What makes someone “Professional”?

I’ve read interesting takes on that question lately. Some good points, and some… not so much. What defines professionalism? Based on various pieces I’ve read, it’s certainly subjective. Whatever the definition anyone uses, it’s often THE factor that tips the scale from one candidate to another in the hiring process.

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 Recruiter for 23 years, and interviewing thousands 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 wear a $2,000 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 clients.

Are you "Professional”? Take a look at yourself through these criteria and decide.

Views: 15

Comment by Deidra Vanderheiden on November 13, 2009 at 11:07am
I agree with your perspective of professionalism Harry. Although, I believe it is scratching the professionalism surface. Professionalism begins with trust and credibility. If a person is not trustworthy they will not be appropriate, competent, or have a solid attitude that is value added. Without trustworthiness one does not have credibility. Trustworthy behaviors begin with listening quietly, responding with empathy, making things right when wrong, demonstrating humility, focusing on the reality of the situation - not the person, say what you are going to do - then do what you say, and demonstrate commitment and enthusiasm. Without trustworthiness a person is counterfeit and people can "smell" that a mile away. So yes, professionalism is being appropriate, professional appearance, attitude, competence and communication skills. But without trustworthiness it really doesn't matter.
Comment by Marsha Keeffer on November 13, 2009 at 12:13pm
I think we also need to look at our different biases - what does someone who's 23 and just out of college think is professional? What does a CEO who is 40 think is professional? It varies. And Deidra's comments about trustworthy behaviors are right on the money.

So the CEO candidate who shows up for an interview at a Fortune 500 company in a polo shirt is actually exhibiting untrustworthy behavior, whether she/he knows it or not. It's a demonstration that they don't get what's required for the position - beginning with business dress.

If a candidate is going up for a job working for a hip-hop recording label, the dress - and manner - will be decidedly different from what's expected at HP or IBM. Candidates who can't translate culture are liabilities.

Great post, Harry!
Comment by Will Branning on November 13, 2009 at 12:20pm
Harry I do like your points. In fact I just received a comment yesterday from a client that described my candidate as being "very professional." This particular candidate is very articulate, listens well and is someone who seeks to make things work better and solve problems. On the other hand, I have received feedback from clients about candidates being "less than professional" - who talk loudly and are not good listeners and just seem to want to be "led around."

This reminds me of the importance of preparing candidates to present themselves in a professional manner during all conversations with prospective employers. And to work to find those who truly are professional - after all they will reflect well on me!
Comment by Andy Wileman on November 13, 2009 at 1:58pm
Very nice article. I think "professional" is in the eye of the beholder, Will alludes to this above. I sometimes find that I will meet someone who is described as "very professional" in a casual atmosphere and the doors get blown off that characteristic. I wonder if everyone here feels that professionalism is something you can turn on and turn off or if it is intrinsically built into a person's moral make-up.
Comment by Charles Van Heerden on November 13, 2009 at 5:46pm
Harry, good list of characteristics and well defined. I certainly agree it encompasses all occupations.

It would be interesting to see what would be regarded as key expectations for recruiters, as the focus seems to be on candidates. In my view advertising a role without a specific person and contact details as a reference point is not professional, as it makes the recruitment process impersonal. Hats off to all those recruiters who prefer to talk (communication skills) with their candidates at the start of the process.

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