Wednesday, June 27, 2012


There's a good chance I'll do more on this topic over the course of my blog. defines professionalism as professional  character, spirit, or methods and 2. the standing, practice, or methods of a professional, as distinguished from an amateur.

I think you can act like a professional whether you are one or not; which is not to suggest bursting into an operating room and just taking over on that lung surgery, but more about ethics and behavior in the workplace,

Yes, I said the "e" word. I'll say it (type it) again: ethics. Ethics in the workplace is also a much larger discussion. For the moment let's define being ethical as doing what movies would consider "the right thing" regardless of the fact that in real life the right thing can sometimes get you fired or defenestrated. Also, to clarify, I don't mean gangster or mobster movies, or movies where evil is the winning character.

Basically, professionalism in the workplace is behaving as people expect a professional to behave. Note the word "expect." People have expectations. They will vary between jobs, groups, and individuals. This, I think, just makes things interesting, but can throw you or others for a loop.

My basic, every day professionalism in the work place includes (but is not limited to):

1) Dressing appropriately. A lot of tech shops are cool with jeans and t-shirts, but some consulting gigs have you in suits and ties (and everything in between). Dress to the level of the person that is paying you/managing your reviews would prefer. Every once in a while, dress down to mingle more with other folks (and to keep from seeming like a suck up). But the gist is, T-shirts and jeans might be allowed, but ones with rips in them worn daily to the office produce a lower review score from a supervisor than clean ones with no holes.

A lot of people suggest to dress for the position you wish to have. This is interesting because it doesn't really include the full world of options of jobs you have v. jobs you wish to have. For example, if you're a member of the administrative team (customer facing) you're probably wearing very nice clothes daily. But if you are trying to move into the System Administration position within your company, they are wearing non-customer facing clothing like jeans. The Sys Admins may have to work at 2 am and something has gone wrong if they are meeting with customers, so typically the dress code between you and them will be very different, and dressing for the job you want could get you fired from the job you have.

This is why I recommend to dress as nicely as expected by your current boss. To move anywhere, you need their support (with very limited exceptions). This means you need them on your side and supporting you. Doing what they want, in something as simple as dressing, goes a long way, because most people don't think of what other people want very often.

Dressing appropriately is acting professionally because you are thinking about and reacting (hopefully properly) to what those other people think in a positive way. This is a sign of maturity in life, let alone in the office, and it sets a tone for professionalism that may help cancel out those bad days when you're short with people or your jeans rip on the way into the office.

2) Treat everyone you meet as if they're someone. I talk about this much earlier in this blog--Help People Even When it Doesn't Benefit You--and I stand by it. The person you're kind to today might turn out to be a VP at another company where you want to get hired tomorrow. To paraphrase the Bible, it says that you are judged by God in how you treat the least of his creations (Matthew 25:45). Religious or not, you are judged the same way by your co-workers, employers, and others every day, conciously or not, by how you treat the people they see you interacting with.

For example, you have two people scheduled for a job interview. There's a pan handler on the street outside your building. You can see out, people coming in cannot see in and probably think that no one can actually see them, anyway. Candidate one walks past the pan handler not making eye contact. Candidate two gives half the sandwich he/she is gulping down before the interview to the pan handler and exchanges a few polite words before coming in. Most people are going to be inclined to hire Candidate two before he/she even opens his/her mouth at the interview; random acts of kindness say a lot about a person, ESPECIALLY WHEN THERE IS NO BENEFIT OTHER THAN TO THE PERSON TO WHOM YOU ARE BEING KIND. People want to work with kind people, even in businesses that are fast paced and require a lot of shark-like behavior; you want to trust and like the people you work with. That means that you need to behave in a way that can be liked and trusted.

3) Don't swear. I don't care how nice your office is about it, don't do it. Unconciously, people put a check in the "not like so much" column when you swear. Things they hate about themselves when they swear get associated in the back of their head related to you when you swear. Many people don't like swearing, and they won't say anything, especially if the culture allows for it, which means you're burning relationship bridges by swearing and don't even know it.

Finally, I kind of think of swearing as a cop-out: I can be so much more creative with my language than what I am limited to by swear words. Call someone a shithead or let them know that you found the village where the idiot is missing and can give them a ride there, and I'll bet that people in the room will be way more amused by the second than the first.

4) Be amusing, not annoying. It's a fine line, but humor bonds people. Don't denigrate others, and ration self denigration sparingly (I use it to diffuse situations between two parties that are actively hostile towards one another; if they're laughing at me and not at each other, we've made our first step towards getting things sorted out). This also doesn't mean memorize knock knock jokes or anything. It means don't be afraid to make people smile; when they do, all kinds of awesome hormones are released, and when they smile and associate it with you, you are literally conditioning them to like you.

Yes, being amusing can be professional, by the way. Never work "blue" (off color or HR sensitive joking), and don't make everything a joke. But treating people well, like they are important, and making them happy in small bursts is professional behavior and it both benefits you and gets stuff done.

Watch the annoying part, by the way. Its not just a poorly told joke or bad timing when to try and make a funny. It's not being late to meetings, or apologizing when you are. A lot of places scheduled 10 am to 11 am and then your next meeting 11 am to 12 pm. You will be late to the second meeting unless you can teleport (or the meeting is in the same room). Apologize, let folks know the situation, and move forward. Don't keep people waiting.

Don't tease people. I know, I said humor was okay, and a lot of places allow for teasing. Being professional, however, doesn't allow for teasing. It is literally a time bomb in your hands; people might silently hate you for it (whether they're the object of the teasing or not), others might just find you a bore, and worst of all, someone might report you to HR for harassment. Just don't do it.

5) Do what you said you will do when you said you would do it, OR notify people as soon as you know otherwise that isn't going to happen. This means no lying. This also means not saying "yes" to everything that crosses your plate. It also means reviewing your workload and being honest with yourself about whether or not you can make your commitments and communicating if you cannot as soon as you find out (not after working a few late nights trying to fix the unfixable). This builds trust. Being trustworthy is being professional.

There are a lot more "secrets" to professionalism, and I'll go into them in future blogs. Start with these five, and you're well on your way.

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