Employee professionalism shapes the consumer's view of a company. Even one unprofessional interaction with an employee over the phone or in a store can turn a customer away from a company for life. For an employer, developing employee professionalism is an ongoing task. Training employees to behave in a proactively professional manner is an investment in their individual careers and in the company’s long-term success.
Defining professionalism is kind of like defining politeness. In many instances, professionalism is defined with “I know it when I see it” rather than with a concrete definition. However, if politeness can be defined as behaviors that make others feel comfortable in one’s presence, professionalism can be defined as behaviors that signal to others that one can be trusted to behave appropriately in the workplace and get the job done.
An easy way to understand professionalism is to define the traits that make an individual professional. Note the difference between an individual being professional versus an individual being a professional. While any individual who uses her skills to make a living is a professional in her field, the individual’s actions and presentation are what make her professional. Behaviors commonly cited as professional include:
- An appropriate appearance
- Maintaining a clear distinction between personal and professional life
- Using appropriate language for the workplace
- Following an employer’s ethical standards
- Respect for all others in the workplace
- Refusal to engage in workplace bullying, harassment and other inappropriate behaviors
- Abiding by all company policies and refusing to bend the rules for personal gain
- Helping and supporting colleagues through their professional challenges
- Interacting with colleagues, clients and supervisors with an appropriate level of formality
These behaviors brand an individual as professional because they foster positive workplace relationships. When an individual is punctual, he communicates that he values his clients’ time, his colleagues’ time and his own time. When he refuses to engage in harassment and other toxic behaviors, he communicates that he respects his colleagues and approaches his relationships with them with integrity.
Just like politeness, the actions that can be deemed professional can vary between industries. While making direct orders to subordinates can be the appropriate, professional way to speak on an emergency response crew, this can be considered rude and unprofessional at a tech development firm. Similarly, crawling on the floor and making animal noises is perfectly acceptable professional behavior for a preschool teacher but not for a corporate attorney.
One area where what constitutes professionalism varies widely is professional dress. How an individual presents herself professionally varies from industry to industry and position to position, but in every instance, dressing professionally means wearing clothing that is clean, in good condition, well fitted to the wearer and above all else, does not distract others from her speech or actions when performing her role. In many positions, professional dress is wearing a company uniform. In others, it means wearing a suit to work, neutral colors, a collared shirt and khakis or simply maintaining a neat appearance.
Professional appearance goes beyond clothing choices. It also includes personal grooming. A hairstylist can look professional with unnaturally colored hair in a trendy style as long as it is well kept, whereas a bank teller would typically be branded “unprofessional” for wearing his hair that way. Additionally, professional appearance means appropriate appearance for one’s job – for a restaurant server, this means tying back long hair, and for a construction worker, it means wearing appropriate safety gear.
An employer cannot develop employees’ professionalism skills without first evaluating their skills. This way, employees and their supervisors know where each employee’s professional skills currently stand and can use this as a gauge to measure his professional progress. During a performance review, the supervisor should discuss her observations of the employee’s professional behavior and any specific comments she has received about his professionalism from customers or other employees. Then, she should discuss how her observations and these comments compare to what she considers the ideal professional employee.
The supervisor might rate the employee’s professional skills in multiple categories with numbers, like scoring an employee from one to five in areas like punctuality, adherence to the company’s ethical code and formality level in interactions. During a performance review, she might also ask the employee for his thoughts on his professionalism and other aspects of his performance. His responses could help her understand the company’s culture from an employee’s perspective and determine how to effectively conduct professional development training.
It is important that a supervisor remain objective during performance reviews. Allowing bias to influence her evaluation of specific employees can have permanent career implications for them, potentially shutting them out of advancement opportunities later. To ensure that she gauges every employee’s skills equally, she can determine specific, objective points for each professionalism category covered during the evaluation. Then, evaluating each employee’s professionalism is not subjective but a question of whether the employee did or did not meet each specified point.
In an evaluation of professionalism, the supervisor should discuss all aspects of an employee’s professional behavior. Professionalism evaluation examples include:
- The employee’s dress and personal appearance
- The employee’s communication skills
- The employee’s attitude
- How the employee interacts with colleagues
- How the employee manages her time
- Whether the employee is accountable for her tasks
- How the employee responds to stressful situations
- The employee’s consistency in completing work tasks
- The employee’s behavior according to the company’s ethical code
The supervisor might conduct the evaluation by working down a bullet list of all these categories and discussing each with the employee, or he might opt to focus on the specific areas where he feels the employee needs to improve her skills.
He might begin the evaluation with scores for the employee in each of the professionalism categories he is evaluating, or he might ask for the employee’s input to determine a score for each category, giving the employee an opportunity to evaluate her own skills. There are lots of professionalism evaluation examples available for supervisors to study and tailor to their own management styles and their teams’ needs.
Any performance review is going to result in comments about the employee’s performance. Often, similar phrases are found in multiple employees’ evaluation files, often because these phrases are the phrases the evaluator has deemed to be helpful. Consistent phrases across employee files also create a sense of uniformity, which can make it easier for a new supervisor to evaluate employees based on their existing files.
Helpful performance review phrases examples include:
- Janice is always available to help co-workers with their tasks.
- Brad is a proven team leader.
- Carol always makes the company’s goals her personal priority.
- Kyle frequently withholds critical information from his team.
- Nadine consistently relies on others to help her meet deadlines.
- Jeffrey’s work is of inconsistent quality.
- Michelle shows initiative by being proactive about upcoming changes.
- Lawrence readily accepts constructive criticism and uses his colleagues’ comments to improve his performance.
- Kelly regularly neglects tasks she deems boring or low priority.
- Chris is easily distracted by personal disagreements with colleagues.
Certain performance review phrases are popular because they have been proven to be helpful. Sometimes, an accurate phrase is not a helpful phrase, so it is not the best way for an evaluator to word her performance reviews. Vague phrases are rarely helpful, nor are those based on opinions rather than observations or quantifiable facts. Unhelpful performance review phrases examples include:
- Nicole is a good worker.
- Adam is too condescending to be a good leader.
- The whole team loves Brittany.
- Zach takes little problems way too seriously.
- Wanda is never on time for anything.
- Kevin makes working at the company fun.
Professional evaluation comments should be helpful to the employee being evaluated. Though they can point out areas where the employee has room to improve his skills, they should do so in a respectful manner that acknowledges the employee’s capacity for development rather than blaming him for his shortcomings. Examples of effective professional evaluation comments include:
- Joseph consistently makes punctuality his priority.
- Deborah sometimes engages too casually with customers and can improve her professional reputation by taking a more formal tone where appropriate.
- David faces difficulty handling stressful situations and can benefit from developing stronger coping and stress management skills.
- Jessica communicates effectively with her colleagues and has helped her whole team’s communication improve by leading by example.
After scoring employees’ professionalism and making comments in their files, the employee and supervisor should determine improvement goals and tangible steps the employee can take to meet them. This might be dying his hair to a natural color or practicing working more cooperatively with his co-workers. These steps can also include measurable progress, like improving the employee’s average score on customer satisfaction surveys by two points or keeping the meetings he conducts to one hour or less.
Professionalism evaluation comments, just like all other comments made and recorded in a performance review, are added to the employee’s permanent employee file. In later performance reviews and evaluations for promotion, this file will come out again and these comments may be considered. To protect the employee from potentially being mischaracterized or unfairly judged in these evaluations, a supervisor should take care to be professional in his commentary. This means accurately describing the employee’s behavior rather than attacking his character and giving sufficient context to comments made.
Even employees who have strong professional skills can work to develop their professional skills further. After conducting professionalism evaluations and noting where employees can improve their skills, an employer can develop training sessions tailored to her team’s needs. If her employees’ individual professionalism skills vary widely, she might need to break them into groups or conduct one-on-one professionalism training sessions to ensure that each employee is met at his current level. For a team whose skills are largely at similar levels, group training can be an efficient, engaging way to build professionalism skills while promoting teamwork.
There are a variety of ways an employer can train employees on professional skills. One way is to role play scenarios employees face in the workplace so they can walk through the steps of a successful professional interaction. Another is to hold regular group discussions about professionalism in the workplace and what it means to be professional. For teams whose skills are largely developed, venturing into proactive professionalism, or how they can act appropriately in anticipation of changes and critical interactions, can be an intellectually stimulating professional development opportunity.
Building professional skills should be viewed as an ongoing task rather than something to be done once and then forgotten. The professionalism evaluation comments recorded during a performance review can be used as a jumping-off point for the employee’s continued professional development and the employer’s evaluation of her progress.