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Time to Hone Your Definition of Professional

Career Corner is a program produced by the Minnesota Radio Talking Book Network, part of State Services for the Blind and it is recorded for people who are blind or have reading disabilities. You can find complete programming of the Radio Talking Book at and the password is rtb. Your host for Career Corner is Anne Obst.


We turn now to the Working Strategies column of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, by Amy Lindgren, from May 17. It’s entitled Graduates: Time to hone your definition of ‘professional.’

Graduation time always puts me in mind of new workers, headed off to summer jobs or career-path positions.

For many, this is the transition point from student to professional -- a leap of enough magnitude that it's worth pausing to consider what that actually means.

So here's a question for you: What comes to mind when you hear the word "professional"? Perhaps you think of someone who seems to embody a professional ethos. Or maybe a code of conduct springs to mind, with specific standards for measuring professional behavior. You might even conjure an image of a certain type of worker, in a suit-and-tie or skirt-and-heels position.

Here's something I've discovered by accident: There seems to be a generational divide in defining professional behavior. That's probably not news to anyone in management or anyone involved with multiple generations on a regular basis. But in my very informal polling process ("Hey you -- what does this word mean to you?") I found some interesting points of agreement and difference between age groups.

For example, where everyone seemed to equate professionalism with respect -- as in respecting others in the workplace -- my younger respondents did not seem as concerned with "respect for authority." I had an interesting discussion with a 20-something who feels it's her professional obligation to oppose her boss if she disagrees with a decision; baby boomers I spoke with were more likely to see that as risky and possibly unprofessional.

Image was another interesting talking point. Nearly everyone in my small sampling was open to an expansion of professional image to include a variety of work outfits or hairstyles. But the generations seemed to part ways on things like tattoos, piercings and bare legs (nylons vs. no nylons). While I think this is largely a matter of evolving fashions, I was nevertheless struck by a sentiment framed by younger workers that I didn't hear from older workers: "If I'm doing my job, it shouldn't matter how I look."

In the end, I didn't come up with a uniform definition for "professional" but I did re-learn an important lesson about the risks of assuming that a common word has a common meaning.

In a subsequent Internet search, I again found a diversity of definitions for the concept, although I did see some common themes. For example, a number of the writers on the web described professional behavior as some combination of etiquette, respect, ethics, knowing one's job well and being expert in one's profession.

The elements of etiquette and respect seemed to underlie most of the advice I encountered, including: Always get back to people in a timely way; listen more than you speak; respect your colleagues' contributions; etc.

Since I hate to let a good round of Internet reading go to waste, I thought I'd assemble a brief code of professional do's and don'ts for new graduates heading into careers over the next few months. Although I recognize that the tide might be turning on some of these points, I'm taking a safe route by presenting the more conservative side. After all, it's hard to imagine being too professional for the workplace.

Professional Communication. Don't interrupt others, disagree in a disparaging way, or let your emotions speak for you. Do listen more than you speak, strive to understand others' views, and respond in a timely manner to messages.

Professional Image. Don't under-dress for business events or client meetings, keep an exceptionally messy work area, or send out communications with errors you could have caught. Do dress as well or slightly better than your peers, maintain a hairstyle than can be described as "neat and clean," and practice good hygiene in all settings.

Workflow. Don't hold up workflow processes, take on more than you can handle, or otherwise keep things from moving smoothly. Do complete documentation quickly and neatly, watch for tactful ways to "unjam" a process, and follow through with what you promise.

General Etiquette. Don't look at your cell phone while meeting with others, multitask while on a conference call, or talk loudly in a confined space. Do greet your co-workers when you pass them, arrive at meetings five minutes early rather than late, and credit others for their good ideas.

If those tips seem pretty obvious, so much the better. Practice them every day and you'll have the necessary foundation for when something really challenging comes up, such as a difficult boss or a direct report who refuses to accept your delegation.

Eventually you will have improved your skills enough to add "expertise in one's profession" to your repertoire, at which point you might be the person who comes to mind when someone is asked for their definition of a professional.

Again, that article was Graduates: Time to hone your definition of ‘professional.’


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