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What Does "Being Professional" Mean?

What Does "Being Professional" Mean?

All working people are told to "be professional." Many of us have asked ourselves, "What exactly does this mean?"

Here are some ideas about the meaning of the phrase.
In general, being professional means behaving in a manner that makes it easier for you and your co-workers to get work done.
Most of us start out our work lives with some bad habits, and some of us keep bad habits well into our work lives. So let's begin by looking at some of those bad habits. Let's look at what not to do in the workplace.


Unprofessional Behavior: The "Dirty Dozen"

If you want to keep your job, stay away from these twelve common workplace misbehaviors.
1. Don't come to work looking dirty or sloppy. Look neat and clean.

For guidelines about having a professional appearance, see our blog post, Improving Your Chances of Being Hired - Part One.

2. Don't come to work late, don't take longer breaks than you're entitled to, and don't leave early.

Regularly taking more time than you're entitled to makes you seem unreliable. It gives your boss the feeling that you can't be counted on. Also, your co-workers have to do your work while you're not there, and they will resent you for it.

3. Don't come to work drunk or high.

If you party too hard and come in still drunk or high, this shows disrespect for everyone you work with. It makes it seem like you don't care about your job or your co-workers. If you have a drug or alcohol problem and you think you're hiding it at work, you're almost certainly wrong. Chances are that everyone knows. Save yourself possible humiliation and/or dismissal and get help for your problem now. Many workplaces offer confidential help for drug and alcohol addiction, and twelve-step programs are free and anonymous.

4. Don't mess around instead of doing your job.

Everyone likes to have fun at work, but if you're having fun instead of working, you won't have your job long. Also, make sure your co-workers share your idea of fun, or they won't want to work with you.

5. Don't lash out when you're angry or upset, even when you feel justified.

Many people have problems with the way they express anger. There's no reason to be ashamed of this. Just realize that if you have an explosive temper, it will cause big problems at every job you have. Few things will get you fired faster than blowing up at work. Admit you have an anger problem. Get some help learning how to deal with stress and anger in a way that will let you to keep your job.

6. Don't order people around, even when you're right.

No one likes to work with someone bossy. Even if you're supervising or training someone, make requests. Avoid giving orders. Being right about something is no excuse for being a jerk. Speak to other people the way you want to be spoken to.

7. Don't disrespect your co-workers or your supervisor.

Disrespecting people at work can have you out the door before you know what's happening. Behaving with respect means acting as though other people's rights are as important as your own rights. Respect everyone's rights, not just the co-workers you like. Of course, respect also means learning your workplace's anti-discrimination and sexual harassment policies and following them.
What seem like harmless jokes to you may seem like harassment to others, so don't take chances. Regarding dating, the safest behavior is not to date people you work with at all. Ever. Yes, there are exceptional situations in which workplace dating works out fine. However, it's safest to assume your situation will end badly, like most workplace dating situations. If you work in a service industry, treat all customers with respect, even the rude ones.

8. Don't expect others to clean up your mess.

If you make mistakes, admit them and do your best to fix them. If you need help to correct a mistake, ask for it. Thank the people who help you out. Clean up after yourself at work; don't mess up the workplace kitchen, break room or bathroom and expect others to clean up after you.  

9. Don't expect others to do your work for you.

If you are lazy and don't do your share of the work, others will resent you for this even if they don't say anything about it. Also no matter how well you think you're covering up your slacking, your supervisor is sure to notice, and you will eventually lose your job.

10. Don't expect your supervisor/boss to treat you like a friend instead of like an employee.

Even if your boss is friendly, as long as he is your boss, he can't be the kind of friend who just looks the other way when you mess up. It's his job to call you on your mistakes and help you to do better work. We all make mistakes. Accept justified criticism and try to learn from it.

11. Don't expect others at work to share your political opinions or religious beliefs, or to give money or time to causes you think are important.

Save your religious and political opinions for your friends and family, because it's pretty much guaranteed that your co-workers don't want to hear them. Even if you feel there are many people at work who agree with you, you're probably ignoring many co-workers who don't. The best way to get along with people at work is to stay away from conversations that can divide people instead of bringing them together. If you want to fundraise, don't do it at work. Yes, many people try to sell their child's candy or magazines at work, and yes, most of their co-workers wish they wouldn't. It puts those who want to refuse to give money in an awkward position. Again, this is not a good way to bring people together to do a job.

12. Don't comment negatively about your employer in public or on social media.

More and more companies have social media policies. Find out if your employer has policies for Facebook or Twitter and follow them. You know all those stories about people getting fired for writing nasty things online about their bosses or companies? Most of them are true. In the short term, it might feel good to make your grievances public, but it's not going to feel good to wake up the next morning with no job. If you want to say negative things about people at work, say them in private with friends or family members you know you can trust to keep what you say to themselves.

Now that we've looked at the DON'Ts, let's work on some DOs. If you take all the advice here, you'll be well on your way to being an important part of a more effective, more peaceful workplace.

Being Professional: Do This!

1. Have a consistently professional appearance.

Always come to work clean and neatly groomed. Wear clothing that is functional for your job, fits well, and covers your body properly. Employers expect you dress and groom yourself in a way that does not distract or detract from your ability to do your job.

2. Be on time, and work to the best of your ability during work hours.

Perhaps the biggest part of being professional is simply showing up when you're supposed to, and doing the best job you can do. Reliability and effort are two big keys to professionalism. They are much more important than trying to be perfect. Mistakes are unavoidable, but make sure to avoid showing a lack of respect for your job by arriving late and fooling around instead of working.

3. Make sure party time and personal problems don’t affect work time, and don't lie to yourself about this.

Show up to work free from the influence of any mind- or mood-altering substances. Workplace safety and the good opinion of your boss depend on this. Showing up high to work and thinking no one can tell? You can be sure everyone knows, most of all your boss. Emergencies occasionally happen, but whenever possible, make sure you've had enough sleep and enough to eat to do your job well.  Many employers offer free and confidential help for alcoholism, addiction and other personal problems. Don’t be afraid to take help if it’s offered.

4. Keep your word. Tell the Truth.

Do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it. If you find that you can't keep your word, let everyone involved know about the change. Let them know when they can expect you to keep your commitment.

5. Speak calmly and politely to everyone, even when you are upset.

Stressful situations come up in every workplace. At home it may be acceptable for you to deal with stress by yelling, throwing things, or putting other people down. This behavior is never acceptable at work. It will get you fired. If you are upset and need time to calm down, politely excuse yourself and leave the situation until you can trust yourself to behave well.  After you calm down, you can return to the conversation or situation that upset you. If it's not necessary to return to the conversation or situation, you can decide to let it go. Ask for help from someone you trust if you need guidance about how to solve workplace conflicts. If you have something to say that's not pleasant, stick to the facts. Just say what you observe, and don't make personal remarks. For example, if someone has not done his job, say "I see the floor is still dirty. Would you please sweep it now?" instead of "What's wrong with you? I told you to sweep this floor an hour ago." Most people respond better to requests than to orders, and no one responds well to insults.

6. Only say something behind someone's back if you would say the same thing to her face.

If you talk behind someone's back at work, chances are good that the person will hear about what you said. Don't risk this at work, since the consequences can be serious. When you disagree with someone, calmly tell the person so. If necessary, get help from a manager or supervisor to resolve conflicts.

7. Make sure your workplace conversation is respectful and non-discriminatory.

Most bigots probably don't think they are bigots. Most people who are behaving offensively can't tell when they're being jerks. However, almost everyone can learn to keep his mouth closed when he thinks what he says could get him fired. If you want to stay employed, make an effort to learn the art of silence. When in doubt, close your mouth. At work, it's best to keep your political and religious opinions to yourself. Learn your workplace's anti-harrassment and anti-discrimination policies, and follow them. If you have questions about the policies, ask. Think you're too good or too smart for the rules? Then plan on standing in the unemployment line sometime soon.

8. Keep conversations with co-workers "light and polite."

When talking with co-workers who are not personal friends, avoid nosy questions and personal remarks. Most people don't want to talk about their personal business at work, and they don't want to hear your opinions or advice about their personal lives. Even if you do work with a close friend, be aware that you should watch what you say to him or her around other co-workers.

9. If you don't know what you're doing, find out before you keep doing it.

Ask for help if you don't understand something about your job. Most people would much rather be asked to repeat instructions than clean up the mess after you do something incorrectly. Simply say, "I want to make sure I get this right. Would you mind going over it one more time?" Take notes so you don't forget what you're learning. If you're not good at taking notes, you can ask your supervisor to write instructions down for you. Or you can ask him to record instructions so you can listen more than once.

10. Do your own work, clean up after yourself, and do your best to correct your own mistakes.

Helping others out and accepting help are both fine. Expecting others to pull your weight at work isn't fine. If you're used to someone cleaning up your mess at home, learn to clean up your own messes before you go to work.

11. Keep your romantic life and your work life separate.

If you're serious about keeping your job, it's usually a very bad idea to date your co-workers. Yes, there are exceptions. The odds are that your situation isn't one of them.

12. Make sure your public comments about your workplace are positive, or at least neutral.

Have you heard all the stories about people who got fired for bad-mouthing their employers on line? Many of them are true. If you have complaints about your workplace, share them with people close to you who can keep your opinion to themselves. Be aware that many companies have policies to protect themselves from employees who would defame them online. Find out your company's policy on social media usage, and make sure to follow it.

13. Expect to be treated respectfully yourself.

Like the song says, if you don't respect yourself, no one will respect you. People who succeed at work believe that they are worthy of respect. If a co-worker or supervisor is consistently disrespectful to you, ignore it.
Get help addressing the problem, from a senior employee, manager or supervisor you trust, or from someone in the Human Resources department. Be calm and polite, but insist on being treated with dignity. If you are being harrassed, threatened or discriminated against at work, you can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for help.

Good luck!

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