What Is Professionalism?

Ross WadeRoss Wade, Director of Career Development, Elon University’s Student Professional Development Center
Personal blog: http://mrrosswade.wordpress.com/
LinkedIn URL: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rosswade
Twitter: @rrwade
Blogs from Ross Wade.

I was recently asked to present to Elon University students participating in the Executive Internship program (an internship for Elon undergraduate students interested in pursuing careers in higher education). I agreed without a second thought, assuming talking about professionalism would be a breeze. Turns out it’s not. I struggled to put this presentation together. What is professionalism? What is a professional? How did I become a professional? Workspaces can include professionals from four different generations—does each generation define professionalism differently? How does race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, etc. tie into professionalism? Yep…I fell right down that rabbit hole.

I decided to start with reflecting on my own “professional evolution.” What have I learned over the past 20 years? How did I learn it? Where? My foundational experience, regarding professionalism, was as an intern for a documentary production company. I was unpaid, worked 60+ hours a week, was challenged and pushed out of my comfort zone everyday, and I LOVED it. Through this experience, and over the next few years, I created (though at the time unconsciously) a set of rules for professionalism for myself:

  1. Be kind
  2. Never come with problems, only come with solutions
  3. Always work hard
  4. Think before you react
  5. Before asking others, try to figure it out on your own
  6. Think smarter not harder
  7. Recognize feedback, in all the ways it comes to you, and use it to your advantage
  8. Be authentic

These rules have always worked for me, but I wondered what others have learned over their careers. So I asked my contacts on LinkedIn, and received over 100 comments in less than 48 hours. Below is a list of the top five:

  • Be on time
  • Be curious, a life-long learner
  • Be honest, and do what you say you are going to do…have integrity
  • Treat others with respect, patience, and kindness
  • Be authentic

Next, I did some research on generational differences in the workplace (Lindsey Baker’s dissertation on intergenerational knowledge transfer has some great information). I discovered that professionalism is comprised of three key principles: motivation, work ethic, and communication—each generation bringing their own versions of these principles to the workplace.

In a nutshell, there are some differences that can lead to conflicts when it comes to “professionalism.” For example, a Generation X worker is more likely to be intrinsically motivated, whereas a Baby Boomer worker is more likely to be externally motivated (promotions, awards).

What about work ethic? A Millennial worker may feel their contribution to their employer is not based on time spent in the office, whereas a Baby Boomer worker may think a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday reflects a strong work ethic and professionalism.

Communication? A Generation X worker may be more inclined to using text or e-mail to communicate, whereas a Baby Boomer worker may prefer face-to-face discussions and formal meetings.

All this said, employers and employees find great value in working in multigenerational workplaces. Why? Because we can all learn a lot from each other. As a Gen X supervisor, managing a handful of Millennial staffers, it is important for me to remember they may be more extrinsically motivated—so knowing the raise and promotion structure as well as opportunities for professional development is very important to them. This helps me motivate them to do their best work.

Bottom line? Everyone is different, so the quickest and best way to find out is to ask. This information can be gleaned during job interviews or when a worker is newly hired and meeting colleagues and leadership. Asking these types of questions will not only reflect empathy and conscientiousness, but also professionalism.

5 thoughts on “What Is Professionalism?

  1. Thank you for sharing this information. It is important to take many things into consideration. You have provided insight into intergenerational knowledge that will definitely be beneficial and applicable on a daily basis. Debbie Boles

  2. Excellent thoughts on professionalism! This is a key to successful transition from college to the work environment, and true across all majors and disciplines!

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