Professionalism…we know it when we don’t see it. Here’s what the research says…

Updated 10/27/2017

Colloquially, a professional is “someone who takes work seriously.”

Generally, people think of a professional as somebody who is a reliably good performer and who prioritizes work responsibilities highly. Great performance? Professional. Met deadlines? Professional.

In this case, popular culture actually defines professionalism better than scientific literature. This is because the idea of being “professional” is somewhat subjective or contextual. Scientists who study professionalism typically focus primarily on defining “what’s professional” for particular fields, professions, or cultures.

Professional behavior links to stronger performance and greater customer satisfaction.

People rated by peers and supervisors as more professional also earn more positive customer satisfaction ratings, promote deeper customer trust, and inspire greater customer loyalty.

Highly professional people also typically perform better at their jobs (than those rated as less professional).

Evidence also suggests that more professional people also experience higher levels of work engagement.

Professional appearance is about establishing trust.

How you look at work serves several purposes: First, it can signal your professional role to others (imagine trying to find a doctor in a hospital without being able to look for white coats). This can be a good thing (e.g., patients being able to identify doctors) or a bad thing (e.g., creating in-groups and out-groups segregated by appearance).

Second, appearance can signal trustworthiness to coworkers and customers. This doesn’t automatically mean that formal/uniform dress is more trustworthy: generally, dressing very differently than your coworkers or in a way that departs drastically from client/customer expectations may engender confusion and mistrust.

What is seen as “professional behavior” differs depending on context and culture.

At online shoe retailer Zappos, an employee once spent 10 hours on the phone with a customer talking about personal issues — just getting to know each other. That employee was celebrated and heralded as a shining example of the types of behaviors that are expected of professional Zappos employees.

In contrast, medical students are reprimanded for unprofessionalism when they spend too much time talking personally with patients.

Each work culture has its own norms for professional behavior.

Most fields generally agree that “professionalism” includes several traits.

Although what is seen as professional depends on context, there are some common traits across most industries and work cultures. Generally, “being professional” means a person is…

  • Respectful to coworkers and customers.
  • Ethical and honorable: Refuses to violate professional codes of conduct.
  • Accountable: Keeps promises, and meets deadlines and commitments.
  • Performance-oriented: Committed to performing well, and to continuously learning how to be better.
  • Diplomatic: Able to express views with a high degree of tact.

What’s unprofessional? Irresponsibility and poor interpersonal relationships.

People can act unprofessionally in work responsibilities and/or interpersonally around the office.

Unprofessional behavior in work responsibilities includes late work, gaps in quality, lack of self-direction to move work forward, and unresponsiveness to corrective feedback.

A person who acts unprofessionally interpersonally is disrespectful toward customers, and has poor relationships with clients and coworkers.

The professional personality is conscientious and agreeable.

Unsurprisingly, the personality trait conscientiousness — the tendency to be dutiful, respectful, responsible, organized, and hard-working — is highly associated with being seen as behaving professionally.

Additionally, most definitions of professional behavior include an interpersonal component (i.e., being kind and personable to coworkers and customers is also professional), which is highly related to the personality trait of agreeableness.

When an otherwise conscientious, agreeable person acts unprofessionally, look for emotional exhaustion and value conflicts.

When a valued team member acts unprofessionally, it may signal overload or a crisis of values.

One study of call center professionals found that highly conscientious employees performed worse than unconscientious employees when experiencing job demand overload. (Unconscientious employees, by contrast, just kept performing at the same low level whether emotionally exhausted or not).

Several other studies on professionalism have found that otherwise responsible people can behave unprofessionally when encountering a conflict between two professional values (e.g., between empathizing with customers and using time efficiently, or between being a good employee and being a good family member).

Organizational culture can facilitate (or hinder) professional behaviors.

Regardless of the behaviors an organization says it expects, people actually learn how to act in an organization from its ‘hidden curriculum’ — how coworkers and supervisors behave, and what is rewarded, punished, and ignored in the work environment.

Encourage professional behavior by regularly assessing professionalism, making job roles clear, making people feel appreciated and valued, facilitating positive relationships among coworkers, and providing opportunities for learning and skill development.

Finally, helping people identify with the organization’s collective values also facilitates professionalism.

What works to improve professional behavior? Mentoring and discussing critical incidents.

When professionalism needs a boost, often a simple consultation with a professional mentor can correct issues.

More broadly, professional behavior can be taught by discussing situations, not principles. For example, many medical school lessons — which teach professional behaviors explicitly — require students to respond to and discuss realistic stories where doctors are forced to choose between two professional values (e.g., a patient wants to discuss their case longer, but fulfilling that request will take time away from other patients and overload hospital staff).

The dark side of professionalism is conformity and self-suppression.

Professionalism (in behavior and appearance) has close ties to impression management (trying to control how people view you) and conformity. At its worst, career anxiety and neuroticism can lead people to over-conform appearance to present an ‘ideal’ image.

Too much of this “nervous posturing” replaces authenticity (genuinely expressing yourself). Authenticity is better for well-being, more preferred by highly open creative workers and millennials, and importantly — better for customer ratings of professionalism.

While some facets of professionalism (being reliable, responding to feedback, seeking personal/professional growth, being motivated, having good relationships with coworkers and clients) are likely beneficial across situations, be careful about enforcing notions of professionalism that overly limit self-expression, connection, and individuality.

More Coetic resources related to Professionalism…