How Do You Define Professionalism?

Defining Professionalism

What exactly does the word “professional” mean? Regardless of the career, everyone aspires to be a professional. We are to look professional, act professional, have a professional resume, demonstrate a professional image. If you’ve had a military career, professionalism has been drilled into your psyche. Fans of the Bond series know that it is Sean Connery who portrays the professional image of an international spy. Professionals are polished and smooth, right?

If you’re considering a career transition, it is certainly worthwhile to consider whether your convey a professional image, but somehow that’s a difficult characteristic to define. Has the word been tossed about to such an extent that it has lost it’s meaning? No, because while it may be difficult to nail down how to define professionalism in the workplace, we all recognize unprofessional behavior.

Looking the Part

Let’s dig into that a bit with a story:

My friend Sharon is a fixer. She is kind of like MacGyver for business. With keen wits and the uncanny ability to craft solutions with duct tape, a Swiss Army knife and coat hangers, Sharon is who businesses call when they have difficulties that they can’t unscramble.

When I met Sharon for lunch a couple of weeks ago, she told me the story of her latest project. She had agreed to work for a year as general manager for a well-established local business that was facing problems. After decades of success, the business was losing customers. Their reputation was declining and employee morale was low. The owners needed help and agreed to give Sharon the latitude she needed to turn the company around.

It didn’t take long for my analytical friend to get a sense of the problem. The business ran with a small staff, just 15 people in the office, including a sales team of five. The owner had introduced James, the sales manager, as “our superstar.” He looked the part, and apparently, he was known for bringing in the big deals. During her first week on the job, Sharon walked into the office to learn that there had been a loud altercation between James and one of the salespeople, a young man named Mark.

James Bond

She responded calmly, and had a talk with the sales manager about professionalism. Leaving work that day, she was slightly surprised when Mark stopped her in the parking lot. He didn’t press the issue, but expressed disappointment that Sharon hadn’t investigated the details of the incident. “This kind of thing happens a lot with James,” he said as he ended the conversation.

It turned out that Mark was correct. After a day of calls with the sales manager, Sharon questioned his brash style and high pressure tactics. “That’s what it takes to succeed in this business,” was James’ response.

Later in the week, when Sharon asked about a phone call that James hadn’t returned, she was told, “I don’t have time. You can call them back if you want. They’re a real pain, and we’ll never get any business from them.”

Professionalism is about Attitudes

It’s no stretch to identify the unprofessional attitudes demonstrated in this story – disrespect, temper, callousness, lack of courtesy. The traits that define professionalism in the workplace are obviously the opposite dispositions. Let’s identify a few of them:

    1. Calm and positive attitude – Professionals understand that problems and disputes occur during the course of business. It’s a consequence of human interaction and sometimes misunderstanding. They focus on productive solutions.

    1. Honesty – Professionals are committed to ethical and transparent behavior. They take responsibility for their own mistakes and don’t seek to blame or take advantage of others.

    1. Organization – Even if the workspace isn’t meticulously neat, professionals know where things are. Schedules and commitments are planned and executed on time. An organized professional says what he will do, and does what he says.

    1. Helpfulness – Professionals demonstrate unselfishness and the willingness to pitch in. A professional carries his own weight, but also looks to the good of others and of the organization.

Author and eLearning authority, Jane Bozarth, came up with a comprehensive definition of professionalism in a unique way. She crowdsourced the following definition using Twitter:

Approaching work in the spirit of collegiality, commitment, altruism, and accountability. Putting in an honest day’s work effort while caring about our work and working toward successful accomplishment of it. Doing things well even under challenging circumstances, and carrying out our work because it is the work we have accepted to do.

That about covers it, don’t you think? Unfortunately, not everyone that we will work with during our career will meet this standard, and one unprofessional manager can be like the proverbial bad apple in the barrel.

The True Professional

Let’s finish my friend’s story. It didn’t take long for Sharon to unravel the problems in the organization. The owners had become complacent, and had allowed an unprofessional culture to develop within their management team. James, the sales manager, had closed some big deals, and he didn’t hesitate to remind everyone that he was the producer. Sharon, the consummate professional, quickly identified him as the problem child. In her first two months she handled half a dozen problems created by the brash manager. Worse, she discovered that his ethically questionable activities were damaging the reputation of the company. When James’ temper flared again with another of his colleagues, Sharon took the opportunity to make him a free agent.  While there were still other problems to address, she described that day as the turning point that allowed her to change the course of the company and restore a culture of professionalism. Morale improved, customer complaints were replaced with referrals, and the story ended well.

So here’s the important question. How do you fit the definition of professionalism? Putting on a professional image for the career search is one thing, but it’s professional behavior that carries through your career. You may be able to dress like James Bond for the interview, but do you have the track record, the references and reputation? Maybe polished and smooth aren’t the best attributes for professionals, after all. Perhaps my friend Sharon and MacGyver are the better models, even with the duct tape and Swiss Army knife.  Practical and proactive, they just get things fixed.

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Source: Lauby, Sharlyn, Defining Workplace Professionalism, HR Bartender Blog, 2/7/15. Photos: Creative Commons License.

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