Interviewers always look for the tell-tale signs of professionalism when a potential member of the staff walks through their door. They pay attention to how they are dressed, how they speak and what they say, and how the handle themselves. If they are interviewing for a job that requires contact and interaction with the public then they will be even more attuned to what you say, how you say it, and even what your posture communicates. This may be very superficial, but professionalism actually is superficial because being professional means behaving in a way that is expected of you at the moment; nobody is "professional" on the inside. For instance, even while being industrious might help influence whether you finish a project when you promise too, you are being professional when you get the project done on time—no matter how you do it, even if you are a lazy bum who only signs one client a month so word never interferes with your video games. If someone calls that video game player a lazy unprofessional because he isn't working as hard as a small business owner should, that still is a statement being made of whether that "bum's" actions fit in with what is expected in the business world. Using the wrong format in business letters would be unprofessional, failing to return voice-mails would be unprofessional, flirting with coworkers is unprofessional, etc.

As you can guess, the first step toward being more professional is knowing what the heck that even is; you have to learn all the respected rules and customs of your career. Fortunately for you, there are dozens of books on the subject and probably tons of professional-type people who are willing to criticize you for you own lack of it. Even if your level of professionalism is fine for your current position or career, unless you are behaving "above" yourself to some respect you might be ignored when superiors are looking to promote someone (or turned down by a larger client that has taken an interest in you). You may even want to change your behavior as each unique situation calls for. One customer might need to be talked to in a very toned-down but congenial manner. With a different customer, however, it might be appropriate to talk to him like he or she was a good "buddy." Social intelligence can play a role here as well as education, that is, knowing what people are expecting from you and knowing how to match them.

After you learn what's expected of you, all you can do it practice your professionalism until it is near perfect. This might be practicing your mannerisms when you walk or talk, and this might mean taking extra care in all your correspondence until you know the format like the back of your hand. This might mean that you change the entire way you do business so you can be better organized and efficiently get your work done on time. As you can see, this virtue can be a brief foray into improving your image or a grueling task of changing some of your most ingrained habits—you may have to work on other virtues in order to help you tackle this one.

Decide what area of your professionalism could best use improvement and base your activities so they prop up your greatest weaknesses. Even if you consider yourself a professional person, you would probably benefit by studying some ideas or techniques from others and improving on what you already have.

Here are some ideas to get you started:


  • Get a Book: Sometimes uncultured people just need one of Post's books before they can learn themselves some manners, and you are simply going to have to learn the manners of the business world one way or another. Then, after you get the book, you are going to have to sit down and read it all. I warned you. Alternatively, you may be able to find a class on this, but you will have to pick this up one way or another. This includes behavior, dress, business writing, and all other aspects of professionalism.
  • Watch Other Professionals: Maybe you shouldn't stare, but take care to notice how other business people hold themselves. Try to notice and remember the small details—you might want to take notes after the fact. This is another way—not your only way—of learning professionalism.
  • Practice Your New-found Professionalism: After you learn how to act (and what clothes to wear/buy), then you should find low-consequence ways to practice your skills. You can join networking or other business clubs, go to conferences, or whatever suits your profession. Just make sure you go as your alter-ego—the business person. You will also need to practice other skills related to professionalism, like letter writing or even basic sales conversation. You just may have to learn by trial and error.
  • Get Feedback: If you are unsure of yourself, find a trusted friend or colleague whom you suspect knows something about professionalism. Now, ask her or him about what subjects worry you most, whether it be letter writing, customer service techniques, or whether your work clothes work well for your office or job.

Your Record

If you ever go under dressed to a meeting or other occasion, then mark yourself at "fault". If you ever act out of propriety for a given business situation, then mark yourself at fault. If you lose self-control in your conversation or behavior, then mark yourself at fault. Be sure to study what professionalism is, especially if you feel the need to focus on this virtue. Make some goals based on your studies and the activities up above. If you fail to make your goals or fail to improve your professionalism, then mark yourself at fault.


Professionalism is knowing how to do it, when to do it, and doing it.

Frank Tyger, American Writer and Political Cartoonist

Nothing is less important than which fork you use. Etiquette is the science of living. It embraces everything. It is ethics. It is honor.

Emily Post, American Author, Considered an Authority on Etiquette and Good Social Behaivior

In cross-border deals, to me etiquette is not an 'edge' thing. It is a prerequisite to being effective.

Mark Greene, American Lawyer in International Corporate Law

Golden Mean

Incompetence, unprofessionalism

Recommended Reading

Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work — by Jacqueline Whitmore

The author of this book claims that you having the skills and knowledge needed for a given job really only makes up 15 percent of the reason you get hired or keep that position. The rest of it depends on people skills that aren't usually taught in schools. Naturally, the author intends to bring you up to speed.

Emily Post's The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success — by Peggy Post, Peter Post

This "Post's" series of etiquette books, now being authored by Emily Post's great-granddaughter in-law, are famously considered canon on the subject. This volume focuses o both good manners and good behavior from the perspective of the business world.

TRUE PROFESSIONALISM : The Courage to Care About Your People, Your Clients, and Your Career — by David H. Maister

As the title might suggest, this book isn't as much as a guidebook to knowing the rules for maneuvering around social interactions in the business world like some of the others might be. It is more of a spiritual and ethical guide toward the subject of business professionalism. While it does suggest that it's ethical approach to professionalism will help a business with continued, consistent practice, it also makes a case for doing the right thing for the sake of doing good.

The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They'd Learned Sooner — by Peggy Klaus

This book is less about knowing rules and how to behave, but how to do interact and speak well with others in business contexts while avoiding self-sabotaging behavior. Also contains advice for career management.

General Rules

Practice virtues daily so that they become ‘habits of the heart’.

Don‘t strive for perfection.

Never give up! Remember: even the greats have off days.

Rely on your intuition.

Avoid extremes. Strive to achieve the golden mean between excess and deficiency of a virtue.

Have fun and enjoy the program with humor and optimism.

A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn't feel like it. Alistair Cooke