as life’s ups and downs hit us, but in the proper forum. A close colleague asking how you are by the coffee machine is a very different scenario to a client asking you how you are while passing you briefly in the foyer. Common sense should prevail here. The point is that manners exist to show others respect and be treated with respect. They also exist to establish boundaries so you don’t have to spend the team meeting consoling Sally over her dead cat.
Respect is an extension of manners. You should be polite to everyone, not just the people you’re trying to impress because all people, regardless of their position and their relation to you, deserve to be shown respect. It’s highly unprofessional to make other people’s jobs more difficult because you are difficult to deal with or even rude. The best people and professionals will always have a smile and kind word just as much for the janitor as the CEO.
Respect is also related to integrity, values and authenticity. It’s about being true to yourself and everyone you meet so that your colleagues and clients can appreciate not only the respect that you show them, but that you are genuine and have integrity.
Showing respect is often about being flexible and accepting that if others don’t look the same or think exactly the same as you, that it’s OK and you can still find common ground, respectfully. It can be about taking your colleagues’ needs into account and trying to find a way of working that is compatible with others’ working styles. It may also be about helping others uphold their rights, feel comfortable to speak up or to disagree.
A big part of being professional that is also connected to your respect is an ability to put others at ease and make people feel comfortable. This is done by intelligently reading social contexts to determine appropriate responses and behavior.
Otherwise, it can be so awkward.
Professionals tend to be able to minimize the awkward moments by not only knowing what to say and importantly, what NOT to say, but also knowing when and how to change the subject and move things along when someone else has made an inappropriate comment or there’s an awkward moment.
It’s wise to be confident at small talk for all the times when you’re with new clients and stakeholders and there’s an awkward moment or some silence that needs filling in. Keep abreast of neutral current affairs or sports results you can refer to if you need some general, light banter. It’s also useful to develop the art of giving a great compliment, which can very quickly diffuse awkwardness, put people at ease and be a great icebreaker.
Professional people also know how to avoid awkward moments by keeping themselves informed and remembering big issues in peoples’ personal lives or of any tricky dynamics between team members which might need delicate handling. A true professional knows when it might not be the best time to call on someone’s input in the meeting if they’re having a rough day or are at odds with another colleague over the issue under discussion. They know it could be awkward to discuss their wedding plans with a colleague whose marriage has just ended.
Making people around you feel comfortable is a matter of developing your emotional intelligence and tact as well as getting to know your colleagues well enough to be able to discern whether something is appropriate or not.
Professionalism is certainly an art for many reasons.
There are no hard and fast rules. As we have discussed, professionalism is dependent on industry and workplace culture. Also, it shifts as societal norms shift over time. In addition, there are so many aspects to being professional that it is definitely an art form to master all 12 elements we have discussed. Lastly, because professionalism is also directly related to a person’s integrity and values, professionalism is always going to be unique to each individual as everyone has different modes of expression and ways of interpreting these elements and being professional.
And yet the foundation of professional conduct based on respect never really changes. Whether or not it’s considered professional to use emojis at your workplace, saying please and thank you will never become outdated. Because it’s really about being a good person. The bigger person. The empathetic person. The person who takes the high road. The person who always has time for others, regardless of who they are in the hierarchy.