what does it mean to be professional?

We talk a lot here about what it means to be professional, but we’ve never attempted to actually build a list explaining what that means … which I want to try to remedy, because for people just starting out in their careers, figuring it out as they go can be fraught with land mines. And it’s weird that something so important to people’s careers is so rarely taught in any organized way.

So without further adieu, here are 10 key elements of professionalism that you should master early in your career.

1. Pay attention to the cultural norms in your organization, and follow them. If you watch how others in your office operate, you’ll all sorts of important things about “how we do things here.” For instance, you might observe that everyone shows up precisely on time for meetings, that they modulate their voices when others are on the phone, and that people rely on email for non-urgent questions. These are important signals for what will be expected of your own behavior – and you’ll come across as tone-deaf if you ignore them.

2. Be pleasant and polite to people, even if you don’t like them. You will have to work with people who you just don’t care for, and even with people who aren’t very nice. You’ll look far more professional if you don’t let them get under your skin and instead remain cordial and easy to work with.

3. Take work seriously. If you make a mistake or something doesn’t go well, don’t brush it off or use cavalier responses like “my bad.” Accept responsibility for your part in what went wrong. Part of taking work seriously leads to…

4. Speak up when work isn’t getting done on time or when there are problems with a project. Part of taking real ownership for you work means that you’re responsible for alerting your boss when things are going off course, rather than trying to ignore it or just hoping that no one notices.

5. Realize that getting feedback on your work – even critical feedback – is part of the job; it’s not personal. Getting angry or defensive or otherwise taking it personally when your manager gives you feedback can be an easy trap to fall into, but it will make you look less professional. And after all, if you care about doing your job well and advancing, don’t you want to know where you need to do better?

6. You need to write clearly and professionally. That means no text speak, and correct punctuation and capitalization aren’t optional. This doesn’t mean that you need to write as if you were addressing the queen, but you do need to take care that you don’t sound like you’re texting a friend from a nightclub either.

7. Be flexible. Yes, your workday might formally end at 5 p.m., but if staying an hour late will ensure the newsletter goes to the printer on time, you should do it unless truly impossible. That doesn’t mean to ignore important commitments in your own life, but you shouldn’t let important work go undone just because your quitting time is 5:00. Similarly, be flexible when it comes to changes in work plans, goals, or other things that might evolve as work moves forward.

8. Show up reliably. Unless you have pre-scheduled vacation time or you’re truly ill, you should be at work when they’re expecting you to be there. It’s not okay to call in sick because you’re hung over, or because you stayed up late last night watching soccer, or because you just don’t feel like coming in.

9. Be helpful, and do more than solely what’s in your job description. The way that you gain a great professional reputation – which will give you options that you can use to earn more money, get out of bad situations, and not have to take the first job that comes along – is by doing more than the bare minimum required. That means always looking for ways to do your job better, helping out colleagues when you can, and not balking at new projects.

10. Don’t treat your manager as your adversary. If you have even a semi-decent manager, she wants to see you do well and isn’t your enemy. But if you instead see her as someone whose job is to enforce rules, spoil your fun, and make you do things you don’t want to do, it will show – and it won’t look good. Treat your manager as a team-mate – one who has authority over you, yes, but one who’s working toward the same goals as you are. (And if you’re sure that this isn’t true of your manager, that’s a big red flag to pay attention to.)

{ 140 comments… read them below }

  1. Brett*

    An expansion of this list should include what it means to be professional from an industry perspective. The entire initial list looks to be solely from an office perspective. So, it does not deal with aspects like ethics education, maintaining industry current skills, leaving/reporting unethical employers, etc. that pertain to being a professional within an industry rather than being a professional within an office.

    1. Lora*

      +1. What is expected of a Professional in one field is often completely unprofessional in another.


      In R&D, you’re supposed to offer ideas along with a criticism. If you say, “I have a question about XYZ, I’m not sure that conclusion is validated by ABC. Would you confirm the result with experiment DEF?” If you just complain and criticize, you’re seen as not being collegial, not working in good faith, and probably not all that smart or creative.

      In Engineering, if anyone even asks a question, the person being questioned is automatically thought to be at fault, and criticism without offering solutions is routine. You’re supposed to be able to either show your work or think of something else on the fly, but really there shouldn’t be any questions at all. This is made more challenging if you are presenting something that incorporates tech-heavy work from another field–the questioner’s own ignorance is not considered at fault, it’s your way of presenting it, and sometimes it’s not possible to cram 300 years of mathematical thought into two PowerPoint slides.

      1. Chinook*

        Actually, knowing what is professional in an industry would fall under “1. Pay attention to the cultural norms in your organization, and follow them.” Even as an AA, I wait to feel out my superiors and colelagues before offering my opinionlike Brett mentions because some of them have been totally open to hearing contradicitng points of view, with explanation of course, while others woudl have thought me the devil incarnate for doing so. And, sometimes, this would be the case in the same organization as different departments work differently.

    2. Brton3*

      I’d like to add that within any industry, professionalism may mean different things if you are a manager or an employee with no reports.

    3. Ed*

      How are things like doing more than you’re expected, taking work seriously and being accepting of feedback related solely to an office setting? While the list has room for expansion, I would say everything on this list can relate to almost any job.

    4. Brett*

      My thought here was that I have run into situations where the cultural norms in our organization were completely counter to the ethical norms in my profession.
      (Including practices that were clearly illegal and I was under a legal as well as ethical obligation to report them.)

      So, to me, professional behavior in the field definitely extends beyond cultural norms in the organization.

  2. Steve*

    I would say, as an extension to #1 (paying attention to cultural norms) as well as #7 (writing clearly and professionally) to watch your spoken language as well. Don’t get me wrong, with my friends outside of work, I can cut loose with an expletive laced diatribe that would make my grandfather the sailor proud. But I think using foul language at work is a kiss goodbye to your professionalism. Even if everyone else is doing it, don’t be the lemming that drops the “f bomb” (or any other of George Carlin’s 7 words) at work. Just. Don’t.

    1. Cat*

      Eh, if it’s a norm in your office, it falls under “paying attention to cultural norms,” as far as I’m concerned.

      1. The IT Manager*

        Even if cursing is the norm in your office, I think someone who does will seem less professional than someone who does not. Now maybe that’s because my familiar cultural norms have only included rare, mild cursing, but I also think it’s like dressing for the job that you want rather than the one you have.

          1. The IT Manager*

            If I walked into your office and your boss cursed up a storm and you did not, I would think you were more professional.

            1. Cat*

              Okay, I am talking about dealings with internal people here. I am not talking about interactions with external clients, in which case yes, we all attempt to adapt to their norms.

              1. Ruffingit*

                Even if the norm in the office is to curse up a storm with colleagues, I would not do so. It’s just not in my nature. I don’t think Alison is advocating adopting every cultural norm within the office. I think it’s a general admonition to be aware of them, but if there is something that makes you uncomfortable such as cursing, then I don’t think you need to follow that.

                And, it may be that you need to leave that place of employment if you are forced to follow that norm because it would not be a right fit for you.

                1. Cat*

                  Sure. This is absolutely true. And as AdAgencyChick said, it’s not likely something that’s going to hurt you if you don’t do it. However, I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with it if it is the general office culture. It just is.

                2. Ruffingit*

                  I have no problem with swearing if it’s part of the office culture. I’ve worked long enough in different fields now to know that some things are acceptable in one place that aren’t in another.

                  It really isn’t about the office culture, it’s about what the individual employee can or wants to handle. If the culture fits, great. If it doesn’t, move on.

              2. some1*

                If a lot of people in your office use swear words and you don’t want to for whatever reason, I believe that’s fine. But if that’s the culture at your org, it won’t do you any favors to file a complaint against someone who says, “Crap!” to herself when she gets a paper cut.

      2. AdAgencyChick*

        Agreed. I can’t think of any workplace I’ve been in where you would be looked down on if you DIDN’T curse, so it’s not a bad thing to err on the side of caution. But cultural norms again — my industry tends to be pretty casual with language when the clients aren’t around, and it certainly doesn’t get in the way of people getting promoted.

        Now, if I were to change careers and move into an industry where swearing is more frowned upon…eek, I’d be in trouble.

    2. R*

      I think it is much more subtle than that. In a male dominated industry, I’ve had too many senior men who would swear freely in front of other men but then apologize if they swore in front of me. I find that condescending and othering.

      If I occasionally, thoughtfully swear at the right times in front of many of those men then they often feel like they can speak in front of me the same as to their male coworkers. Under the right circumstances I would even recommend that a well placed swear is the right thing to do to fit in.

      1. Chinook*

        R, you bring up a great point in how to subtly adhere to, while at the same time shifting, cutlural norms. In the industry you described, men were expected to “watch their tongue” in front of “ladies” who are not normally part of their group. By subtly dropping an f-bomb or ins ome other way showing you are “one of them” (I do it by pointing out I married an infanteer and nothing they coud say would shock me), you are shifting the cultural norm to include women. Fair or not, that is something that takes time and is necessary to pave the road for others behind us.

        That being said, I still like the idea of saving swear words for casual conversation or periods of intense emotion where they slip out because there is no other word that quite covers your response (and is probably done in your mother tongue). The later should happen rarely at work. Even those soldiers I tlak about, with their salty language, would never swear in a more formal setting or to their superiors (except, maybe, when complaining about a lack of a Tim Hortons within 150 km from their base. I hear reports that the high ranking official got an earful of “bad words” when he opened that can of worms. Nobody gets between a Canadian soldier and their coffee!)

      2. COT*

        I agree with the effect of the “occasional, thoughtful” swearing. Being a young woman whose sweetness is sometimes misread as innocence, people apologize for swearing in front of me even if they readily swear in front of others. It can set a tone that I’m too young or naive to handle the work, when the truth is anything but. I don’t have a sailor mouth, but letting people hear a mild curse come out of my mouth on occasion can help me gain credibility and trust from the right group (if they themselves swear, that is). Sure, I can (and do) prove myself by being great at what I do, but that alone doesn’t always help me integrate into the team culture.

      3. EngineerGirl*

        I’ve had too many senior men who would swear freely in front of other men but then apologize if they swore in front of me. I find that condescending and othering.

        It’s how they were raised. Taking offense at such a trivial thing is unwise. Save the offense for the real battles. If they apologize simply say “We’re teammates – it’s OK to be yourself around me.”

        1. AnotherAlison*

          That’s a really good way to handle it.

          I’m always caught off guard when my coworkers apologize for a stream of colorful language. I find it particularly awkward when they apologize to me, when I have the mouth of a sailor, and not other male coworkers, some of whom are deeply religious and might find the language offensive.

        2. R*

          I’ve found that if I only say I’m not offended they still apologize every time they swear. If I show that I also swear occasionally then they believe me. Also, I am someone who does swear frequently outside work so I feel natural with an occasional swear at work.

          I’ve had a few occasions when I was left out of critical decisions because someone wasn’t comfortable having a woman at the meeting which is the larger battle I am fighting. I don’t consider fitting in socially to be trivial within my larger goals.

          1. Chinook*

            “I’ve had a few occasions when I was left out of critical decisions because someone wasn’t comfortable having a woman at the meeting which is the larger battle I am fighting. I don’t consider fitting in socially to be trivial within my larger goals.”

            You are right, in cases like yours, fitting in socially is absolutely vital. Those who break down barriers have to show that the world won’t come crashing down just because someone outside the norm is there. It sucks that you may have to behave differently in order to be accepted, but it is part of the process of gradual change.

            On a side note, does anyone know if there are studies out there on how a culture adapts to “outsiders” and vice versa? I am thinking that there has to be a normal process of transition where first the outsider adapts to the norm and the norm adapts to include the best of the outsider. (For example, when Ukranians first immigrated to Alberta, all sorts of negative slurs and attitudes were prelavent but, as they assimilated, the next generation thought nothing of it and now, a few generations later, perogies and kulbasa are as Albertan as bison meat and saskatoon berries).

            1. Lily*

              Outsiders are “tokens” until about 30-40%. Then they start changing the norms and the Insiders can feel pretty threatened by that.

            2. Jamie*

              I’ve been married to a man of 100% Polish descent for almost ten years and it’s just within the last 6 months I’ve allowed kielbasa and pierogis on my acceptable food list.

              Chinook is right – sometimes it just takes time. And sometimes it’s because you tasted an awesome mushroom filled pierogi and not the icky potato/cheese filled ones which I refuse to believe anyone eats voluntarily. Those who claim to are clearly doing penance for some horrible crime.

        3. Sydney*

          “It’s how they were raised.” That’s a terrible reason to allow this behavior. Maybe you don’t care because you’re used to it (and from your other comments, I gather you’re much older than I am), but I do care. I care very much about being treated like I am lesser than because I am a woman. While I don’t advocate being rude or making a big stink, I do think addressing it in the moment is the right thing and is often necessary. I think your line is fine, or, “It’s okay – you should’ve heard me after the Spurs lost.”

          It’s not that I take offense per se; it’s that I want to be treated like any other colleague. As a young, liberal woman in south Texas, I’m subjected to this type of othering behavior every single day (not just because I’m a woman). Letting coworkers belittle you or other people because “it’s how they were raised” helps no one. Little by little, I will crack through to make the world a better place. (Side note, addressing things like this works. I’ve used this technique on several people who didn’t realize they were being rude and exclusionary. They fixed it after I said something.)

          1. EngineerGirl*

            This comes down to “pick your battles”. You only have a limited amount of energy and time in life. You can use it for the big stuff or the little stuff. But you only get so much, so use it wisely.

            And I’m saying this as the first woman in a lot of hard core male dominated areas. But then I had to deal with true equity issues such as assault on the job, sabotage, and pure discrimination. These guys are trying to be nice, so no, I’m not going to attack them.

            1. Cat*

              Who’s talking about attacking them? People are talking about friendly strategies to single that the behavior is unnecessary.

          2. Anonymous*

            I am female, don’t swear at all and I do not take offense when people apologize for swearing in front of me. They are recognizing that I operate at a higher standard than they do. I would never, ever, ever betray my values to “fit in”.

            I cannot see how using gutter language could possibly be considered “making the world a better place”. Bring people up with you, don’t lower yourself to them.

            1. Chinook*

              Normally I would agree with you that using gutter language doesn’t make the world a better place but, like anything, there are exceptions. When someone is a trailblazer, “bringing people up to your level” would be seen as condescending and counterproductive to both you and those like you. As someone else mentioned, others may choose not to work with because they don’t want to watch their language or be judged on their word choice. That doesn’t mean you need to swear (in fact, you can set an example without pointing it out) but it is still useful to point out that it doesn’t bother you. It is MUCH easier to change a culture from the inside than from the outside.

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It’s worth noting that there’s not widespread agreement that profanity “lowers people” or that people who don’t use it are “operating at a higher standard.” Plenty of people don’t see profane language that way (and profanity appears in the work of some of our best writers, etc.). I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind, but it would be a mistake to assume a universal standard on this.

              1. Jamie*

                Thanks for saying this. I so rarely swear at work (under my breath alone in my office doesn’t count) but I don’t have an issue with it and I’ve been known to say a bad word….or a hundred…and I certainly don’t think those who don’t are superior.

                Just like the old saying that people who swear do so because they don’t have the vocabulary to express themselves. Well, I have quite and extensive vocabulary and sometimes the exact word I’m looking for starts with f.

                1. tcookson*

                  I have quite and extensive vocabulary and sometimes the exact word I’m looking for starts with f.

                  +10 LOL

              2. Anonymous*

                When we had our most recent Respect in the Workplace type training, the language that you use at work was discussed. The trainers cited studies that workplaces that tolerated foul language were also workplaces with the highest levels of harrassment issues. It was a side comment, not the focus of the training and it was months ago so I may not remember exactly, but I do have the impression that studies have shown a relationship between language and behavior.

                On principle, I am offended by the attitude of “fit in at all costs”. I remember a high school friend horrified that I wasn’t go9ing to drink in college. You HAD to drink in college – otherwise you wouldn’t fit in! I didn’t drink in college and I don’t drink now. If that means I don’t “fit in”, I am fine with it.

                Let me put it another way. Suppose you were a vegetarian and were getting advice that you had to eat meat because otherwise you wouldn’t “fit in”. How would you react?

        4. Anon*

          Just because it’s how they were raised doesn’t mean it’s not othering and condescending.

          1. Deedee*

            These people were raised with the concept that it was showing respect to a woman to apologize for swearing in front of them. From their point of view they are not being condescending, they are showing respect. I think it would be respectful to them to comment in a friendly manner that you are not bothered by swearing and that you would prefer that they not apologize to you. Do you ever wonder about when you are older and what you were raised to believe is polite is offensive to the younger generation? Wouldn’t you prefer to be dealt with in a friendly manner?

      4. Anonymous*

        I agree actually. I have often ‘purposely’ inserted a curse word or two into my conversation, if it seems that it would help that person ‘relate’ to me more. As a female in an almost entirely male dominated profession (which tends to frown on people considered too ‘proper’ for this sort of work), it was a necessary coping strategy, that has now (for better or worse) become a bit of a habit…and I absolutely think that it will actually hurt (not help) your career if you don’t seem to ‘fit in’. I have had men refuse to work with me because they didn’t want to have to watch what they say, until I talked to them and made them feel more comfortable…say its unfair all you like, but unfortunately that’s the world we live in…

    3. littlemoose*

      I would extrapolate the need to speak professionally beyond just not swearing (much). It all depends on your workplace (see tip #1), but avoiding too much slang or too many colloquialisms can be important, especially for younger people. It can be difficult for young people to be taken seriously in the workplace, and calling things “awesome,” or saying “totes” instead of “totally,” is not a good way to demonstrate professionalism.

  3. Yup*

    Great topic! It’s a tough one to explain because so much of it comes down to attitude, and cultural/professional norms differ.

    If I had to add one that’s not on your list, it would be probably be “Doing your work well all the time, not just the stuff you enjoy or find easy.” This stands out when I think about the people I really respect as professionals — the fact that I can count on them to take care of their responsibilities, not just the shiny fun prestige pieces. They commit to doing a good job consistently, even when it’s a task they hate or the bosses aren’t watching or the going gets tough.

    1. snarkalupagus*

      +1, and add to this: manage your time yourself on an everyday basis. I’m having to coach someone on prioritization–not only how to juggle his work (and ask for clarification on priorities when they conflict), but also how to motivate himself to do the important things he doesn’t want to do as well as the important things he enjoys doing. Doing that, every single day, on your own, is part of being professional.

  4. Dana*

    Great list! I’d also add “take responsibility for your own career development.” Although some companies do a great job of developing their employees, no one is there to hand hold you through your career growth. It’s up to you to direct your path by taking on new projects, courses, and networking :)

  5. COT*

    I would add, “Don’t bring your personal problems to work.” Keep the details about your personal life to a minimum until you can assess whether or not people share that kind of stuff in your workplace. And drama should always be left at home.

    Under other aspects of office culture to mimic, I’d also add dress/grooming and workspace neatness.

    1. The IT Manager*

      I think this is a great addition. No personal drama at work.

      IMO this would also include family and friends interupting you at work regularly with long phone calls. I am thinking of a few particularly egarious violators in my past, but generally when you’re at work you should be working, and in a lot of places your co-workers can hear your entire side of the conversation so we know how long you spent talking to family instead of working.

        1. Jamie*

          Yes – when can this stop?

          Seriously, is everyone so freaking important that they need to be in constant contact with their loved ones all day every day.

          I love my husband but a quick call about dinner or scheduling once in a while does it for me. The last thing he’d need is a running commentary from me as I go about my day.

          It would make it so very redundant when I come home and whine about it.

      1. Jessa*

        And take responsibility for following UP if your company DOES offer career stuff. Just because they offer it doesn’t mean they’re going to stand over your shoulder and give you a list of things to do and courses you can take. Make a list of the stuff they offer that you want to do. Sit down with the person responsible for organising it and find out how you get to do it. Then check back and schedule the stuff in the order you need to.

        Don’t expect them to do it all FOR you. This also includes CEUs and things like that and licencing stuff if they pay for that. YOU need to keep track of when your stuff expires and how many units you need to take to renew by what date. You need to let them know in enough time to schedule you and organise payment. You need to know what their payment rules ARE. Do they need 3 mos notice?

      2. Liz in the City*

        +1,000 on this!!! At OldJob, one woman who sat behind me spent an hour on the phone with daughter #1, daughter #2 and husband talking about daughter #1’s yeast infection and subsequent doctor’s appointments, medical needs and then her own next obgyn appt. It was SO inappropriate for an office conversation, I can’t even tell you. And it happened at least 4 years ago and I can still hear it in my head.

      3. Anony*

        Completely agree! I’m a receptionist and one of our manager’s gets a call from his wife many times a day. It got to the point that I’m counting now and the maximum one day was 9 calls. There are always complaints that he is behind in his work and missing deadlines, I’m pretty sure we would all be the same if we were taking 9 calls from home every day!

        1. Newsy*

          UGH, yeah. I had a manager once where that would happen a lot. We frequently worked after hours as a team (newspaper) and because the receptionist was gone for the day, our small after-hours team took turns answering the phone.

          It got so bad with the manager’s wife calling that we finally got together as a team and told him we would no longer answer the calls because it was disrupting our work. We were on very tight deadlines to get the paper to the printer by midnight so they could have it printed and ready for delivery the next morning. There was no way we could continue to field 10+ calls in a four-hour span from his wife and get our work done.

      4. The Other Dawn*

        I agree with leaving the family drama at home and also the numerous phone calls.

        A former co-worker of mine, her husband would call her at least 6 times a day. And it wasn’t to talk about the kids or anything like that. I’ve never understood the need to talk to your SO that many times during working hours. You just saw him two hours ago and you’ll see him again in another six!! What could there possibly be to talk about that many times a day and why can’t it wait until 5 PM?!

        1. Collarbone High*

          Yes! I worked with a woman who would call her fiance once an hour and they would each recap everything that had happened at work in the past hour. I never understood what they talked about at dinner, but I didn’t want to ask, because I didn’t want a 90-minute rehash of their mealtime conversations.

          1. Sascha*

            One of the managers in my office calls his wife at least once a day, talks loudly to her, and then gets the toddler daughter on the phone and baby talks to her. It’s grating. He has an office and will not close the door when taking these phone calls, so everyone on the hall can hear it. He closes the door for every other phone call, but it’s like he really wants us to know that he has a wife and daughter.

          2. Jamie*

            Should I be offended that no one in my life has ever cared about me enough to want a recap of my life, hour by hour.

            Maybe my relationships are missing something.

  6. Mike C.*

    It’s not OK to call in sick because you’re hung over, or because you stayed up late last night watching soccer, or because you just don’t feel like coming in.

    You write this just as the USMNT beat El Salvador 5-1 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup!

    1. Chinook*

      “or because you stayed up late last night watching soccer”

      Ummm…what about at Stanley Cup final in one of the western time zones? Is that legit?



      1. The IT Manager*

        It is, however, okay to show up tired after the SuperBowl because that’s a once a year event.

        People in gthe eastern time zone have to suck up the ridiculously late start and therefore late end for Monday and Thursday night football simply to accomidate those people on the west coast. Stupid California.

        1. Mike C.*

          At least you can watch Formula 1 at a reasonable hour. If it weren’t for the DVR I’d be watching races at 5am on Sunday morning!

        2. PuppyKat*

          And us Californians have to deal with all those Monday/Thursday night football and World Series games that start at 5:00 pm while we’re still at work. So yeah, suck it up, East Coast! :-)

          1. The IT Manager*

            Man … I grew up in the central time zone and lived in the mountain for my first job. I hate the Eastern “prime time” of 8pm – 11pm.

            The worst though trying watch American football while living in the middle east – middle of the night!

        1. The IT Manager*

          You must be Canadian. :) In the USA, the Super Bowl is a national event; unfortunately for the other professional sports even their championships are mostly of interest only in the geographic areas the two teams are from.

          IMO though having a single game for a championship makes it a lot easier to be a must see event, even though you can totally argue that it’s less of a true means of finding the best team.

    2. Houston*

      LOL! When the Astros were in the World Series here in Houston a few years ago, the whole city was staying up late into the night watching the games as they went into overtime. For the final game, it went into 2 a.m. as I recall.

      I personally know several people who arrived late the next morning or called in with “I was at/watching the game” and their bosses had no problem with it because it was sort of a city-wide support our team effort. It was one of the very few times that watching the game was a legitimate excuse. :)

      1. littlemoose*

        Yep. Our baseball team had a thrilling World Series game with extra innings that ended after midnight on a Thursday night. Everybody was tired at the office the next day, but nobody seemed to mind. (It helped that we won.)

  7. Tiff*

    Don’t cuss anyone out at work.

    No showing off your circus-worthy flexibility.

    No home life TMI.

    No soliciting staff to follow your twitter campaign, then loudly mocking the tweets on their personal timelines.

    No calling co-workers “stupid” or the r-word. That’s stupid.

    Sigh….I wish I wasn’t just referencing one person with this list.

    1. Del*

      Oh man, seconding the “No TMI” rule. One of my office mates (sadly, my next-door cube neighbor) violates this CONSTANTLY and it’s really unpleasant and embarrassing.

    2. Julie*

      Your list reminded me of a colleague who showed us his tattoo on his upper thigh! We were in the staff room, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but when he asked if we wanted to see his tattoo and started unbuckling his belt, I didn’t know what to expect! It was a cute cartoon of Eeyore, but still – in order for us to see it, he had to pull his trousers down past his underwear. It still makes me laugh that he felt comfortable enough to do that at work!

    3. Julie*

      On the other side of TMI – I have been very lucky to have office-mates who completely ignore any personal phone calls that happen within their hearing – like it never happened. It’s pretty uncomfortable when you have to take a personal call, and your office-mate starts talking about it the second you hang up. I know the solution is to take the calls outside the office, but this was pre-cell phone days.

    4. FreeThinkerTX*

      Don’t show coworkers pictures of yourself in drag, and then solicit money from them to pay for your breast implants. And especially don’t do it if your public persona is that of a redneck cowboy.

      1. Liz*

        “And especially don’t do it if your public persona is that of a redneck cowboy” How does that make it different?

        1. FreeThinkerTX*

          Because he portrayed himself as a skirt-chasing, backwards, hillbilly of a good ol’ boy. Which is about the closest you could get to being the absolute *opposite* of a cross-dressing transgendered person who has always wanted to be a “feminine” woman (his words, not mine) who strips for a living. It was such a strange discontinuity that it was like we had no idea who the real co-worker was.

          And the pictures he showed us went from him in SFW drag (makeup, wig, falsies, a dress & heels) to. . . ah. . . him still sporting the stuffed bra & heels but no other clothing. Eeeew.

          And before anyone jumps in to tell me I’m slandering transgendered people, this guy’s problem had more to do with an exhibitionist sex addiction than with gender. If it were a woman getting her kicks by displaying herself to her coworkers, it would still be squick-worthy and wrong, wrong, wrong.

      2. littlemoose*

        Soliciting money from coworkers for breast implants?? What! Next time AAM does a roundup of egregious coworker behavior, this must be included.

        1. FreeThinkerTX*

          Yeah, he set up a website where we could see more of his NSFW pictures and “donate” to his booby fund. (Again, his words, not mine).

  8. Julie*

    This may fall under “Take work seriously,” but I think it’s important to do what you say you’re going to do and do it when you said you would do it. If it isn’t going to happen, be sure to tell the people involved. Tell them the reason and tell them when it will be completed. AAM has mentioned this in other articles, but I’d like to add it to the “professionalism” list because it’s an important one for me. I usually don’t have trouble meeting deadlines, but I don’t always remember what I have said I would do, and then, of course, it doesn’t happen. I have to make myself write everything down, so I don’t forget something that I promised someone.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Me too; I LOVE Outlook calendar reminders. I even do those at home using VueMinder Lite. Haven’t quite mastered the app on my phone yet…

      1. FreeThinkerTX*

        *Everything* goes into my phone first! And if I’ve promised to do something while, say, at a meeting where I’m writing stuff down, I pause to put a reminder on my phone’s calendar that may say only, “Do item on page 3 of notes from 7/23/13.” Heck, I’ve paid all this money for an electronic brain, might as well put it to good use!

        1. Elizabeth West*

          LOL well I’ll get it eventually. It’s not a work phone, so I’m keeping work stuff off it (except my boss’s phone number, in case of emergency).

    2. Lily*

      This is SO important. I know too many people who think that stating their intention is enough without doing the work.

  9. Chinook*

    Can I add that there is a difference between being a “professional” (i.e. someone with a professional designation and answerable to a professional body) and “being professional.” The later applies to everyone who is paid to work (and probably should as well to volunteers who work with paid staff.). Having been a professional and a non-professional (but in no way an amateur), there is a difference when it comes to responsibilities and expectations in that professionals are held to a higher standard but that doesn’t mean that everyone who works shouldn’t try to meet those standards.

    1. E.T.*

      This reminds me of that scene in “The Big Bang Theory”:

      Penny: I’m a professional actress.
      Leonard: Oh, you’ve had an acting job where you got paid?
      Penny: That is not the definition of professional.
      Leonard: Actually, it kind of is…

  10. Mike C.*

    More seriously than my soccer post, I think there’s an important issue that was hinted at but needs to be discussed specifically – professional ethics. There are times in your career when you know something really bad is happening and wonder if you should say something or stick your neck out or report it to a higher authority.

    I don’t mean to sound melodramatic here, but in the industries I’ve worked in, if people take shortcuts people will be injured, maimed or will die. Not just my coworkers, but our customers and in turn the general public – our friends and families.

    That means if I see someone who is ignoring safety rules I’m not going to set up an appointment with my manager to speak to their manager, I’m going to stop what is going on until they they are able to do their job safely. I don’t care if someone thinks I was “too forceful” or “said some naughty words”, I’ll take that risk over someone’s mom or dad not coming home at the end of shift. That means when someone in a planning meeting is discussing how they are going to subvert and falsify important data, they get yelled at and reported up the chain.

    Not only is it important to speak out to prevent harm, but it’s also important to speak out because it improves the culture of your company and makes it easier for others to speak out as well. It shows to others around you that certain things are simply not acceptable, and prevents harmful practices from becoming normalized. Sure, it’s never easy to speak out, but given the stakes anyone who calls themselves a professional must be willing to do the right thing.

  11. Anlyn*

    #7 can occasionally overlap with #1…if you are non-exempt and your culture frowns on working late to get overtime, then staying late would be considered unprofessional, since you’re not adhering to your company’s wishes.

    For #9, my response would be yes, but be sure about what you’re taking on. When I first started, I enthusiastically volunteered to be the office supply coordinator (for lack of a better word; we didn’t have an office manager, so I just jumped online and started ordering). I HATE IT. Hate, hate, hate it. The system is terrible, there are multiple levels of approvals, I have to justify ordering PENS….it just really sucks. So definitely go above and beyond, but be careful what you choose to go above and beyond for, because you may find yourself handling it for eternity.

    1. APinDC*

      The best professional advice I’ve gotten so far is “be careful what you get good at.” I have generally found that to be sound advice, especially for women, who get a lot of the “but you should make the coffee/arrange the birthday party/do the admin work because you’re just so good at it!”

      1. AnonAdmin*

        +1 I’m female, in a job with a lot of responsibilities that I climbed a hard ladder to get to, and I started as an assistant. Now I tell people I don’t drink coffee and therefore can’t make it; plan terrible parties; etc. Just because I have boobs doesn’t make me Julie, Social Director. (Sorry, it’s a rant with me..)

  12. Anonymous*

    What many are discussing above is ‘effectiveness’ in a particualr environment and not ‘professionalism.’ Anyone described as ‘professional’ is invariably seen even in the back of the minds of those doing the describing as a nice, fluffy doormat. Being ‘effective’ more often than not means the opposite.

    1. Meg*

      What? I have never heard of people using the word “professional” in that context. Maybe you had a bad experience at some point, but I can’t honestly think of a single time I’ve heard someone using it in that way.

    2. Marina*

      I have nice doormat coworkers and believe me, I don’t think of them as being professional. It’s unprofessional to not speak up when there are problems.

    3. P*


      …What? I have literally never heard professionalism described like that. Honestly, the only explanation I have for this is that you’ve been in some sort of an assistant/lower-level role, said or did things you didn’t have the authority to appropriately say or do, and were (justifiably) told that you were being unprofessional.

    4. Rana*

      Wow. All I can say is that I’d not want to work for your employer, if being a responsible, thoughtful co-worker is viewed as being a “doormat.”

  13. Lillian*

    One I would like to add to the list: knowing how to respond when you don’t know the answer to a question that someone has asked. It seems a simple thing, but so many people get this wrong.

    I used to work in healthcare, and one of the golden rules we were taught was to never answer a question from anyone, especially a patient, with just “I don’t know”.

    In cases where the answer is available but you don’t know it straight off, you say you’ll check and get back to them – then you check, and you get back to them.

    In cases where the answer really is unknown or uncertain (this *always* crops up in healthcare), you admit the uncertainty and then you explain the known factors, the unknown factors, how these could interact to affect the outcome, what the options are etc. In other words, give people information that they can use to make a decision rather than just shrugging and saying “I don’t know”.

    The worst response I ever got when I asked someone a question they didn’t know the answer to: “I didn’t study this”. As in, he hadn’t learnt it in college, therefore he did not know the answer. And no, he wasn’t a college intern.

    1. Brton3*

      Yes absolutely! This is good. This is something that has really marked the difference in my impression of other people’s professionalism. “I’m not sure, I’ll see what I can find out.”

    2. Twentymilehike*

      Arghh. I have had Multiple doctors say this to me and it is So frustrating. I asked my doctor about the side effects of a medication I was taking and her response was, “I don’t know anything about that” And then dropped it. That it is a really good way to loose patients.

    3. Anon*

      I work in healthcare doing education for processes, policies, electronic medical records software, etc. so maybe this is a different side of things. But not knowing the answer is common because crucial decisions are often not made until the last minute. Saying “I don’t know ( with minimal explanation)” is perfectly fine, actually preferable to explaining those known and unknown factors, because you can count on at least one person thinking you were providing a solid answer then using that misinformation to educate the staff.

      I guess it all goes back to recognizing cultural differences among workplaces.

      1. Lillian*

        I agree, I think the amount of explanation has to depend in large part on who your audience is. The thing I was trying to point out was that ONLY saying “I don’t know” isn’t usually helpful.

    4. Sascha*

      You bring up a good point. I think a lot of people are afraid to admit they don’t know the answer because they don’t have strategies like these. They will instead make something up, or get defensive, or whatever. I think saying “I don’t know” is perfectly fine, as long as you follow it up with something helpful, like you mentioned.

  14. VictoriaHR*

    I think this is a great list!

    In regards to #2, from my own personal experience as a woman approaching middle age (but still in my 30’s – barely – dammit!), I’ve seen too many young people – women especially, but men more rarely – sabotaging their professional reputation by trying to appear standoffish or cool. It’s not hard to make eye contact and smile/nod at people when you walk by them. If you walk around purposely avoiding eye contact and not at least smiling at people who greet you or smile at you, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

    I know there’s a lot of people now who say they have “crippling anxiety” or overwhelming shyness or whatnot, but really, if you want to seem professional, get over it. Go to therapy or whatever you need to do to work on it. Otherwise you’re going to have a really hard time moving forward in your career. That’s my personal opinion.

    1. Hare*

      Anxiety disorder is a serious mental health problem, not a thing one can simply ‘get over’. It’s an illness, not a personality trait.

      1. ChristineSW*

        Agreed. To be clear: Yes, going to therapy to work on the anxiety (or any other mental health concern) is highly recommended if that’s what it’ll take to improve your professionalism. However, you don’t just “get over” it; you learn how to manage it. Sure, anxiety can decrease as you learn coping skills and gain more self-confidence; but it doesn’t always simply go away entirely.

        1. Julie*

          YMMV, but sometimes it doesn’t “go away” at all, but you can get better at working around it or being friendly/saying hello and smiling in spite of it.

  15. Brton3*

    I’d like to add that being professional means trying solve problems and resolve conflicts rather than escalating or adding to them.

    In my career so far I have had one direct boss and one boss’s boss who acted like it was their job to escalate every problem into a huge disaster and needle every small conflict into a big problem. It was a way to create drama, which they liked for some reason, and in a way it made them look better when the problem was finally solved (after way more time, and with much more heartburn, that was necessary). The more I consider it, the more people I can think of who seemed to only be able to push conflicts and add to them, rather than calmly, positively, helpfully contributing to solutions.

  16. Editor*

    Be discreet. A professional does not tell a client about the infighting in the office or talk loudly in a public place about confidential work details. There are specific rules for different professions, of course, since teachers aren’t supposed to give out details on their students, lawyers aren’t supposed to talk about one client to another, social workers aren’t supposed to identify clients and reveal information, and so on. But if you work for a company undergoing a takeover or financial problems or some other upheaval, revealing department budget information or speculating that your employer will go out of business or other conversation that may drive business partners or clients away is inappropriate and unprofessional. Always.

  17. Marina*

    I think being professional boils down to not taking things personally. Your office dress code is not a restriction on your personal style. Being polite is not censorship. Criticism is not about you, it’s about your work. Nothing at work is about you, it’s all about your work.

    1. Lora*

      I kinda disagree–I’ve seen “it’s just business, don’t take it personally” used as way to excuse horrible workplace bullying. It is personal, for lots of folks their career is a large part of their identity. Which makes sense, considering how much of your life gets spent there.

  18. Anonymous*

    Just a picky thing, the second paragraph should say “Without further ado…” instead of “adieu”.

  19. Anonymous*

    An extension of #2 – don’t talk down about other people or departments, especially if you are a manager talking to your staff. My current boss does this constantly, and it reflects so, so, so badly on him.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Oh amen!! I hate it when managers do that. I am not interested in issues the manager is having with other team members, other departments, their own boss, etc. This is work, not therapy!

  20. Editor*

    A professional approach to a job — any job — includes learning about the business in general. This was harder in the old days, but with the Internet, it is much easier. While there are plenty of jobs in libraries that aren’t classified as professional — shelving books or working at the circulation desk, for instance — if the worker learns about libraries and understands what good service is, that is a professional approach. If a person works in the chocolate teapot business, and learns all about chocolate and all about teapots even though the person is in IT or accounting or HR, that is a professional approach. If a person works to improve their skills — an admin who becomes expert in the software used at work or a writer who learns more about editing or a factory worker who learns more about safety — that is a professional approach.

    One does not have to be a professional (in terms of entering a profession where licensing is required, such as medicine) to take a serious and professional approach to any job where improving knowledge and skills can be done with occasional or regular sessions with Google and an interest and curiosity about work-related topics. Reading blogs about the industry, reading Ask a Manager, watching YouTube tutorials, and doing other research can provide a broader perspective about a job that makes it more satisfying.

  21. Editor*

    A professional is not a martyr to the job. Following through on tasks is important, as Alison’s example of staying the extra hour to get the newsletter done shows.

    But being a workaholic doesn’t make a person professional. In an ideal world, no firm’s culture would undermine work-life balance — and I think it is important for all workers to aspire to balance, even in demanding professions. One of my family members was commuting into NYC when something (flooding in the tunnels?) took the trains out for a day and people ended up sleeping on the steps of public buildings because they didn’t have transportation. The next day, workers were encouraged to stay home while things got straightened out. In one television report, some lawyer was shown coming into work in Manhattan from the suburbs, and he basically told the reporter that anyone who skipped work that day was a slacker. Wrong. It is unprofessional to ignore public safety announcements, and a business is unprofessional to require workers to show up when public safety officials want nonessential workers to stay home. It is unprofessional to have an inflated sense of your own importance in relation to public safety and the common good.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Good point. If it’s truly dangerous to go to work, it’s not worth going. Any manager who would expect employees to risk life and limb to get there is the unprofessional one.

      I got so mad at OldJob once–we had a winter storm, with plenty of warning that it would hit right at rush hour, and numerous broadcasts about hazardous travel. They forced us to stay til closing that day, and it took me two hours to get home. It took one of those hours to get out of the industrial park! People on the other side of town took three hours to get home.

      1. Editor*

        One of the things I liked about living in upstate New York was that the county sheriff could shut the roads down for nonessential travel. So businesses that wanted employees to come in were blocked when the sheriff decided the weather made the roads unsafe.

        The other states I’ve lived in did not provide the sheriff with those powers (in one state, they’re an officer of the court and in another they’re basically a tax collector). I think every county benefits from having someone who can make the decision to limit travel in times of emergency.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Yeah, that would be nice. We don’t get that amount of snow here, unfortunately–or if we do, it’s all in one day and mostly gone the next. I still don’t want to drive in sleet and freezing rain, darn it.

  22. The Other Dawn*

    #9: Yes! There’s nothing worse, to me, than someone who says, “It’s not my job.” Or, “I don’t get paid enough to do X.” Guess who won’t be getting any promotions?

  23. E.R*

    I was recently explaining to a younger friend that being professional often means there is a gap between “this is how I feel” and “this is how I am going to act ” (this also goes for “being an adult”)

    Stressed out by the workload? The professionals I respect the most dont let it show (much) and they certainly don’t take it out on their coworkers and underlings. Hate your coworker? If you are true professional, nobody is going to know you feel that way.

    It’s an admittedly high bar, and I fall short on it more often that I care to admit.

    1. Sascha*

      You are spot on! I’ve known so many people that think they have to act on every feeling they have, and inevitably cause drama, get fired or rage quit, then start a new job and do the cycle all over again.

  24. Cheryl*

    As an adult with Aspergers, I seem to always be on the other side of “professional”. I can either speak with the customers so that they understand me or I can use words in the “scripts” that they do not understand.

    I work in a call center environment dealing with collections and tax laws and as with all issues surrounding money, people tend to get a bit upset from time to time. I am good at explaining things in layman terms or offering analogies to better understand a concept, a rule or a law, but every so often someone accuses me of being rude. I have studied this ad nauseum trying to figure out how to resolve it. One thing I have noticed is that it always seems to be the older poeple that claim I am rude. For instance, I had a woman talking over me one day and I finally asked her to please stop talking over me as I cannot hear her when she does that, nor does she hear what I am trying to explain. She asked for my name, manager’s name and stated she was 74 years old and wasn’t going to be treated in this manner and I was rude. So I learned even the term “rude” is subjective.

    What I now do with management is tell them specifically that they have to give examples to me for me to understand what they are trying to convey. Telling me I have to be professional isn’t helpful to me.

    1. Ruffingit*

      I’d argue that everyone should give concrete examples of what they mean because, as demonstrated here, one person’s professional is another person’s reason to be fired.

      It would help everyone if someone would say just as an example “I need you to be more professional in the way you dress. In this office, skirts should be no higher than the top of your knee.” Or, for a man: “Your suit pants should not be wrinkled and you need to wear a white shirt with a tie every day.”

      That’s just one example and I use dress code for it because professional dress can be very subjective. Concrete examples would be helpful in many areas.

      1. Cassie*

        Ditto – I work in a university and the faculty are starting to set up rubrics for their courses. I know other depts on campus use them (I remember from when I was a student) but our dept apparently didn’t.

        I really want to do this in terms of the writing that some of our clerical staff have to do. Like:

        1) Acceptable: minimal typos, conveys message clearly, minimal revisions by supervisor, uses appropriate tone for medium (printed report, Facebook, email newsletter).
        2) Unacceptable: riddled with typos, does not convey the message clearly or conveys the wrong message, requires major revision by supervisor, inappropriate tone for the given medium (too casual or too formal).

        It would also help when supervisors have to write performance evals.

    2. Lily*

      Another reason to ask for examples is that the manager may have been very upset and exaggerated when he made the accusation.

  25. Cassie*

    I’d like to add “being direct” about problems. I keep running into people (faculty and staff alike) who skirt issues. They’ll go around complaining to everybody other than the person they’re having issues with, and nothing ever gets resolved.

    Want every document printed out on rose pink paper? Simply tell people. It’s not good enough to just sigh loudly every time someone hands you a white printout. We are not mind readers. And stop being worried about making someone mad (especially over a minor request) – if it bugs you enough that you keep harping about it, just bring it up.

    I get it – we all have to work together and we (mostly) don’t want to tick anyone off unnecessarily. But holding stuff in doesn’t help the situation.

    1. Windchime*

      I came here to say the same thing! To use Cassie’s example: Don’t say, “It might have been more acceptable on the rose pink paper.” That sounds like you are stating your opinion (to me), not giving direction. Instead, say, “Please print these on the rose pink paper next time; Ms. Boss has asked us to do it that way.” Easy, and now we are all on the same page.

      I used to get so frustrated when people would all talk in polite, vague generalities in meetings. I would sometimes come out and not even understand if a decision had been made, nor what that decision was. I’ve learned to ask for clarification now and that helps. But when I hear things like, “Maybe consider regrouping and reviewing the paradigm?”…..well, that sounds like a super vague suggestion to me, and not direction or instructions.

  26. Cele*

    The best way to ruin your professionalistic image in the workplace is to utter the words “this is not my job”. Fair enough – some of the stuff that people might ask you to do is not your job (restocking printer with paper, changing ink cartridges, cleaning up after yourself in the kitchen, carrying mail to your department) but you’re still expected to do it!

  27. Joanna Reichert*

    There are a lot of things I view as ‘professional behavior’ that really are just good ol’ manners.

    ~ Don’t ‘talk over’ or interrupt when someone’s having a conversation with you. Not a monologue – which you’re free to interrupt to bring to an end point or escape from – but a back n’ forth conversation within which you can’t wait your turn to speak.

    ~ Don’t call a man and a woman ‘you guys’. It reeks of immaturity and a familiarity that not everyone is comfortable with. (Heck, I’m only 29 and I’M not comfortable with it.) Go for the classic ‘folks’ if you can’t come up with a different yet polite way to address them. Really more of a retail/hospitality thing, but still.

    ~ Be aware of what constitutes good grammer. “Aksed” is not a word, but “asked” is. “Ain’t” doesn’t belong in your repertoire unless you’re working the Lumberjack Feud or Dollywood near the Smoky Mountains. :) And your written prose should consist of the knowledge of too/to/two, accept/except, affect/effect, etc. etc. and spelling in general.

    ~ “Excuse me, Betty” or “Pardon me, James” vs. “Hey!” My name’s not Hey and I don’t know who or what you’re shouting at.

    ~ Gossip and general behind-the-back talk. Just don’t. Just don’t. Disengage from the flame wars and change the subject when the crap flares up. If there’s no fuel, there’s not fire, right?

    ~ If you’re naturally shy and apprehensive of talking with people, especially face-to-face, then practice. Practice, practice, practice. With a friend, with a mirror, with your labrador retriever. Just practice holding intermittent eye contact and slowing down your words so that you can make yourself clearly understood. Fake that confidence until you no longer have to fake it.

    ~ No matter what industry you’re in, one of the best gifts you can give is the gift of listening and service. Stop and be engaged when someone’s talking to you. Offer a helping hand anywhere and everywhere. The point is not sucking up; the point is to spread knowledge, help others and frankly spread good karma. Negativism is an easy path to walk down but a b*tch to crawl back from. At the very least be helpful and you’ll always win.

    This turned out more like a self-help pamphlet LOL but it’s just the first few things I thought of. :)

  28. mortorph*

    #6- Alison, I’ve read some of the your posts where you criticize the lack of writing skills in young professionals – especially when sending in a cover letter. All I can picture with #6 are cover letters you have received with text message abbreviations with no punctuations.

    ‘Dear Alison,
    Plz accept my resume for yur job opening U will <3 what I have to offer your org"

  29. Eva*

    Number 6 is a bad problem where I work- we have a lot of people who are working their first office job and who attempt to apply Number 1 to their speech by using phrases and words they don’t actually know the meaning of very well. They end up saying things like “Currently all operators are busy at this time” or “I appreciate for that information.”

    To be honest, if you don’t know what a word means, you can probably skip using it. If you get it wrong it won’t make you sound more polished than plain english without any slang.

    Also, I find it sad that often number 1 means pretending strongly to be someone you’re not for some of us. Obviously you shouldn’t do things that might offend someone at work but there is a point in many offices where it slides into groupthink.

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