What Does Professionalism Look Like?

Do you know what it means to be a professional? Would you recognize professional behavior if you encountered it?

For many, the image of being a professional is tied up in appearances. They see someone in a suit (and tie for men) and assume that this person is a professional.

For others, credentials are the essence of professionalism. They see a degree or professional certification and think, “there goes a professional.”

For still others, professionalism is an impersonal, almost clinical, “business-only” approach to both conversation and life.

I would submit that each of these images of what a professional is are lacking the true essence of professionalism. Quite simply, they miss the point of what a professional really is.

In this post, I’d like to discuss what professionalism REALLY is (and is not) and suggest a few ways that you can be more professional in your interactions with customers and clients.

You Can Have a Life and Still Be a Professional

It’s okay to have a life outside of work (and acknowledge that life), as long as your clients know that you can be trusted to complete your work on time.

I remember, years ago, attending a professional presentation where one of the key speakers was another writer who happened to also be a mom. In her speech, the speaker briefly mentioned her young children. Afterward, another colleague (let’s call her Sally) was discussing the presentation with me. Sally commented on how unprofessional she felt the speaker had been by mentioning her kids in the presentation.

Personally, I think that Sally missed the boat with both her comment and her attitude. The speaker’s talk was actually very relevant to the topic. I actually found it to be very helpful. The fact that the speaker mentioned her kids briefly did not detract from the presentation at all, in my opinion.

Some may disagree, but I think that it’s okay to let your clients know that you have a personal life as long as that personal life doesn’t dominate your client relationships. You don’t have to pretend like work is the only thing that you ever do or have any interest in. After all, your clients probably have a personal side to them as well.

Six Signs of a Professional

If professionalism isn’t determined by how we dress or the degree (or other qualifications) that we hold, then what is professionalism?

I would argue that there are at least six signs of a true professional. Without these characteristics, professionalism simply isn’t possible.

Here are the six characteristics of a true professional:

  1. A professional is courteous. A true professional may disagree with you, but they will never be rude to you. They will maintain their composure and always speak politely.
  2. A professional is reliable. When you engage a true professional to do your work, you can count on the fact that it will be done. A professional takes their work seriously and will not abandon work or a client.
  3. A professional is respectful. A true professional listens attentively to your suggestions and ideas. They will inform you if they thing you should do something differently, but they will not belittle or insult you.
  4. A professional is honest. With a true professional, you know what you are getting. Their word is good, and they will honestly report all of their actions.
  5. A professional is responsible. A true professional will acknowledge and take responsibility for their actions — even they occasionally make mistakes.
  6. A professional is competent. A professional knows how to get the job done and is up-to-date with the most recent developments in his or her field.

As a freelancer, you can use this list to examine and adjust your own behaviors and attitudes. Do you exhibit professionalism? What areas could you work on?

What Is Professionalism To You?

Have you given much thought to what professionalism is? What would you add to the description of a true professional?

Have you ever been treated unprofessionally? If so, how did it feel?

Share your thoughts!

Top image by rogerimp


  1. says

    I absolutely agree. Just because somebody wears a suit it doesn’t show professionalism at all – often it’s even just a requirement to work as a sales person for example.

    In my opinion reliability, honesty and responsibility are the most important aspects to be a true professional. Even though a suitable appearance might be important sometimes too just to visually underline those aspects, it’s definitely not just the look of a person alone which counts.

  2. says

    Thanks Maximilian!

    I think that we get in the habit of judging things by appearances, but it’s really the contents that matter. This is especially true when it comes to people. What’s on the inside is what really counts.

    As you point out, appearances may be required by an employer and not an accurate reflection of who a person is.

  3. says

    I always have struggled with this. I think “Is it okay that I have tattoos showing when I meet a client for the first time?” or “How much personal info and pictures is okay to share on twitter / myspace / facebook if suddenly clients are following and friending me?”

    Your post was very helpful. The points listed above are truly what makes a professional, professional!

  4. says

    Erica, even if they do have access to the photos, I think it will only help them to get you know a bit better, and probably make the business relationship better and more enjoyable.

  5. says

    I would agree – Although I am only 25 and have had facebook since college – we all know what those photos look like!!! I went in and deleted a lot once clients friended me.

  6. says

    I forgot something. I’ve had a client who has missed a payment for quite some time now. I think I called them for like 3 or 4 times, didn’t get anything in return (no payment was made, though they promised to do it). A few days back, another phone call, we got a bit distracted by off topic chatting, and I remembered my client’s wife was pregnant. I asked about the lady’s health. Boy did I do well? Yes. Payment was made soon after.

    So I guess getting to know your clients a bit outside of their suits can provide only good things.

  7. says

    @ Erica

    Oh, those photos. I myself had some issue like that. I ended up deleting accounts on such sites. However, I am now trying to separate the business accounts from the personal ones and use them wisely, and properly.

  8. Paul Cook says

    Nice article.

    I think you nailed it. People in suits rip clients off every day while people with tats and wearing a t-shirt bend over backwards to do the right thing by their clients. Acting ethically in your business dealings is professionalism.

  9. says

    This is SO incredibly true. I’ve gotten more repeat clients because of politeness than anything else (because really, most people can’t tell a good design from a bad design, but they can definitely tell when someone makes them feel comfortable and good about the work they are paying for, without being a dick about it).

    Nice work!

  10. says

    Awwh, I felt bad that Sally criticized that writer. Surely you’d empathize with and respect someone who showed their personal side? That’s also what everyone else is saying here; that adding a personal touch helps, especially when you are networking.

  11. says

    Yup, I agree, you said it in this post. Professionalism goes a lot deeper then your appearance. I’m not as clean cut as most people are either, but as you said Paul, I always try to deliver the best results and experience for anyone I work with.

    Excellent post!

  12. says

    Number 2 is the most critical point for me. You should never abandon a client, not even if you’ve completed the job and they ask you for advice, or to fix something regarding the work that you did for them.

    By helping them you increase the chance of them coming back to you for more work. you been helpful and responsible at the same time.

  13. says

    Thank you so much for this post. I think it is time to get back to the basics of professionalism. I have encountered a few individuals lately how have lacked one or more of those important characteristics, and I was shocked.

    If every freelancer was truly professional as you described in your six points, we would all get more respect, and probably clients that are less apprehensive.

    I also appreciate the point that professionals have lives outside of their career. It is perfectly fine to make clients aware of the point, as long as “life” doesn’t interfere with the business too much.

  14. says

    I agree with the 6 points of professionalism. Personal life always comes first for me, business second, but whilst I do business, I’ll do my best to be as professional as I can.

  15. says

    As someone who works with the concepts and benefits of professionalism every day, I am very interested to read both the article and the discussion. One of the key elements of professionalism for me was picked up by Paul who talked about acting ethically. I don’t believe professionalism is a coat you put on at the beginning of each working day but a way of being, an attitude to living and to others and has a fundamental effect on our approach to interactions of all kinds. The old adage ‘do unto others as you would be done by’ still rings very true in this context.

  16. PURITY says

    What a discussion!!

    I truly agree with the saying that ‘do not judge a book by its cover’. of course looks may be deceiving at times.
    I think the six characteristics mentioned are so precise and accurate. Professionalism is about doing what is ethically or morally right, wearing a suit or not, even thougha good physical image is also important.

  17. says

    This is a very nice article, i’m not a suit kind of guy, mostly here in El Salvador with 35° celsius almost all the year, but always try to look neat, is very important to dress up and look accordingly to the situation, if you wera a suit to meet a rock band members to design his album cover you can be a bit out of place, or wearing a T-shirt in an interview ina bank, you have to be in place every time.

    Puntcuality is always a must, as almost everybody our clients have an specific amount of time for meetings and if you get late you can find yourself with too little time for the meeting or not at all, that can cost you a client.

    And finally as Collin Powel says the school degrees are worthless in the battle field, the combat experience is that counts, and that is gained only working an learning every day, and it includes learnig about your client tastes, lives and everything that helps you nail it all the time and them the clients will sees you as a profesional.

  18. says

    I myself had some issue like that. I ended up deleting accounts on such sites. However, I am now trying to separate the business accounts from the personal ones and use them wisely, and properly.


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