We’ve all heard the word “professionalism,” and we know it’s tied to being professional—but what exactly does that mean? It’s important to understand professionalism, because being professional can take you places in your career—and being unprofessional can cost you your dream job. So, in this guide, we’ll examine what professionalism looks like in the workplace, how to demonstrate it, and the big dos and don’ts of being professional.
What is Professionalism, Anyway?
Merriam Webster defines professionalism simply as “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.” Said another way, the way you carry yourself, your attitude, and the way you communicate with others combine to show professionalism—or a lack there of. Workers who dress well, have integrity, and are calm, cool, and collected are generally considered professional, and display professionalism.
There really is no excuse for being unprofessional—even at your first job. Every time you are in the presence of a colleague, you should look and act the part: Always be on time, be courteous, and dress professionally. Or, consider this: Think about where you want your career to go and act like you’re already there. We promise professionalism will get you far.
There are many ways to show professionalism, but it’s important you act professionally in emails, meetings, and especially during conflict. Here’s how to remain ever-professional.
When it comes to emails, showing professionalism often boils down to proper etiquette. You shouldn’t act too familiar with coworkers or your manager—you shouldn’t write to them in the same way you would a friend. It’s also unprofessional to use Internet slang, such as BRB, LOL, and JK. Spell out all of your work and client coorespondence instead.
In meetings, failing to speak up can actually make you look unprofessional. Speaking up and sharing an educated opinion shows confidence, and that you know your job well. On the flip side, running your mouth in a meeting can also make you look unprofessional. If you dominate the conversation, you may be viewed as immature or unable to read the room—two things that could paint you as unprofessional. So, instead, strike a balance between speaking up and saying too much by sharing only valuable and important imput.
When in conflict, it can be difficult to remain professional at work. But an easy way to make sure that you are always professional in conflict situations is to remember the golden rule: Treat others how you want to be treated. If you can do that, you can remain professional.
Professionalism on the Job
Being a professional on the job ensures a positive first impression, successful interpersonal relationships and a lasting reputation. The key elements of on-the-job professionalism include time management, effective communication, enthusiasm, assignment delivery and appropriate attire.
Stay Calm Under Pressure
It’s natural to get stressed when things go wrong at work, but if you show your employees or teammates that you’re able to keep your cool when things heat up, they’ll be more likely to adopt similar behavior that enables them to better manage stress. And that could really come in handy the next time a disaster (whether major or minor) happens to strike your business.
Be the Brand
The company you work for has invested a lot of resources into building a strong brand, and you represent that brand whenever you’re in the public eye.
“Any time you attend a conference, business dinner, trade show, association meeting or social event, make sure you are representing both yourself and your company in the best ways possible,” says Jessie West, M.Ed., West Coaching and Consulting. “Share your expertise on LinkedIn, speak to a business group about your company’s products and services and maintain your professional reputation when using social media.”
Work Smarter, Not Harder
If you aren’t already looking for ways to be more efficient at work, make this a key part of your career goals this year. Believe it or not, innovators aren’t just people like Steve Jobs who change the course of an entire industry. Innovators can be people like the director of a national nonprofit who implemented the use of a shared document to keep check-in meetings with their team on track.
“If you have an organizational or another idea that would help things run more smoothly in the office, let your boss know! They will likely appreciate it . . . and implementing it could make everyone’s jobs a lot easier,” says Valerie Streif, Senior Advisor with Mentat, a San Francisco–based organization for job seekers.
Pair Complaints with Solutions
Bosses are used to having employees complain to them, but no one wants to be known as the employee who does nothing but complain. You’ll be more respected and feel more empowered if you can suggest a couple of ways to fix what’s frustrating you.
“When you identify a problem, instead of coming to me to report the problem, try to come with the problem and your proposed solution,” says Paul McHardy, Technology Specialist at USDISH. “Nothing makes a boss’s job easier than when their people are proactive in providing solutions to issues. It helps the decision-making process of what to do much easier, and you earn major bonus points for being the one to solve it.”
Admit When You’re Wrong
A good leader is someone others can relate to and respect, and a good way to make that happen is to own up to mistakes rather than gloss over them or put the blame elsewhere. If you show your team that you’re willing to hold yourself accountable when things go wrong, your employees will be less afraid to make mistakes themselves in the course of stepping outside their respective comfort zones.
Get Your Hands Dirty
As a boss or manager, you have every right to assign lower-level tasks to other people. And in many regards, it doesn’t make sense for you to spend your time dealing with individual computer glitches or shipping issues when you’re overseeing a major operation. At the same time, the last thing you want to do is give your team the impression that you’re above the tasks they’re responsible for. Quite the contrary — if you’re willing to spend some time in the trenches, you’ll gain insight as to what challenges your workers are facing and how you can help address them. At the same time, you’ll send the message that every task is important, which will keep your team motivated.
Professionalism in Email
Once you’ve got the basic structure of an email down pat, and you know what mistakes to avoid, it’s time to focus on making your drafts stand out from the myriad emails most people get every day. Here are four strategies to take yours to the next level:
1. Think Positive
Sending an email that is remotely negative, or even neutral, can put you in a tricky place. And as with any written communication, there may be room for misinterpretation.
“In the absence of other information, our interpretation often defaults to the negative,” explains Dan Post Senning, an etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute. “When you’re talking about negative communication, you’re [missing] the information that is tone of voice, the twinkle in your eye, the good humor that you intend something with or even the genuine care or concern with which you’re offering critique. So be really careful. When something reads as negative to you, it probably comes across as even more negative to someone else.”
2. Personalize Each Interaction
You wouldn’t want to get an email that reads, “Dear [client],” or which references your work in public relations when you’re actually in sales, because it would immediately show that the sender is either mass emailing you, or they didn’t do the proper research and find the right contact. Similarly, you’ll want to make sure that every email you send is crafted specifically for the recipient, and that you’re sending it to the right person.
So even though it may be tempting to use templates, it’s important to personalize it and keep in mind the communication style of the recipient before hitting send. To accomplish this, a quick Google search or a peek at the recipient’s LinkedIn or Twitter feed can do wonders. Before sending, try putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes for a gut-check on tone and content.
3. Follow Up — in Good Time
If you’re sending an email, you’re likely looking for a timely response. But with the large amounts of emails most people sort through each day, things can end up getting lost. As a general rule, a follow-up message should never come less than twenty-four hours after sending the initial email.
In other words: Don’t be the person who sends a follow-up request two hours after sending. In extreme cases, that kind of behavior can even get you blocked. “When you’re taking more time and actually caring about the person on the other side of the email, you’re immediately going to see a much higher response rate. I had to learn that the hard way,” says Cole Schafer, founder and copy chief of Honey Copy.
Professionalism on Social Media
Like it or not, social media is here to stay. It also happens to be the best place to build your personal brand. It is also the place where recruiters and HR professionals are looking for red flags — risqué photos, bad language, signs of drugs use — that would show them you’d be a less than ideal man or woman to have in their offices.
As you think about professionalism on social media, take note of these components of your profiles that will catch the attention of your boss or future employer,
According to career expert Halie Crawford, recruiters and hiring managers are concentrating their efforts on two sections of your Facebook page — your “about me” section, and your photo albums.
About Me: “They will want to see how you describe yourself and if it matches up [with] how you have described yourself in your cover letter and resume,” Crawford says. Any discrepancies could cost you points pre-interview. What’s more, Crawford says, “they will also be looking for proper spelling and grammar” in this section, to see how seriously you take those skills.
Photos: When it comes to your photos albums, “a hiring manager will be checking not only your photos but also your descriptions,” Crawford warns. “A hiring manager wants to see if you represent yourself in a professional way.” To come off in the most positive pre-meeting light, “you will want to avoid using profanity, sexual or drug references,” Crawford says.
Who You’re Following: “Recruiters like to see if you have any mutual connections and if you are connected with others in your industry,” Crawford explains. Following others in your industry is a smart thing to do no matter what — watching their feeds can give you a scoop on a new job opening, company announcements, the latest tech and much more.
Tweets: “Recruiters will be checking to see if you share useful information, if you share information relevant to your trade or if you just use tweets to fight with others,” Crawford says. If you’re applying for a job, take a look at your tweeting history and consider deleting anything that won’t show your best — and most thoughtful — self to a potential employer.
Followers: Recruiters will check out the kind of followers you attract, Crawford says. Plus, they’ll want to see “how friendly and social you seem to be with your followers,” she says. What you say to them and what you say back, she explains, “can also give them insight [into] your personal relationships and if you would be a good cultural fit for the company.”
Pictures: You probably figured this, right? But recruiters are looking to see more than your photography skills (or lack thereof). “They will want to see how you represent yourself,” Crawford says. For example, “if you are at a party, do you represent yourself in a dignified way?” Crawford asks, or, “do you post things that others would consider inappropriate?”
Posts: No one’s going to hire someone whose resume says they’re a “contsientious wroker.” (It’s conscientious, folks. Yeah, it’s a toughie).Especially on LinkedIn, common writing mistakes can damage your professional image. But even on the more social social networks, you can demonstrate that you’re a conscientious worker by taking time to proofread. Yes, even for cat videos. Getting your grammar right can be the fine line between “goofy cat lover” and “weirdo who doesn’t pay attention to human conventions.”
Profile: If your LinkedIn says “three years in finance” but your Facebook feed’s got a picture of you in a Starbucks uniform from last year, that’s a pretty big red flag. Lying about your experience or qualifications is never a good idea, especially with the Internet there to give evidence one way or another. Tell the truth on your resume, and make sure your networks reflect that truth, too.
Often when people think about networking, external networking comes to mind, but internal networking can be extremely beneficial. The stronger your inter-office relationships are, the more success you’ll have with collaboration. This will benefit you in your current role, and can also be a big help when you’re up for a promotion or looking to make a lateral move to a different area of work.
Internal networking could give you a leg up on job openings
Networking with others in your organization can provide exclusive knowledge on job opportunities before they are public knowledge. If you work for a great company that you want to grow with, knowing about internal positions as early as possible could be a key factor in your career development. Building interdepartmental relationships will help you with that.
Internal networking can help you when you’re trying to make a career shift
When you’re trying to make a career shift, often one of the hardest parts is catering your resume to your new field of work. If you don’t have related work experience on your resume, it can be very difficult for a hiring manager or recruiter to see how you’d be a good fit for the position you’re applying to. This is where internal networking comes in.
If you’re trying to develop more experience in a different area of business, network with other employees in that department. Reach out and make it known that you’re interested in learning more about what they do. Conduct informational interviews or even ask to shadow or take on a small role in a project they might be working on. Even if it is a small role, getting exposure to a different sector of your company will give you more related experience to integrate into your resume.
The Dos and Don’ts of Professionalism
Here's a quick cheat sheet to what counts as professional and what may not:
Do: Be accountable. One of the cornerstones of professionalism is accountability—showing you are a responsible person who does what they say they will, and on time. Your boss is going expect you to hold yourself accountable for doing your job and meeting deadlines.
Don’t: Say “like” and “um.” Using these filler words too often can make you look as if you lack confidence and therefore, professionalism. (Plus, it can just be really annoying!) The next time you want to say “like” or “um,” take a deep breath. Using these words is usually just a way to take a break from what you’re saying—so practice actually taking that break, and you’ll seem so much more professional when you speak, in meetings or in private!
Do: Share your opinions—carefully. Employers appreciate an employer that can express their opinions well. But to remain professional, you must know how to have calm, level-headed discussions, and to avoid conversations that could get too heated—for instance, if your office is split on political opinions). Doing this will help you remain professional.
Don’t: Say, “hey guys!” or anything so informal. Not only is this phrasing too casual to be professional, but it’s sexist and non-inclusive—and a true professional would speak to all people, no matter how they identify. Consider swapping the casual “guys” for pronouns such as “they” and “their,” or addressing groups by saying something like, “hello everyone.”
Do: Turn complaints into requests. Even the most professional employees feel like—and need to—complain, or express when things aren’t quite right. But professionals know how to turn complaints into requests. For example, if you need to speak to an employer about a dealine, don’t tell them it’s unfair; instead, make a request for an extension, and share with them how extending the deadline will make their lives—and your work—so much better.
Don’t: Say, “I need a drink,” or another expression of stress. Even if your workplace is uber casual—like an agency that stocks beer in the fridge, for example—saying something like this could put-off your co-workers and worry your boss. Plus, the more you say things like this, the more people will notice and worry about your drinking habits—and that’s not a professional picture to paint of yourself to your co-workers. Keep these sayings to yourself.
Do: Dress well. You can show your personality and sense of fashion in what you wear at work. But be sure not to wear anything too revealing, or inappropriate for the office.
Now that you know all about professionalism, here are some additional resources to help you put your best foot forward at the office!