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What does it mean to be professional?

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By Carly Seely, Vice President of Pension and Investments at FM Group.

During the course of my 20-year career within the wealth management industry, one thing that has changed, and changed quite dramatically, is the way women and men present themselves in a professional environment. Business, as well as the way it is conducted, has certainly changed in many ways, including developments in technology, the introduction of flexi hours and attire being far more business casual. Companies understand that the workforce today is different from the work force 20–30 years ago: employees are looking for more of a work– life balance opposed to being chained to a desk and a slave to their job. However, despite these changes, there is a core foundation that has not changed, and indeed which will never change. It is the foundation of business known as “professionalism”.

If you demonstrate certain aspects of professionalism in the workplace, they will define you and could promote you; but if you don’t, they could lead to demotion and potentially cost you your job.

When I think of professionalism in the corporate world, I think of six characteristics, none of which will ever change:

  1. Appearance
  2. Reliability
  3. Respect
  4. Loyalty
  5. Accountability
  6. Ethics

A lot of people are either oblivious or seem to think the “rules of engagement” in the workplace do not apply to them, but in reality these six characteristics apply to everyone. So the question comes to mind, how do you learn all the aspects of professionalism? Are they skills you learn on the job or a series of scripted or unscripted lessons you learn throughout your younger years?

When I was in year 10 at high school, I completed a 10-week extracurricular programme through my school called “Deportment” (others may know it as “Finishing School”). For two hours after school, one day a week, we were taught how to conduct ourselves with etiquette and social grace. It does sound rather old-fashioned, and at the time I thought it was quite ludicrous; however, in all honesty, they were some of the best lessons I ever learnt. I go to many business dinners and I notice when someone doesn’t know how to use a knife and fork properly, or when they put their elbows on the table.

Let’s face it, how you conduct yourself outside the office has an impact on how you conduct yourself professionally – the two are entwined. How you present yourself to the public in your professional career is going to make a huge difference: your image is your brand and you are representing your company. In the corporate environment, employers are simply looking for an appropriate professional image (they are not looking to see whether you are up on the current fashion trends). The fact is, potential clients are always going to gravitate towards someone who looks more well-kempt and who has taken time to run an iron over their outfit and ensure their clothes are clean.

Being reliable exudes professionalism to both your clients and employer. When you are reliable you are dependable, so you often become a commodity they can’t afford to do without. If you are always calling in sick, not responding to your clients in a timely manner, coming in late to work or not adhering to agreed deadlines, it simply shows that you don’t care. Professional people have excellent time management. Professional people care.

Respect in the workplace is key, both for your colleagues and your clients. You must earn the respect of your colleagues and clients, but you must give them respect unconditionally – it is an unspoken rule. Respect in the workplace is about boundaries, and often one of the greatest challenges is when your colleague becomes your friend and your friend then gets promoted before you do, ending up in you reporting to them. You must respect your company’s decision that they chose the best person for the job, and you should treat your manager with respect regardless of whether they are your friend. Respect in the workplace is one of the pillars of professionalism.

When I think of loyalty, I think of traditional marriage vows: “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part”. No job is perfect, no employer is perfect, and certainly no employee is perfect. However, loyalty is paramount in career development, and if you are job-hopping every few years, it becomes a pattern on your resume. Employers look at the “life span” of an employee. If a competitor was to offer an extra $2,000 per year, would they jump ship or remain loyal to the company?

I am sure we all know someone who blames everyone else for their problems; it’s never them, it’s always someone else who’s to blame. Being accountable for your actions, whether good or bad, is one of the strongest traits of professionalism. Accountability can be looked at in two ways, either being held accountable or being accountable. Professionalism means being accountable for your OWN actions. Accountability is your work ethic, and if you don’t have a good work ethic it will cost you in the long term, perhaps by developing a bad reputation within your industry or being overlooked for promotion.

Are you ethical? Where do you draw the line in the sand? Are you willing to turn a blind eye if it makes your job easier? The easiest way to ruin your reputation is to be known as unethical: it is a career killer. You will never be taken seriously and it will haunt you for the rest of your life, especially now in the age of technology. Bottom line – you can’t be professional if you are not ethical.

The term “professionalism” will have different meanings to different people based upon their particular industry. Although there are industry differentiators, professionalism overall is about how you conduct yourself in the environment where you work. Employees fail to recognise that how you conduct yourself in the workplace will ultimately affect your earning potential throughout your working career.

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