Business, Growth

What the Heck IS “Professionalism”?

IMG_1538I read an article on earlier today that really confused me. The article discussed professionalism and authenticity but not really in a way that made much sense to me. I’ll save the topic of authenticity for another day but this is what the article said about professionalism:

Professionalism, as we’re taught, causes us to remain subdued. It causes us to force ourselves into a box that keeps us within set parameters and holds us back from exploration. It holds us back from really voicing our opinions to the people who matter to us in business.

The professionalism that we’re taught by society, by schools and by establishments is actually no more than a set of old rules that are designed to keep hierarchy stable and add a layer of control to a workforce.

Now, maybe I’m crazy, but I’ve never felt that way about being professional. Granted, people can take it to different levels, but being professional is, well, being professional, right? Maybe it’s a bit like the Supreme Court described pornography in that we just know when someone’s not being professional. But being professional has never once “held me back from really voicing my opinion” (just ask former clients or bosses) and I’m not convinced professionalism is “no more than a set of old rules” of hierarchy and control (that sounds more descriptive of societal norms for women before Gloria Steinem and bra-burning!).


Of course, we’ve all seen people that either don’t understand what it is to be professional or simply don’t care. That brings me to this quote from the article:

The issue today, though, is that generations are becoming less and less accepting of this and as such, people like you and I are finding this traditional version of professionalism to be constraining. That thought process can lead us to wonder what’s wrong with us.

There’s nothing wrong with us. Nothing at all because actually, professionalism is simple — be fair, be honest, be open and be value-led. Oh, and be respectful.

By us I can only assume he’s referring to Millennials and I think he’s trying to make the point that with each generation comes a different view of what it means to be professional. I do think there are changes in how professionalism may look from generation to generation; our mothers would have never graced an office if not in a dress and heels, 30 years it was not professional to even ask to work from home (much less a coffee shop) and everyone working together in one big room with no walls…never.

But I disagree that there is  a “traditional version of professionalism” because I don’t think the definition of professionalism has or ever will change. I also don’t agree that being professional means being constrained. You can speak your mind, give your opinion, stand your ground, bring about change (and go home and fry it up in a pan) and still be professional.

There are things, however, that have nothing to do with traditionalism that will quickly shoot you over into unprofessional territory. Off the top of my head, this is my short list for things to avoid in a workplace environment if you want to remain this side of professional: a) raising your voice, yelling or using profanity, b) making sexual comments of any kind in front of or to anyone (plus it’s a wee bit illegal), c) making remarks about co-workers or clients to or in front of other co-workers or clients, d) making the comment “it’s not my job”, ever, e) cursing at work (yes, I’ve been guilty of that one for sure), f) being under the influence even at an afterwork event if with coworkers, and g) the slightest glance at your cell phone during a meeting, presentation, conversation, etc. when you are part of the group that should be paying attention (sorry, but that one’s never going to change for me – rude and unprofessional and I’ve been guilty myself in an occasional presentation!). I’m sure there are others but I can’t think of them at the moment.


Now, let me be clear; while jeans, t-shirts, out-in-the-open tattoos, piercings and backwards baseball caps might not be seen as professional in an accounting firm or law office, it’s considered every bit as such in most creative fields (oh how I wish…). Again, I think professionalism is linked to behavior, not appearance. Whether you work in a warehouse art studio and are covered head to toe in wonderful tattoos or you’re a financial advisor who wears suits and wingtips daily, professionalism, in my humble opinion is all about respect and earning trust. I think my short list above goes for all professions, no matter the industry, dress code or age.


What do you think? Did I miss something? Does professionalism mean something totally different to you? Do tell!

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