Be professional – you know you’ve heard it – probably from a mentor, a parent, or a manager.  And it’s pretty good career advice…  if you know what it means.  The challenge is that professionalism means different things to different people, and professional behavior varies widely depending on your working environment. gives us a few choices:

1. following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain: a professional builder.
2. of, pertaining to, or connected with a profession: professional studies.
3. appropriate to a profession: professional objectivity.
4. engaged in one of the learned professions: A lawyer is a professional person.
5. following as a business an occupation ordinarily engaged in as a pastime: a professional golfer.
6. making a business or constant practice of something not properly to be regarded as a business: “A salesman,” he said, “is a professional optimist.”
7. undertaken or engaged in as a means of livelihood or for gain: professional baseball.
8. of or for a professional person or his or her place of business or work: a professional apartment; professional equipment.
9. done by a professional; expert: professional car repairs.

Hmmm – not very helpful.  Mostly it seems to mean working…  for money.   Merriam-Webster gives us a bit more of a clue in the last part of the first definition:

1 a : of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession b : engaged in one of the learned professions c (1) : characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2) : exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace

OK now we’re getting somewhere.  Courteous and conscientious is something I can get my head around (although “generally businesslike” is a bit vague…).  Googling  “professional behavior” gets you a variety of opinions on the matter ranging from “conduct appropriate to your workplace” to “don’t lie, spit, swear or steal”.

A thorough analysis of what is meant in the U.S. by “professional behavior” can be found on the Grovewell, LLC site here.  But at the end of the day for me, professionalism boils down to a single concept introduced to me by my parents when I was about 10.  It goes like this:

Treat others as you would like to be treated and you will always be invited back.

The first half is the good old golden rule and it’s still the most practical guidance I have found for professional behavior.  In any situation I put myself in the role of my peers, subordinates, clients, vendors or managers and visualize how my actions will be perceived.  If I don’t like the result, I find a better way.  And my goal is always the second half – to be someone that others want to work with.  There is no better measure of success as a professional than to have your employer be sorry to see you go and happy to have you return if the opportunity exists.

What are your benchmarks for professionalism?  We’ve all seen unprofessional behavior (like pornography – we know it when we see it…) but if you have great ideas or resources for workplace behavior that gets you invited back, please share!

Looking for more ideas on how to grow your management and leadership skills?  Why not join the Survive Your Promotion group on LinkedIn?  Share management and leadership resources, ask questions, make connections and help other emerging leaders!

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