Professionalism is one of those words that’s thrown around and expected to just be known. But, much like success, it can be subjective.

What the word means to you and someone else will likely be different, especially if you work in different environments. For example, if you’re employed in a large organization with a traditional corporate culture, professionalism likely looks and sounds vastly different to someone who runs a 25-employee startup company.

But, before we delve further into this topic, let’s start with some defining verbiage from Merriam-Webster:

Professionalism refers to “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.”

So what exactly marks a profession?

Doctors and beauticians are clearly part of different professions, despite both working very closely with their customers and seeing them on a regular basis. And while one fixes you internally and the other fixes you externally, the professionalism expected of each of them is understandably different.

Imagine this: You walk into a doctor’s office and the floor is covered in hair. Unless that’s just your type of scene, that’s unacceptable. Not only would you think it’s unclean for a clinical environment, but also extremely unprofessional.

However, if you walked into the salon and hair was on the floor, you probably wouldn’t blink. In that environment, cutting hair is standard practice, so hair on the floor is an acceptable consequence and not considered unprofessional (as long as it’s cleaned up of course!).

So, while the defining points of professionalism may differ from person to person, there are a few negative acts that are considered unprofessional regardless of the profession.

Read on to discover the impact these acts have on your professional life, beyond money, and (if you’re guilty of them) how you can fix them.

You Break Promises

Your boss needs an important assignment completed by Friday, so you promise to provide it by Thursday. You don’t finish the assignment until the following Tuesday. What do you think your boss now thinks about you?

Your client requests revisions on work you submitted, which you review and agree to do for no additional charge; however, after spending more time than you wanted to on the work, you decide to charge the client. What do you think your client now thinks about you?



The Impact. We’ve all heard the incredibly true and ever-relevant saying:

Actions speak louder than words.

And the actions displayed in the two examples above are screaming, “I just don’t give a damn!” Saying one thing—promising something—then not delivering on it is a sure sign of unprofessionalism.

Recall the doctor and the beautician from earlier. If the doctor swears to an ethical code of doctor-patient confidentiality, then tells another patient about your medical issues, she’s unprofessional. If the beautician agrees to a 1:00 pm appointment with you, then doesn’t show up, she’s also unprofessional.

As with the manager and client, the doctor and the beautician didn’t do what they agreed to. Not keeping your word is a quick way to lose people’s trust, which is an extremely hard thing to gain back. And in case you weren’t aware:

People don’t do business with people they can’t trust.

The Fix.  Sometimes it’s deadlines you just can’t seem to meet. Other times it’s work you thought would be easier or quicker to do. Whatever the case, you need to take a step back and determine the root cause of not being able to deliver on your promises.

Missing deadlines can typically be attributed to poor planning. Take the time to think out what you need to do (and when) to deliver on your promise. Record it. Schedule it. Do whatever you need to do to make it happen.

Similarly, if you promise to do something, do it—even if the something was more of a “something” than you anticipated. Here’s some guiding advice:

Learn to look before you leap.

In other words, make sure you fully comprehend exactly what needs to be done before agreeing to do it. Sometimes this may mean passing on an opportunity, which is fine if the alternative is a poor work product or ruined business relationship.

You’re Hard to Work With

Collaboration is often a key element in solving problems, completing projects, or reaching desired goals. And a good collaboration requires the combined efforts of everyone involved.

It’s unlikely that in your career you’ll never be part of a team. At some point, if even only for a brief time, you’ll have to work with others (directly or indirectly) in pursuit of achieving some short- or long-term objective.

When this happens, it’s important to understand that, as part of a team, everyone plays a certain part and contributes something different. Plus, we know that people have different personalities and backgrounds, despite the simplicity of everyone just being the same; however, the expectation of team members should not be one of simple conformance, but of cohesiveness.

A cohesive team is one that can interact in a manner that continues to progress towards achieving the objective. If you exhibit behaviors that slow (or worse) completely stop that progress, such as causing unnecessary friction or not contributing appropriately, you’re being unprofessional.



The Impact. If you’re making things harder for everyone on the team to get work done and achieve the objective, such behavior can label you “difficult to work with.” With that label, you’ll likely be stalled, alone, and avoided. Sound like a sad state of affairs? That’s because it is:

People avoid difficult people.

Life is already difficult enough. No one wants to make it any harder by working with someone who makes it even more so.

The Fix. Now honestly, some people just plain don’t get along with others. If you’re one of those people, you may want to find a line of work that’s a bit more…solitary.

For others, you may just need to self-assess and take accountability for your actions and contributions when collaborating with others:

  • Do you understand what your contribution(s) is to the team?
  • Are you taking on enough of the work?
  • Are you providing value equal to other team members?
  • If you were another team member, would “you” find it difficult to work with you?

Answering these questions, then adjusting your actions and interactions accordingly, can help you in working with others and avoid the unfortunate label (that I won’t mention again).

Your Writing is Full of Errors

Whether in emails, memos, instant messages, or handwritten notes, your writing in your work environment—in office or remote—is a professional representation of you and your abilities. And while the occasional typo or wrong word is typically acceptable (nobody’s perfect after all), continued mistakes in written communication can become an issue.

Errors in your writing, such as bad grammar or misused words, can indicate a lack of education and knowledge in communicating. Even if you speak well enough, your writing may detract from that. Plus, many times people may see your writing before ever speaking to you, meaning your image is tarnished before you get the chance to make a first impression in person or on the phone.

Worse still, such errors can show a lack of care for both your work and the person on the receiving end of your message.



The Impact. Would you trust someone who seemed to not know enough, or simply not care, about their work? How about work with them? Do business with them? Probably not.

A recruiter could think you’re not worth hiring. A manager might not trust you to get the job done. A client could get the impression you can’t (or won’t) put forth the necessary time or effort into producing an acceptable work product.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, when people don’t think you know enough or care about your work, they develop a negative perception on what to expect (or not expect) from you.

The Fix. Depending on how “bad” you think your writing is, there are some actions you can take to improve.

If you’re the type to have a few typos in your message, just take a little time to re-read what you wrote before you send it. You would be surprised how often most mistakes are caught with a simple review.

On the other hand, if you feel you’re in direr need, identify your most common writing errors and research how to remedy them. And remember, practice makes perfect!

Connecting the Pieces

Here’s the thing about professionalism: Even if you are highly skilled, deeply knowledgeable, and even extremely experienced in your given profession, not conveying those attributes in a competent (and clear) manner through your interactions with others diminishes the value of what you have to offer.

Don’t lose trust; stick to your word. Don’t be difficult; learn to work well with others. And don’t garner a negative perception of your capabilities; improve your writing.

These actions will help to improve your professionalism and can all be easily done if you take a little time to work on them. Start today.


What are some other unprofessional acts you have observed, and what actions should people take to fix them? Share in the comments section below.


This post was originally published on my LinkedIn profile on December  29, 2015.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr (modified):