Professionalism and Career Success

Professionalism matters in your career. It affects your ability to get hired or promoted, and impacts whether or not people respect your opinions.

What is Professionalism?

Webster’s Dictionary defines professionalism as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.” Some standards for professionalism vary from position to position, based on factors such as whether the position is public-facing; if it supervises others; and the employer’s culture. Other standards are consistent from employer to employer, such as integrity, respect, and obeying the rules. Someone is deemed either professional or unprofessional based on how they perform compared to a set of standards and expectations.

Aim High, Not Low

Whatever the standards or expectations of the job and employer, be characterized as someone who aims high, not low. One of my former bosses put it this way: “It is better to shoot for the moon and land on the barn roof, than to shoot for the barn roof and land in pig manure.” Aiming high allows you a great deal of grace during times when you stumble. Aiming at the minimum leaves no room when you fall short, and stamps you as a minimum effort kind of person.

Professionalism Characteristics That Vary By Position and Employer

Remember that these are compared to the prevailing set of standards and expectations for the job and employer, and that you should always aim higher than the standard.

a. Appearance. If you are characterized by being one step above your employer’s standards you will never be out of fashion in the opinion of those whose opinions matter.

b. Behavior. Just like Appearance, whatever the standards are (as stated in the employer’s code of conduct, core values, and behavioral policies), be characterized by always being one step above the standard. This includes genuine respect of others regardless of their respect for you (if you set the professional example, you encourage others to rise to the same level).

c. Work Culture. Some organizations prize arriving early and staying late; others are okay with working from home. Whatever the standard, fit within it and always aim high.

d. Communications. Fair or not, people judge someone’s intelligence by how well they communicate. This means using the right word; spelling and pronouncing it correctly; and surrounding it with proper grammar and punctuation. Professionals get this, so their written and spoken communications follow the standards for what is correct and appropriate for each audience with whom they interact.

e. Responsibility. Takes full responsibility for his or her actions, words, behavior; is willingly accountable; makes no excuses.

Professionalism Characteristics That Universally Turn Off Employers

Both the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg recently published articles on employee and applicant lack of professionalism as a top reason for not hiring or promoting an otherwise qualified candidate. What characteristics did they cite as being unprofessional and unacceptable?

a. Showing up late or delivering assignments late.

b. A sense of entitlement (see this excellent video on The Entitlement Creed).

c. A poor work ethic, including not focusing on the work or being too casual.

d. Gossip, which is speaking about others behind their backs.

e. Complacency (lacks urgency and the desire to grow and improve).

f. Minimal performer who the very least required to maintain employment.

g. A lack of coach-ability (resists direction).

h. Conducting personal business at work (which includes texting, social media, emails, and personal calls).

i. A lack of humility (thinking you are better than you really are).

j. Whining and complaining.

The good news is that all of these are under your direct control.

This article is excerpted from the 6th edition of Boyer Management Group’s Job Search Readiness Assessment Development Guide, which explains more than 2,500 job and career search best practices.

Boyer Management Group works with employers, organizations, and job seekers alike to help them become more successful. For employers, we offer world-class talent development, leadership and management training, acquisition and onboarding tools and programs to help employees and volunteers achieve consistent, optimal performance. For job seekers and universities, we offer tools, assessments, books, and curricula to help connect people with careers. To find out more, please visit us at, or call us at 215-942-0982.


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