What Does Professionalism Look Like?

Note: This post has been edited slightly from its original version.

One of the things they don’t teach in university technical writing class (but maybe should) is office etiquette, what I would call professionalism. Schools teach intellectual/technical skills and assume (perhaps wrongly) that  students will figure out behavior on their own because workplace cultures vary so widely. That might be true; HOWEVER, there are some basic behaviors that transfer nicely place to place. I want you to be taken seriously in the workplace. If you’re not taken seriously, you won’t be listened to, and that prevents you from making a positive (dare I say heroic?) impact in the workplace. 

What Does “Professional” Even Mean, Anyway?

In straightforward terms, a professional is simply someone who performs a given task or service for pay. There are some unspoken assumptions underlying that definition. The word assumes, for example, that a professional has the knowledge and experience necessary to perform the task, whatever it may be. Some professional disciplines require specific degrees, memberships, or certifications to do the work. And while it’s not always stated outright, there are some cultural assumptions or behaviors that go with the notion of “professional.” That’s what I’ll discuss next.

What Does It Mean to Act Professionally?

Work-related practices

Again, cultures (national, regional, local, disciplinary, etc.) can vary greatly. However, some minimum practices are (I’d hope) common across borders or industries:

  • You are capable of and will do the tasks defined under your employment agreement, task order, contract, etc.
  • Your work will meet the quality standards of the person(s) requesting it.
  • You will refrain from theft (plagiarism), fraud, deception, or other unethical or illegal behavior in producing your work.
  • You will not divulge any proprietary/sensitive information entrusted to your care.

Personal behavior

So far so good. But what about personal behavior? Here’s where I can get pushback or argument, but I’ve discovered that you ignore some guidelines at your peril. More times than I’d care to admit, I learned these lessons as a result of not following the guidelines. Maybe I’ll save you a few headaches:

  • Be polite and respectful toward the customers, managers, peers, or subordinates in your work environment. Maybe throw in a “please” or “thank you” now and then. This includes complying with work requests, paying attention when you are being spoken to; waiting until an appropriate pause in a conversation before intruding; keeping personal drama out of the workplace; maintaining a polite attitude toward your workplace or customers on social media; and respecting requests for quiet, personal space, or your absence from the room if requested. I’ve embarrassed myself on more than one occasion by talking too loudly (or unnecessarily) or by intruding on a conversation where I was not invited. <blush>
  • Wear clothing that meets the prevailing dress code of your workplace (see here and here for suggestions). True story: Once I was at Cape Canaveral for a NASA launch. I wore business casual clothing (golf shirt, khaki slacks) most of the week without any comment. However, on the date of the Flight Readiness Review, I was somewhat embarrassed to discover that everyone was in business attire. Everyone assumed that I knew. I was told to sit in the back of the room and disappear as soon as the review was over. You should “look the part,” whatever outfit matches the expectation in your workplace.
  • Do as much as you can on your own before asking for assistance. We have the internet. We have Google. Large companies have internal shared drives, wikis, or both. There are even these dead-tree things called books. If you have a question of fact, look it up first before asking a peer or manager. Again, I learned this one the hard way: “Bart, would you just try looking it up first before bugging me?” Whups.
  • If you make a mistake, admit it. Don’t throw other people under the bus. This creates hard feelings, sows mistrust, and ruins friendships.
  • Be willing to share what you know. Some people believe that “knowledge is power” and want people to come to them because they are the only one who knows how to do a specific task. They believe this makes them indispensable or immune from layoffs, etc. I strongly disagree. That mindset can get you stuck and make you unpromotable, especially if you are perceived as not willing to work with others. The positive side is you’ll be seen as helpful and you’ll save yourself from becoming a “bottleneck.”

I expect I will return to this topic. There’s always more to say.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to What Does Professionalism Look Like?

  1. I found this article very helpful considering that, as an aspiring novelist, I will soon be approaching agents and editors in a professional setting. I found that your advice can be generalized and applied to many areas, including business letters or emails and to blogging itself. Thank you for the great advice.
    – ES

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