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Redefining professionalism in the workplace

October 3, 2022 - 19 min read
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    For Julius Erving, a basketball legend, professionalism in the workplace is simple.

    “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don't feel like doing them.” 

    Julius Erving, basketball player 

    In many ways, this quote still holds true in a fast-changing world. Pre-pandemic, our work and personal lives were more separate and divided. For the most part, we left work at work.  

    But change has hit the world pretty hard, especially in the last few years. In-person meetings have switched to Zoom or virtual conference rooms. Slacks, button-down shirts, and nice dress shoes have been swapped for sweatpants and slippers.

    But now, many of us are working remotely or in a hybrid workforce. The line between personal and work life is blurrier than ever. While the most visible changes might be our outfits on Zoom, the notion of professionalism in the workplace is shifting. 

    After all, cats and kids are scattering across keyboards and computer screens. Some workers might be juggling getting their teenagers out the door for soccer practice while also presenting during a team meeting.

    Partners, roommates, family members, and loved ones have all “entered” our office space, whether we like it or not. Employees are showing up as their whole selves at work. So when it comes to professionalism in the workplace, it’s evolving quickly. 

    So, what does professionalism in the workplace look like today? What does it mean to be a professional in the workplace? 

    In this article, we’ll explore: 

    • What professionalism means, and how it’s changed over recent years
    • How leaders can inspire greater professionalism in their teams  
    • How companies can encourage employees to reach for higher levels of professionalism at work 

    What is professionalism in the workplace? 

    First, let’s define what we mean by professionalism.

    You’ll notice we don’t mention outfits or hairstyles. We don’t talk about appearance or physical ways of showing up at work.

    At BetterUp, we believe that every employee deserves to show up as their whole self. In order to do so, a deep sense of belonging and psychological safety must be established. And while professionalism might’ve once signaled high heels and pressed shirts, that’s no longer the case. For most companies, it boils down to these core principles. 

    In fact, a viral social media campaign on LinkedIn has recently challenged what professionalism looks like in the workplace. Thousands of workers uploaded posts with #IAmProfessional to the career networking site. The content? Posts about who they are as people, not just employees. 

    Download The Connection Crisis: Why community matters in the new world of work

    4 key indicators of professionalism

    1. Consistently exceeding expectations

    When we think of professionalism, we tend to think of the employee who goes way above the call of duty. For example, a colleague could hop on a Zoom call last minute to help solve a problem with another teammate.

    Or a leader could go above and beyond to make sure their employee is onboarded and up-to-speed in their role. Oftentimes, exceeding expectations comes with a healthy dose of learning as you go. 

    To maintain a high level of professionalism, you need to be keen to learn and improve. True professionals don’t rest on their laurels. They seek ways to be better at their job or to make their organization a better place to work, every day. 

    2. Creating an inclusive environment

    True professionals don’t only stand out for their own excellence – they make it easier for those around them to excel too. 

    To quote Lorie Corcuera, the head of Human Resources for DNEG

    “Workplace professionalism is about creating a welcoming, safe, and inclusive environment for everyone. It's about creating a culture of belonging where people feel they matter and belong. This includes creating a respectful workplace experience as an effective team member, having clear communication, ensuring people feel included, engaging and participating, and taking the time to know our fellow team members.” 

    We’ve studied the impact of inclusive leadership on teams. In fact, we’ve found that employees are 50% more productive, 90% more innovative, and 150% more engaged. Inclusive leadership also results in 54% lower employee turnover.


    3. Communicating effectively with teammates, customers, managers, and other stakeholders 

    Professionalism involves making sure that everyone involved in your work has the information they need to succeed. Great professionals are also great communicators

    For instance, true professionals don’t shy away from having difficult conversations. They will prioritize the good of the organization over their own discomfort. 

    4. Demonstrating integrity and honesty 

    Professionalism is more than a question of workplace performance–it also comes down to integrity in the workplace. True professionals don’t dabble in office politics, and they uphold the values of the organization they work for. 

    For Tim Reitsma, the General Manager of People Managing People, professionalism comes down to how you behave, not how you look: 

    “A professional workplace isn’t one where we are all dressed up in suits and ties (if that is still even a thing!) That’s merely the facade of professionalism. If there’s a culture of gossip, backstabbing, and constant distraction, I'd say there is a lack of professionalism, no matter what everyone’s wearing.”

    How professionalism has changed over the years

    Today’s employees are renegotiating what professionalism should mean, and abandoning some outdated thinking about what it means to “be professional.”

    For instance, professionalism in the workplace is not: 

    Conforming to traditional standards of appearance 

    While many definitions of professionalism still refer to “neatness” and “dress code”, our ideas about what makes a professional has moved away from what people look like to how well they work.

    Today, an unconventional appearance is more likely to be seen as a mark of success than as a sign of unprofessionalism, reports the BBC: think Steve Jobs’ black turtlenecks or General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s leather jackets. 

    These days, despite what all our parents told us, tattoos don’t seem to have any negative effect on our ability to find a "good job." In fact, it can lead employees in creative roles to be seen as more professional, rather than less. 


    Separating your “work self” and your “home self”

    According to Professor Nadia Ibrahim-Taney, whose research focuses on workplace professionalism, “COVID has challenged our belief system about what ‘professionalism’ is and how it works in the modern workforce…[The pandemic has] empowered people to think about how they show up–in general, and for other people–and to speak their own truths as employees.” 

    In fact, BetterUp data shows that professionals who bring their whole selves to work are more likely to thrive and excel in the workplace.

    Hiding your emotions 

    In that vein, being emotionally reserved is no longer a must for professionals in the workplace. While many employees (especially female employees) used to feel under pressure to keep emotions out of the office, a 2018 survey found that nearly half of CEOs saw no issue in occasional tears at work

    Of course, there are limits to how much emotion is permitted at work. It comes down to empathy. Sharing emotions, such as vulnerability or overwhelm, can be helpful, as they alert our colleagues that we may need additional support.  But allowing our emotions to become invasive or distracting is not professional. 

    Consultant and author Simon Sinek calls this “emotional professionalism.”  

     “If you’re having a bad day, you can say, ‘Listen, I’m sorry, I’m a little off my game today but you can’t sit in a meeting with your arms folded and be grumpy and give one-word answers. You can have hard feelings, but you can’t go around screaming and yelling at people.” 

    Simon Sinek, consultant and author  

    In fact, it would seem that our ability to express, but also regulate our emotions and those of the people around us is a key component of professionalism in the workplace. 

    Instead of suppressing their emotions, researchers at the Yale School of Management propose that leaders should aim to “reassess the emotional situation” for themselves and their teams. For example, exploring a stressful event could also offer opportunities for growth and improvement. 


    Being a professional means holding yourself to high standards at work. However, when that spills over into perfectionism, it can actually hinder your performance. Research published in the Harvard Business Review found that while perfectionism is on the rise, being a perfectionist at work can make you unengaged, stressed, and worse at your job.    

    Instead, to be a true professional, you should aim for top performance, of course. But temper your ambitions with vulnerability and a willingness to learn. To quote research professor Brené Brown

    “The greatest barrier to daring leadership is …armor, or how we self-protect when we’re in fear.”

    Brené Brown, author, research professor

    The importance of encouraging professionalism at work

    Well, 87% of employers say professionalism is very important. This is hardly surprising. Given that today’s definition of professionalism encompasses qualities like dedication, initiative, and high standards at work, teams with high levels of professionalism will consistently outperform those without the same professional attitude. 

    In fact, if we look at contemporary definitions of workplace professionalism, we can see substantial overlaps with employee engagement.

    Engaged employees are more likely to seek opportunities to improve their performance. They are more likely to deliver a consistently strong performance at work. And they are more likely to show initiative and creativity at work

    In other words, engaged employees are more likely to demonstrate high levels of professionalism. And this professional attitude directly impacts overall organizational performance, increasing everything from profitability to customer satisfaction rates. 

    Encouraging professionalism in their teams is therefore one of the key responsibilities of today’s managers. 


    How leaders can encourage professionalism in the workplace

    To increase the level of professionalism in your team, there are a few simple steps that can have a dramatic impact: 

    Foster a culture of inclusivity 

    To quote Lorie Corcuera, “Inclusion and belonging is the new version of professionalism.” A more inclusive organizational culture creates the space for every employee to do their best work. 

    For Corcuera, leaders can increase the level of workplace professionalism by creating an inclusive culture where everyone on the team feels they matter and belong. For example, she says leaders can take care to invite everyone in a meeting to contribute: 

    “Recently, I attended a meeting and one of the senior leaders shared at the start of the call that it's important to hear everyone's voices. He encouraged everyone to share their ideas, questions, and thoughts. He then paused and waited for people to start sharing.”

    By encouraging greater assertiveness in your team, you will also encourage them to push themselves to reach a higher standard – the very core of true professionalism. 

    Set a strong example 

    It should go without saying, but if you want to promote professionalism in your team, you need to start by demonstrating it yourself. Leading by example means avoiding office politics and favoritism, keeping the communication channels open, demonstrating honesty, and holding yourself to the highest possible standard at work. 

    But it also means showing vulnerability, asking for help when you need it, and demonstrating humility. Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know!” 

    To quote Tim Reitsma, 

    Managers set the tone. If the manager is the one who is acting in a way that isn’t professional, the team may follow along. As a manager, you need to level up your ability to communicate, know where to draw the line, hold people accountable, and remember to give feedback.” 

    Encourage a sense of accountability and responsibility 

    As a leader, you need to promote both accountability and responsibility in your team. You may be ultimately accountable for the success or failure of a particular project, but you should also make sure that every team member feels a clear sense of responsibility for their part in the task.

    To encourage employees to go above and beyond, you’ll have to start by giving them a sense of ownership over their tasks, and clearly communicating your expectations.  

    Promote cultural alignment and culture add  

    If you want to see more professionalism in your team, they need to have a clear grasp of the values and behaviors that you want to see. It’s a question of reinforcing the company's mission and culture

    You can also make sure you recognize and acknowledge employees when they demonstrate those values, by making a direct link between the behavior and the value in question: ‘It’s great to see you taking initiative like that. At this company, we really look for employees who step up when it’s needed.’

    How to develop employee professionalism

    When it comes to improving your employees’ professionalism, it’s not only a question of modeling the behavior you want to see. You should also encourage your employees to develop the skills and behaviors most closely associated with professionalism: 

    1. Hone your communication skills 

    Great professionals excel at sharing their ideas and keeping everyone on the same page. To develop this skill in your team, consider directing them towards communication skills training.

    For instance, public speaking coaching can help employees build their ability to simplify their messages and become more confident in the spotlight. 

    2. Invest in diversity and inclusion 

    Professionalism in the workplace depends on every employee feel that they matter, that their perspectives are valuable, and that their performance will be recognized.

    However, unconscious bias and other pervasive challenges to diversity can be hard to tackle. Diversity and inclusivity training for both employees and managers can have a significant impact on the professionalism of your workplace. 

    3. Build emotional regulation skills

    Workplace professionalism depends on our ability to regulate and manage our emotions, rather than letting them dictate our behavior. For employees that struggle with self-control, coaching can be highly beneficial.

    A coach can provide external guidance to help employees identify and overcome the challenges that could otherwise hold them back from excelling as a professional. 

    Being a true professional starts with self-knowledge 

    For Lorie Corcuera, the secret to encouraging greater professionalism at work begins with understanding yourself, both as a professional and as a leader. To help your team become the professionals they have the potential to be, she advises managers to do this.

    “Start by leading yourself, which means learning more about yourself so you can grow and develop as a leader, and inspire your team to do the same.”

    Lorie Corcuera

    BetterUp can help. Our coaches can provide objective guidance and help you develop the skills you need to develop greater professionalism in the workplace and within your team. At its heart, it’s about creating an environment where employees feel safe to show up as their whole selves.

    See how BetterUp works - Watch Demo

    Published October 3, 2022

    Madeline Miles

    Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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