What Does It Mean to Be Professional at Work?

We live in a digital world, where the conventional workplace has shifted and working remotely is slowly becoming a trend.

That said, what does it mean to be professional at work?

Here are the top insights from 16 experts.

Timothy Wiedman, D.B.A., PHR Emeritus

Associate Prof. of Management & Human Resources (Retired)

I believe that following these straightforward tips will make any employee appear more ‘professional’ to bosses and colleagues alike, improve that employee’s work-related reputation, and ultimately make him or her more valuable to the organization.

#1 Punctuality. Always arriving at work on time and getting to meetings and appointments early.

#2 Participating in discussions at meetings and asking relevant questions (without going overboard — others’ air-time should always be respected).

#3 Meeting all deadlines. Always getting an early start on projects so that any unexpected delays will not result in missing a target date, because procrastination can ruin a career!

Read related article: Best Productivity and Time Management 

#4 Spell-checking and proof-reading all written communication (including e-mails) sent to bosses, colleagues, subordinates and all outsiders connected to the business. A person’s written communication reflects upon his or her competence, so using proper grammar does matter!

#5 Asking work-related questions.  When folks don’t know something that’s job-related, they need to ask!  (A question that should have been asked — but wasn’t — can have catastrophic consequences that may never be forgotten.)  And if folks make mistakes, they should admit it.  Immediately. 

#6 Seeking feedback by telling bosses and colleagues that constructive feedback is welcomed so that workplace performance can continually be improved. (And always remembering to thank them for their advice!)

#7 Becoming more valuable to the organization by keeping work-related skills up-to-date. That could mean taking college business courses, attending conferences, seminars or webinars offered by professional societies, and/or earning job-related professional certifications.

Many firms will contribute financially to their employees continuing education efforts, but folks may have to ask about the organization’s requirements. And self-improvement activities shouldn’t remain a secret. While bragging is unwise, the boss should be kept in the loop.

Dr. Gayle Carson CSP CMC FIMC

Dr. Gayle Carson CSP CMC FIMC

President of the Carson Research Center | Expert Advisor | Coach

There are many things that you can do to be professional at work however here are just a few:

  1. Dress appropriately. Depending on the type of business it is, that will vary, but neat, clean and not too loose or tight always cut it.
  2. You represent the company and if you don’t agree with a policy take it up with management. Don’t voice off to peers or co-workers.
  3. Be on time. That might seem obvious but you can’t imagine how many employers I have worked with that have a problem with this.
  4. Take time for additional learning. If the company offers training, take it. If there are courses you want to take, see if they will reimburse you, however you may want to pay for certain things yourself to show you are looking to improve yourself.

Ruth Wilson

Ruth Wilson

Certified High School Principal | Certified Educational Therapist | Founder, Huma Education Services

The best advice I share with my students and attempt to model myself is to follow through on what you say.

For example, if you are scheduled for a meeting at 2:00, be there at 2:00, not a few minutes later. If you are scheduling the meeting, don’t change the date after others have already accepted.

If you take responsibility for researching information, be prepared to report back on it. If you can’t meet a deadline, notify the other party well in advance and work out an alternate solution.

The workplace is full of unexpected situations, so reduce frustration for your team and help to minimize the chaos by becoming reliable.

Dr. Cozette M. White, MBA, CTP

Dr. Cozette M. White, MBA, CTP

Founder and CEO, My Financial Home Enterprises

Staying Work-Focused and Being Responsible.

Not letting your private life needlessly have an impact on your job and not spending time at work attending to personal matters. Being responsible certainly means being a person others can count on — getting the job done right, and getting it done on time.

Read Related Article: Why Is Work Life Balance so Important in Today’s World?

Responsibility also implies a willingness to own up to problems when they occur and, where possible, to have a solution in mind.

Patsy Nearkhou

Patsy Nearkhou

Digital and Content Marketer, Talkative

Professionalism to me is fundamentally about pride.

What is considered ‘professional’ has changed a lot over the last few years and it is somewhat of a controversial subject, but what underpins it all is pride; not just in your daily work and in your company, but also in yourself, the manner in which you show up to work and your ability to showcase your own personality.

From a work perspective, professionalism is about understanding and accepting the responsibility you have in your job, regardless of your seniority, and taking pride in executing what you need to do.

With that being said, professionalism doesn’t just relate to the work you’re putting out, it encompasses many things.

Just because someone wears a suit doesn’t make them professional, and likewise, not wearing a suit doesn’t mean they’re unprofessional. We are all adults with individual personalities, in some cases spending the majority of our lives at work with colleagues.

Having a strong social awareness and courtesy is important, but being professional is also about embracing and showing your personality, but appropriating the way you behave depending on the situation you’re in.

Being professional doesn’t mean being stuffy and boring. You can, and should, still show your personality. Indeed, in many professions, this is vital for success; consider sales and marketing as good examples of this.

Another part of professionalism which can sometimes be overlooked is taking pride in your appearance.

Like I said, regardless of whether your dress code is business smart, smart casual or casual, it’s important that you show up to work with good personal hygiene, are well groomed and clean. After all, appearances count for a lot in first impressions.

Taking pride in your appearance makes you feel and look confident, signaling to others around you that you respect yourself as well as your work environment and are ready to face the day ahead.

Valerie Streif

Valerie Streif

Senior Content Manager, Pramp

Being professional at work means being fully engaged in the tasks that pertain to the office, and being able to disengage from the problems, responsibilities, and distractions that are in your life outside of the office.

Focusing on what’s important to your boss, your team, and not letting distractions from your personal life is crucial, and I think this is something you need to keep in mind from the beginning and not “open the floodgates” as they say.

Once you’ve started revealing too much personal information about yourself at work, it becomes harder and harder for your peers to take you seriously as a professional.

Of course, you can chat with people and share bits and pieces of your life, you don’t want to come off as cold and aloof, but avoid sharing personal problems or oversharing information about your partner, family, or anything that could come back to haunt you.

It can hinder your reputation, and it’s better not to say anything than have that feeling of “oh no, I shouldn’t have said that”.

Oksana Chyketa

Oksana Chyketa

Marketer,  Albacross

Now that you have been doing your work as required, behaved appropriately, and have always been punctual, does that mean you qualify to be referred to as a ‘professional’?

In this digital world, where one can work remotely, it is hard to base the professionalism of a person based on traditional aspects such as the dressing code.

However, qualities such as competence, reliability, honesty, respect, etc., will always be a part of professionalism.

Personally, being professional at work means being prepared. Frankly speaking, I hate situations where everyone in the room is familiar with a particular concept apart from me.

Well, one can’t know everything but you can make an effort of being prepared for different job-related circumstances beforehand.

Lucy Duncan

Lucy Duncan

Coaching Professional | Leadership Consultant

When I began considering this question, I looked at two different perspectives: I work for a Fortune 1 company and am considered a business professional.

In contrast, my husband works for in the craft food industry. While my days are filled with meetings, calls, and travel – his are filled with sourcing, preparation, production, and packaging.

We’re both professionals, so what are the shared characteristics between the two of us that translate into being a proficient/expert employee?

Regardless of industry, professionals know his or her employers’ goals and how their individual efforts contribute towards the progress of those goals.

Seeing the connection between their work and its impact on the company’s success, they feel a sense of responsibility.

This responsibility acts as a motivator to take pride in their work. He or she keeps the purpose, goals, and responsibility top of mind throughout the workday.

Whether our tasks consist of communicating a difficult message with delicacy and respect, being honest about a customer’s overpayment, or maintaining the integrity of a product when we guarantee its ingredients – professionalism means we acknowledge the impact or our work and our actions – and we take ownership of it.

Ashley Paz

Ashley Paz

Executive Director,  The Woman’s Club of Fort Worth

The simplest way that I explain professionalism to my members, staff, and young women who I mentor is this:

Professionalism is presenting yourself to your audience in a way that builds rather than diminishes your credibility or influence with them.

This requires an awareness of who you are speaking to and their values, but more than that it requires self-awareness. Professional conduct in a kitchen or service industry setting is going to look very different from professional conduct in a financial institution or office environment.

Jacob Dayan

Jacob Dayan

CEO and Co-founder, Community Tax and Finance Pal

A professional is expected to have a positive and friendly attitude.

A true professional will do their best not to involve other co-workers with problems outside of work and will not let their mood affect their performance.

Now, obviously, there are some caveats here. No one is expected to be in the best mood 100% of the time (especially during difficult times in their lives). If you’re going through a rough time, don’t hesitate to talk to your supervisor that you may need some time off to recuperate.

Mental health is very serious and should not be neglected. This is why bullying and gossiping in the workplace is so frowned upon and exactly why professionals in the workplace are expected to be exactly that, a professional.

Keith R. Sbiral

Keith Sbiral

Certified Professional Coach, Apochromatik

The term Professional often carries with it some sort of connotation of stiff, stuffy, or strict behavior.

You can actually be a relaxed, normal human being, and still be professional. It goes without saying (or it should) that basic rules should be followed, behavior is critical, adherence to personnel policies and laws are critical.

But it is just as important to have interactive and mutually beneficial relationships, be personable, and to engage your fellow employees.

To think globally about your place in the department and the overall organization and to represent both well by applying critical thinking to your everyday work.

This approach to your “professionalism” will create a work environment where people want to be open, participate, and ultimately lead to an open diversity of opinions.

Elizabeth Bradshaw

Elizabeth Bradshaw

Owner, Canvas Art Boutique

Being professional at work means always being graceful, calm, and level-headed.

There will come a time in just about every role when you find yourself in situations where you’d like nothing more than to give a snappy response or let yourself get visibly upset when a co-worker does something that makes you look bad.

The key is to focus on remaining poised during the tough situations – that’s what being a true professional is.

Natalie Athanasiadis

Natalie Athanasiad

Owner | Head of Growth, Ormi Media

Being professional in the workplace really focuses around making sure those around you perceive you as honest, reliable and competent in your role.

You want to treat everyone around you with respect, kindness, and patience. Keeping your cool in tough situations is important, acting out because things don’t go right or your way is a quick way to appear unprofessional.

When working remotely it’s important to understand that text doesn’t doesn’t convey people’s tone, you don’t want to be passive aggressive or jump to conclusions.

Taking the time to ensure you do your job well and treat people around you well will have everyone seeing you as the amazing professional you are!

Jason Lavis

Jason Lavis

Marketing Director, NATRESPRO

Being professional at work is a side product of a good life, lived in balance.

If our egos get centered in our family, church, friendships, romantic partners or sports teams, our work will suffer. Even being focused on our work is a form of self-centered behavior that leads to burnout or anti-social mannerisms towards teammates.

A true professional has their life in balance and understands the importance of all the different influences and priorities. When we practice this type of good living, work success becomes (almost) effortless.

Eric Quanstrom

Eric Quanstrom

CMO, Cience

My own bias here would be to plug in the most frequently used form of the word “professional” — the professional athlete.

In a sports-obsessed world, it’s interesting to note the distinctions made between the professional athlete and all too common amateur.

Especially at the highest of levels where the Steph Curry’s, Aaron Rodgers’, Cristiano Ronaldo’s, or Mike Trout’s of the world live, and tens of millions of dollars are on the line, you really see the separation (professional vs amateur).

Each of these are workers. Some are even in unions! Their workplace is often a grand stage that fans (fanatics) are intensely interested in.

Yet most of their work and what makes them “consummate professionals” (to use a cliche) happens far away from cameras.

You hear the anecdotes of Lebron James spending over $1 million on his body or Tiger Woods spending 8 hrs a day for his entire childhood practicing his shots. This is not work you can fake or shortcut, even if you are blessed with amazing athleticism or good genes.

What it means to be professional in the case of the superstar or even the last man on the bench– as well as the professional management (myriad GM’s, coaches, managers, trainers, etc) behind them– is assiduously pursuing every angle that might give a competitive edge.

There’s lots of professional pride involved, as the intense rigor of competing at a high level is truer here than anywhere else. Further, careers are so short. Burnout is quite high. Cuts are a part of the business. To conduct oneself as a professional is a high compliment indeed.

Ben Brearley

Ben Brearley

Founder, Thoughtful Leader

Being professional at work has many aspects, but the most important is to show respect for those around you.

Respect for colleagues, your team members, and your manager is the starting point for being professional at work.

To be professional normally means to show restraint.

You can disagree with people and feel frustrated, but you generally shouldn’t display unproductive emotions when in the workplace, such as by yelling or swearing.

The third part of being professional is being constructive and a team player.

It’s fine to criticize something, but only if you have a better solution. Putting down other people, gossiping or being critical with no alternative solutions are all signs of someone who is showing unprofessional behavior.