I’ve seen a flurry of social media references to “professionalism” lately, but little guidance as to what that entails. The usual focus is to point out “unprofessional” behavior. That may tell us how not to act, but it doesn’t teach us much about how to build a professional image.
I’m no authority on this subject, and I’m not always the perfect professional myself. But as I think about the many true professionals I’ve known, they have some things in common.
Hallmarks of the professional
Speaks positively of others. The best “professionals” focus on what’s good. They understand that success teaches us far more than failure. If I say that so-and-so messed up, that tells you little or nothing about how to do it right. People are going to make mistakes. Let them. If you have a point to make, find somebody who’s doing it right and highlight that. You look good (and professional), the other person looks good, and everybody learns something. It is never “professional” to ridicule, belittle or threaten another person. Ever.
Practices proper etiquette and decorum. The professional does what is expected in a given situation. This varies from place to place. You probably won’t see the professional wearing a wool suit to a baseball game. He or she will look, dress, talk and act in a way that inspires trust and confidence in any situation. That might be wearing correct camouflage and keeping quiet on a hunting trip (and letting the other guy have the first shot), or wearing a nice suit to a business function and being one of the last in the buffet line.
Keeps secrets. Physicians and attorneys are expected (and legally required) to maintain the confidentiality of their patients and clients. You may be in a profession that has no formal requirements, but that doesn’t matter. It’s never professional to breach a confidence, unless it’s necessary to prevent a crime. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t come up often in my life.
Projects confidence. People pay me to handle dicey public relations matters. Sometimes I’m dealing with a damaged reputation. More commonly, I’m trying to promote something. Clients have to believe I know what I’m doing, or they’ll hire someone else. That doesn’t mean that we guarantee results (such guarantees are unethical in many cases) – only that we know what to do. There’s plenty of room for humility. Doctors lose thousands of patients every day. Half the lawyers in every litigation lose. But the professionals know how to do it right, and it’s OK to say so.
Leaves others feeling better. There’s something about a real professional who puts others at ease, gives them a sense of optimism and makes their world a little better.
Putting these notions together on social media.
There’s been a lot of conversation about the mixing of business and personal accounts and activities on Facebook. It’s a thorny question. The temptation to broadcast every passing thought on our Twitter and Facebook feeds can lead to uncomfortable situations, and the professional rarely seeks to make people uncomfortable. In keeping with the notion of doing what is expected in a given setting, I’ve made some big changes to my social media use. I never use Twitter for anything other than business purposes, because it’s impossible to separate the business followers from the personal ones. (Like a lot of people, I’m still dealing with the impact of my early promiscuity in building up my Twitter and Facebook audiences.) I’ve put virtually all business contacts on my Facebook “Restricted” list, which allows me to converse more freely and candidly with family and local personal friends. When I think it’s appropriate to share something with business associates, I have to make the post “public.”
It’s not perfect. Any such system leaks, so it’s important not to say anything scandalous, no matter how small the intended audience. I share select personal information with business associates. (It makes me a real person and avoids appearing stuffy.) But just as it’s unprofessional to go to an office and talk nonstop about one’s personal life, it’s also unprofessional to impose every personal conversation on business social media contacts.