In trying to define it, the dictionary doesn’t seem to be much help. Webster defines professionalism as: “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or professional person.” …sounds like a circular definition.
Having been a leader for over 15 years and interviewing hundreds of people, I’ve gathered some observations:
~ There is no single characteristic that makes someone ‘professional’. Invariably when someone impresses as being professional, it’s a combination of a number of traits that creates that impression.
~ It’s not the occupation! Often, people think you need to be a doctor, or lawyer, or senior executive to be considered professional. However, I know of people that are in lower level blue-collar positions that I consider more professional than some C-level executives.
~ Attitude. Certainly attitude creates a positive impression. However, I believe it is also a critical component of professionalism. It’s not just whether someone is upbeat or not, but also whether they are a solution-finder or nay-sayer. A professional is someone that sees opportunity, not just finds reasons that something can’t be done.
~ Competence. With that perspective regarding attitude, competence in your field is therefore also vital. In order to be professional, you have to know what you’re talking about. You have to be able to have understanding and insight into relevant issues in your field and be able to articulate solutions.
~ Communication Skills. You may have a great attitude and be highly competent in your field, however, if you can’t communicate your insight or ideas effectively to others, you miss the mark. Communication skills don’t refer to an accent, but rather the ability to be understood, speak in clear terms, and make complex subjects understandable.
~ Appearance. Unfortunately, often “unprofessional appearance” has been used as a euphemism for racism, sexism, discrimination against the obese, or some other such discrimination. Those are misguided and shouldn’t be a factor in considering a professional appearance. However, appearance does matter. It’s not necessary for someone to expensive business suit. However, clean and appropriate clothing, fit properly, and arranged well do play a part in a professional image. A mechanic in well fitting and well cared for cover-alls can create a professional image as well as a C-Level executive in a tailored suit. Dirty, wrinkled, sloppy, and unkempt appearance damage a professional image regardless of the field you may pursue.
~ Appropriateness. Inappropriate language, slang, appearance, or subjects have as much to do with damaging a professional image as anything else. Running off on unrelated tangents in a conversation, cursing, or wearing a polo shirt to a formal executive interview each create an impression that you don’t grasp the particular role. Like it or not, but ‘bucking the system’ rarely gets rewarded when pursuing a new job.
These are obviously all personal opinions. However, I have seen each of these factors play a large part in my own impression of someone’s professionalism. Observations that are regularly supported by the feedback I get from my HR colleagues.