12.1 Professionalism

What is Professionalism?

A profession is an occupation that involves mastery of complex knowledge and skills through prolonged training, education, or practical experience. Becoming a member of a specific profession doesn’t happen overnight. Whether you seek to be a public relations expert, lawyer, doctor, teacher, welder, electrician, and so on, each profession involves that interested parties invest themselves in learning to become a professional or a member of a profession who earns their living through specified expert activity. It’s much easier to define the terms “profession” and “professional” than it is to define the term “professionalism” because each profession will have its take on what it means to be a professional within a given field. According to the United States Department of Labor (2012), professionalism “does not mean wearing a suit or carrying a briefcase; rather, it means conducting oneself with responsibility, integrity, accountability, and excellence. It means communicating effectively and appropriately and always finding a way to be productive.” The U.S. Department of Labor’s book Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success (2012, p. 114) goes on to note:

Professionalism isn’t one thing; it’s a combination of qualities. A professional employee arrives on time for work and manages time effectively. Professional workers take responsibility for their own behavior and work effectively with others. High quality work standards, honesty, and integrity are also part of the package. Professional employees look clean and neat and dress appropriately for the job. Communicating effectively and appropriately for the workplace is also an essential part of professionalism.

The Requirements of Professionalism

As you can see here, professionalism isn’t a single “thing” that can be labeled. Instead, professionalism involves the aims and behaviors that demonstrate an individual’s level of competence expected by a professional within a given profession. By the word “aims,” we mean that someone who exhibits professionalism is guided by a set of goals in a professional setting. Whether the aim is to complete a project on time or help ensure higher quarterly incomes for their organization, professionalism involves striving to help one’s organization achieve specific goals. By “behaviors,” we mean specific ways of behaving and communicating within an organizational environment. Some common behaviors can include acting ethically (we’ll discuss ethics in the next section of this chapter), respecting others, taking personal/professional responsibility, and managing our online presence. Let’s look at each of these separately.

Respect for Others

Our second category related to professionalism is respecting others. Sadly, many people exist in the modern workplace that need a refresher in common courtesy. From workplace bullying to sexual harassment, many people simply do not always treat people with dignity and respect in the workplace. So, what do we mean by treating someone with respect? There are a lot of behaviors one can engage in that are respectful if you’re interacting with a coworker or interacting with leaders or followers.

Here’s a list we created of respectful behaviors for workplace interactions:

  • Be courteous, polite, and kind to everyone.
  • Do not criticize or nitpick at little inconsequential things.
  • Do not engage in patronizing or demeaning behaviors.
  • Don’t engage in physically hostile body language.
  • Don’t roll your eyes when your coworkers are talking.
  • Don’t use an aggressive tone of voice when talking with coworkers.
  • Encourage coworkers to express opinions and ideas.
  • Encourage your coworkers to demonstrate respect to each other as well.
  • Listen to your coworkers openly without expressing judgment before they’ve finished speaking.
  • Listen to your coworkers without cutting them off or speaking over them.
  • Make sure you treat all of your coworkers fairly and equally.
  • Make sure your facial expressions are appropriate and not aggressive.
  • Never engage in verbally aggressive behavior: insults, name-calling, rumor mongering, disparaging, and putting people or their ideas down.
  • Praise your coworkers more often than you criticize them. Point out when they’re doing great things, not just when they’re doing “wrong” things.
  • Provide an equal opportunity for all coworkers to provide insight and input during meetings.
  • Treat people the same regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc.…
  • When expressing judgment, focus on criticizing ideas, and not the person.

Personal Responsibility

Let’s face it; we all make mistakes. Making mistakes is a part of life. Personal responsibility refers to an individual’s willingness to be accountable for what they feel, think, and behave. Whether we’re talking about our attitudes, our thought processes, or physical / communicative behaviors, personal responsibility is simply realizing that we are in the driver’s seat and not blaming others for our current circumstances. Now, this is not to say that there are never external factors that impede our success. Of course, there are. This is not to say that certain people have a leg-up on life because of a privileged background, of course, some people have. However, personal responsibility involves differentiating between those things we can control and those things that are outside of our control. For example, I may not be able to control a coworker who decides to yell at me, but I can control how I feel about that coworker, how I think about that coworker, and how I choose to respond to that coworker.

Here are some ways that you can take personal responsibility in your own life (or in the workplace):

  • Acknowledge that you are responsible for your choices in the workplace.
  • Acknowledge that you are responsible for how you feel at work.
  • Acknowledge that you are responsible for your behaviors at work.
  • Accept that your choices are yours alone, so you can’t blame someone else for them.
  • Accept that your sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem are yours.
  • Accept that you can control your stress and feelings of burnout.
  • Decide to invest in your self-improvement.
  • Decide to take control of your attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • Decide on specific professional goals and make an effort and commitment to accomplish those goals.

Although you may have the ability to take responsibility for your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, not everyone in the workplace will do the same. Most of us will come in contact with coworkers who do not take personal responsibility. Dealing with coworkers who have a million and one excuses can be frustrating and demoralizing.

Excuse-making occurs any time an individual attempts to shift the blame for an individual’s behavior from reasons more central to the individual to sources outside of their control in the attempt to make themselves look better and more in control (Snyder & Higgens, 1988). For example, an individual may explain their tardiness to work by talking about how horrible the traffic was on the way to work instead of admitting that they slept in late and left the house late. People make excuses because they fear that revealing the truth would make them look bad or out of control. In this example, waking up late and leaving the house late is the fault of the individual, but they blame the traffic to make themself look better and in control even though they were late.

Excuse-making happens in every facet of life, but excuse-making in the corporate world can be highly problematic. For example, research has shown that when front-line service providers engage in excuse-making, they are more likely to lose return customers as a result (Hill et al., 1992; Hill & Baer, 1994). In one study, when salespeople attempted to excuse their lack of ethical judgment on their customer’s lack of ethics, supervisors tended to punish more severely those who engaged in excuse-making than those who had not (Bellizzi & Norvell, 1991). Of course, even an individual’s peers can become a little annoyed (or downright disgusted) by a colleague who always has a handy excuse for their behavior. For this reason, Amy Nordam recommends using the ERROR method when handling a situation where your behavior was problematic: Empathy, Responsibility, Reason, Offer Reassurance (Nordrum, 2014).

Here is an example Nordrum uses to illustrate the ERROR method:

I hate that you [burden placed on person] because of me (Empathy). I should have thought things out better (Responsibility), but I got caught up in [reason for behavior] (Reason). Next time I’ll [preventative action] (Offer Reassurance).

As you can see, the critical parts of this response involve validating the other person, taking responsibility, and providing an explanation for how you’ll behave in the future to avoid similar problems.

Online Identity Management

Our identity management is an important part of our professionalism. Our choice of attire and communication (verbal and non-verbal) are just some examples of how we can create a positive impression in the workplace. Another important, and often overlooked, aspect of our identity management is our digital footprint.

Have you ever given someone’s page a “once-over” before you send or accept a friend request just to make sure that the content displayed is giving off the desired impression? The personal and social nature of online social media platforms also creates an openness that isn’t necessarily part of our offline social reality. Although some people try to address this problem by creating more than one account or adjusting the privacy settings, social media can blur the lines between personal and professional.

Personal media devices bring with them a sense of constant connectivity that makes us “reachable” nearly all the time and can be comforting or anxiety inducing. Devices such as smartphones and computers, and platforms such as e-mail, Facebook, and the web, are within an arm’s reach of many people. While this can be convenient and make things more efficient in some cases, it can also create a dependence that we might not be aware of until those connections are broken or become unreliable. You don’t have to look too far to see people buried in their smartphones, tablets, or laptops all around. The constant connection offered by laptops and smartphones increases the expectation that people will continue working from home or while on vacation. Recently, Bill 27, the Working for Workers Act was passed in Ontario (Government of Ontario, 2021). One of the primary purposes of this legislation is to provide employees with the right to disconnect from workplace communication during non-working hours.

At the same time, however, people may use new media for non-work-related purposes while at work, which may help even out the work/life balance. Cyberslacking which is the non-work-related use of social media while on the job, is seen as a problem in many organizations and workplaces. However, some research shows that occasional use of technology for personal reasons while at work can have positive effects, as it may relieve boredom, help reduce stress, or lead to greater job satisfaction (Vitak et al., 2011).

A key part of interpersonal communication is impression management, and some forms of new media allow us more tools for presenting ourselves than others. Social networking sites (SNSs) in many ways are platforms for self-presentation. Even more than blogs, web pages, and smartphones, the environment on an SNS like Facebook or Twitter facilitates self-disclosure in a directed way and allows others who have access to our profile to see our other “friends.” This convergence of different groups of people (close friends, family, acquaintances, friends of friends, colleagues, and strangers) can present challenges for self-presentation.

We should be aware that people form impressions of us based not just on what we post on our profiles but also on our friends and the content that they post on our profiles. In short, as in our offline lives, we are judged online by the company we keep (Walther et al., 2008). The information on our social media profiles is also often archived, meaning there is a record the likes of which doesn’t exist in offline interactions. Self-disclosure is a fundamental building block of interpersonal relationships, and new media make self-disclosures easier for many people because of the lack of immediacy, meaning the fact that a message is sent through electronic means arouses less anxiety or inhibition than would a face-to-face exchange. It can also lead to feeling too safe and disclosing information that you wouldn’t usually share in-person. The “Getting Competent” feature box that discusses some tips on how to competently use social media.

Consider This

Using Social Media Competently

We all have a growing log of personal information stored on the Internet, and some of it is under our control and some of it isn’t. We also have increasingly diverse social networks that require us to be cognizant of the information we make available and how we present ourselves. While we can’t control all the information about ourselves online or the impressions people form, we can more competently engage with social media so that we are getting the most out of it in both personal and professional contexts.

A quick search on Google for “social media dos and don’ts” will yield around 100,000 results, which shows that there’s no shortage of advice about how to competently use social media. I’ll offer some of the most important dos and don’ts that I found that relate to communication (Doyle, 2012). Feel free to do your own research on specific areas of concern, but consider the following important aspects:

  • Be consistent. Given that most people have multiple social media accounts, it’s important to have some degree of consistency. At least at the top level of your profile (the part that isn’t limited by privacy settings), include information that you don’t mind anyone seeing.
  • Know what’s out there. Since the top level of many social media sites are visible in Google search results, you should monitor how these appear to others by regularly (about once a month) doing a Google search using various iterations of your name. Putting your name in quotation marks will help target your results. Make sure you’re logged out of all your accounts and then click on the various results to see what others can see.
  • Think before you post. Software that enable people to take “screen shots” or download videos and tools that archive web pages can be used without our knowledge to create records of what you post. While it is still a good idea to go through your online content and “clean up” materials that may form unfavorable impressions, it is even a better idea to not put that information out there in the first place. Posting something about how you hate school or your job or a specific person may be done in the heat of the moment and forgotten, but a potential employer might find that information and form a negative impression even if it’s months or years old.
  • Be familiar with privacy settings. If you are trying to expand your social network, it may be counterproductive to put your Facebook or Twitter account on “lockdown,” but it is beneficial to know what levels of control you have and to take advantage of them. For example, I have a “Limited Profile” list on Facebook to which I assign new contacts or people with whom I am not very close. You can also create groups of contacts on various social media sites so that only certain people see certain information.
  • Be a gatekeeper for your network. Do not accept friend requests or followers that you do not know. Not only could these requests be sent from “bots” that might skim your personal info or monitor your activity; they could be from people that might make you look bad. Remember, we learned earlier that people form impressions based on those with whom we are connected. You can always send a private message to someone asking how he or she knows you or do some research by Googling his or her name or username.
    • Identify information that you might want to limit for each of the following audiences: friends, family, and employers.
    • Google your name (remember to use multiple forms and to put them in quotation marks). Do the same with any usernames that are associated with your name (e.g., you can Google your Twitter handle or an e-mail address). What information came up? Were you surprised by anything?
    • What strategies can you use to help manage the impressions you form on social media?


  1. Think of a time in an organization where you witnessed unethical organizational communication. Which of Redding’s typology did you witness? Did you do anything about the unethical organizational communication? Why?
  2. Look at the list of respectful behaviors for workplace interactions. How would you react if others violated these respectful behaviors towards you as a coworker? Have you ever been disrespectful in your communication towards coworkers? Why?
  3. Why do you think it’s essential to take personal responsibility and avoid excusing making in the workplace? Have you ever found yourself making excuses? Why?
  4. Do you find the constant connectivity that comes with personal media overstimulating or comforting?
  5. What opportunities and challenges do you face as you try to use social media for personal and professional purposes?


This section is adapted from:

Interpersonal Communication by Jason S. Wrench; Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter; and Katherine S. Thweatt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Communication in the Real World by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Bellizzi, J. A., & Norvell, D. (1991). Personal characteristics and salesperson’s justifications as moderators of supervisory discipline in cases involving unethical salesforce behavior. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 19, 11-16.

Doyle, A. (2012). Top 10 social media dos and don’ts. About.com. http://jobsearch.about.com/od/onlinecareernetworking/tp/socialmediajobsearch.htm.

Government of Ontario. (2021). Working for workers act, 2021, S.O. 2021, c. 35 – Bill 27. Queens Printer for Ontario. https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/s21035

Hill, D. J., & Baer, R. (1994). Customers complain–businesses make excuses: The effects of linkage and valence. Advances in Consumer Research, 21, 399-405.

Hill, D. J., Baer, R., & Kosenko, R. (1992). Organizational characteristics and employee excuse making: Passing the buck for failed service encounters. Advances in Consumer Research, 19, 673-678.

Nordrum, A. (2014). What’s your excuse? Psychology Today, 47(4), 22.

Office of Disability Employment Policy. (2012). Soft skills to pay the bills: Mastering soft skills for workplace success.  U.S. Department of Labor. http://www.dol.gov/odep/topics/youth/softskills/

Snyder, C. R., & Higgins, R. L. (1988). Excuses: Their effective role in the negotiation of reality. Psychological Bulletin, 104(1), 23-35. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.104.1.23

Vitak, J., Crouse, J., & LaRose, R. (2011). Personal internet use at work: Understanding cyberslacking. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(5), 1752.

Walther, J. B., Van Der Heide, B., Kim, S. Y., Westerman, D., & Tong, S. T. (2008). The role of friends’ appearance and behavior on evaluations of individuals on Facebook: Are we known by the company we Keep? Human Communication Research, 34, 29.


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Psychology, Communication, and the Canadian Workplace Copyright © 2022 by Laura Westmaas, BA, MSc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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