This can be such a loaded and complex question. Yet, it can be very simple as well.
Professionalism means different things in different situations. It can mean different things to different people. It isn’t necessarily about appearance, education or speech. It’s so much more.
A stay-at-home mom can be just as professional as a Wall Street executive. A high school teacher needs to demonstrate professionalism just like an accountant.
Regardless of vocation, professionalism is necessary.
The official definition of professionalism
Dictionary.com defines professionalism as
1. professional character, spirit or methods; or
2. the standing, practice, or methods of a professional, as distinguished from an amateur.
Defining professionalism with its root word of professional doesn’t give us much insight. Let’s look at the definition of professional:
1. a person who belongs to one of the professions, especially one of the learned professions.
2. a person who earns a living in a sport or other occupation frequently engaged in by amateurs.
3. an expert player, as of golf or tennis, serving as a teacher, consultant, performer, or contestant; pro.
4. a person who is expert at his or her work.
Technically, of course, the definitions of professionalism and professional are correct. However, I firmly believe there is so much more to being professional.
Professionalism depends …
As indicated earlier, all jobs and careers require professionalism. The appearance of professionalism within each job or career, however, will look different.
Professionalism depends on the customers’ or audiences’ expectations. And even those expectations will differ from person to person. Expectations are set by background, culture and even emotional state at a point in time.
Let’s look at a couple of examples:
Professionalism in Accounting
I’m a Certified Public Accountant, live in St. Louis and work with financial institutions. You may have various stereotypes of a CPA but we’re not all the same.
For 14 years of my career, I wore a white dress shirt, tie and suit every day, regardless of whether it was required. My clients wore suits, or ties at a minimum, so I did the same thing even if I was just working in the office.
For the last couple of years, I’ve relaxed my dress code while in the office so I could more closely relate with some of our other staff. I still wear the full suit and tie more times than not. But when I’m not in that get-up, I’m in slacks, a button-down dress shirt and a sport coat.
Again, I’ve changed the types of clothing I wear based on my audience’s expectations, age, background.
Some of my peers in other cities do things differently based on the expectations of their clients. In Oklahoma, for example, it is so hot in the summer that the clients have no expectation that their accountants would wear a tie. They would actually be criticized for it.
There are different expectations of professionalism as it comes to appearance. I still, however, advocate for wearing a suit and tie every day. You can read several arguments for wearing a suit and tie every day in the following article:
Professionalism in Retail Sales
We all have to go into stores to buy things. Think of the employees of the stores you frequent. Some of the stores allow their employees to wear just about anything. Others, like Target, require their employees to wear khaki pants and a red Target-branded polo shirt.
Compare Target to the largest retail store you know and think of which employees appear the most professional. Which one?
Appearance is definitely not the only aspect of professionalism that matters. There are so many other facets of professionalism and we will look at several of them in the future. Appearance, though, is so important because it is what our first impressions are based on.
Employees of Target can be polite or mean just like any other retailer. You’ll discover that when you interact with them. The difference is that you likely won’t have a negative first impression based on appearance.
A negative first impression could make your direct interaction with an employee turn out completely the opposite of what the employee intended. First impressions matter.
The definition of professionalism isn’t set in stone
We just looked at two examples of how appearance can impact our perception of professionalism.
We really need to be careful how we allow our perceptions to impact our future actions.
A ditch digger is not going to look very “professional” simply due to the nature of his job. That ditch digger could be the best and most professional ditch digger alive. We wouldn’t know it if we go strictly by appearances.
How do you define professionalism? Do you expect everyone you meet to comply with your expectations of appearance, speech, manners, etc? Or, do you change your expectations for each person, situation or profession?
Professionalism is different for everyone and we need to be careful not to pigeon hole people into being professional or not being professional.
Question for you: What is your definition of professionalism? Let me know on Twitter what you consider to be the most important aspect of professionalism.