A Leading Perspective

Pragmatic insights for the leader in you

Where’s Your Bar? Professionalism

“Professionalism is like love: it is made up of the constant flow of little bits of proof that testify to devotion and care. Everything else is pretension or incompetence.” 

Tomislav Sola


I taught a class last week on discrimination and harassment prevention; my content covers topics such as legislation, complaint processes, definitions/thresholds for legal “terms of art,” investigatory processes and, of course, how a manager decreases his/her liability in such matters.

A participant asked, “at one point does unprofessional behavior become illegal?”

I won’t bore with you my full answer but as I sit here thinking about it, I am reflecting upon our conversation and wanted to share this with you:


Your “standard” for professionalism should be higher than simply hovering above “legal.”


Professionalism is a big word.

It covers the way we think, the way we look, the way we sound, the way we communicate, and the way we behave.


There may be a fine line between “legal” and “illegal” behavior in the workplace, but the “gray area” is deep given the variables that come into play.

I think if the standard for professionalism is set too low, the supervisor is inviting the possibility of the staff’s behavior to often dip into the “danger zone.”  However, if the standard for professionalism is set high, I believe the supervisor will rarely see staff’s behavior get “iffy.”


What is your standard?

Many supervisors wait around for their organization to identify and communicate the standard through a policy.  Perhaps they think the Code of Conduct will better define it or maybe they are hoping that the next version of the Employee Handbook will more clearly define what is acceptable behavior and what is not.


I don’t think you should wait.

I encourage them to gather up their staff (all of them or a focus group of sorts) and discuss the following as it pertains to professionalism:

  • The culture of the industry.
  • The culture of organization, and sub-cultures of the programs within it.
  • The expectations of the customers, clients, vendors, colleagues, and other stakeholders.
  • The expectations of the employees and the supervisor.
  • The capabilities of current staff.
  • The perfect world.

The objective of these discussions is not to identify which perspective is right or wrong but instead, the objective is to approach the “standard” from multiple perspectives.

In the end, these discussions should result in an obvious identification of the following:

What does professionalism look like?
What does professionalism sound like?
What does professionalism feel like?


I encourage supervisors to write these things down.

Before you go bellyaching that this seems like a lot of work, let me remind you of this:

safety standards are written down,
productivity standards are written down,
financial standards are written down.


If you believe that professionalism in the workplace is important, you’ll write the standards down!

Only then can you effectively communicate the standard to the employee.

Only then can you objectively compare his/her performance with the standard.

Only then can you hold him/her accountable for the performance.

And only then can you create a workplace that is and always will be at a standard higher than “legal.”




Employee EngagementEmployee RelationsHuman ResourcesLeadershipPerformance ManagementPerformance StandardsProfessionalismSHRMTeamworkWorkforce

Heather Kinzie • July 16, 2013

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