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An reader writes:

A colleague of mine has emailed to ask my thoughts on “professionalism” and also ways in which she could be more “professional”. I’m struggling because without defining the former, I can’t make suggestions on the latter. Now, this is all complicated rather by the fact that the email was prompted by my colleague’s manager setting her such an odd task as a “development objective”. I can only assume that this “development” is also in terms of professionalism rather than, say, moral or physical development.

Given that the obvious inference is that the manager clearly sees some lack in her subordinate (that I haven’t seen), my primary concern is that my colleague’s request for my thoughts displayed such levels of restraint and composure that she looks a model of professionalism when judged against what I suspect my reaction would have been. But that apart, what is professionalism? I would appreciate advice from readers on how to define professionalism without sounding like a Human Resources barbarian.

Without Unspeak’s help, I may simply have to rehearse my too-obvious reading of “Bartleby the Scrivener” where the unprofessionalism of B and colleagues in the Dead Letter Office was prompted, I’ve always thought, by stultifyingly dull work and inhuman mismanagement.

Good question! It reminds me, by the way, of a related annoying phenomenon: the rampant deflation and curious redirection of the word professional in the sphere of commercially manufactured objects or immaterial products, which themselves are described as professional, even though it is a vicious insult to thought and language to suppose that a computer (“Macbook Pro”) or a software program (“Logic Pro”) or a tennis racquet (“Wilson Pro Staff”) or a filter coffee maker (“KitchenAid Pro Line”) can be professional.

Of course the promise here is really about the elevation of the user’s status by use of such objects: if you buy them, you will become more professional, no longer (as the usual demarcation in commercial product lines has it) a mere consumer, as though professionals do not consume things — as though, indeed, there are not such persons as professional consumers, ie restaurant critics. ((The enjoyable hybrid term prosumer is not, I think, meant to apply to restaurant critics, but then again, why not?))

But all that brings us back to our initial question, addressed to you, eminent readers. What is professionalism?

  1. 1  Peter Robins  November 20, 2009, 10:17 am 

    “Prosumer”, as I understand it, is a photo trade term, for a camera which has all or nearly all the features you’d need to attempt to make a living with it, but not the heavy-duty construction that would allow it to survive the attempt. Restaurant critics are accused of many things; I reckon this is the first time anyone’s attacked them for being flimsily built.

  2. 2  Martin Hollis  November 20, 2009, 10:35 am 

    Things like:
    – Hiding your feelings to be polite at all times.
    – Doing a good job even when you don’t feel like it.
    – Not saying fuck.

  3. 3  Steven  November 20, 2009, 10:48 am 

    I am so unprofessional.

  4. 4  Ricardo  November 20, 2009, 11:03 am 

    Giving the appearance of caring when information is “cascaded” down to you

  5. 5  Mark Clapham  November 20, 2009, 11:12 am 

    I believe professionalism is the gentle art of not drawing attention to your superiors’ myriad failings, especially when they’re taking credit for your work.

  6. 6  Dave Weeden  November 20, 2009, 11:18 am 

    I am so fucking unprofessional.

  7. 7  Dave Weeden  November 20, 2009, 11:26 am 

    ‘Pro’ when applied to objects seems to be intended to imply ‘heavy duty’ but without the guarantee that that label would be understood to convey. See Peter Robins @1. A pro camera is more robust than an amateur camera, because it sees more use, gets more kickings. Just don’t expect a refund if you drop it.

    ‘Professional’ which ought to be a tautology when applied to one’s employment seems to mean no more or less than the noun form of ‘competent.’

  8. 8  shadowfirebird  November 20, 2009, 11:27 am 

    You could take the view that ‘professionalism’ is a really good word, simply because it describes something that is very difficult to describe otherwise. (I note that the definition in the Concise OED, is, well, crap.)

    And also, it’s a useful word.

    I’m normally quite good at this, but the best I can come to describing it is by saying that a professional person puts the needs of the company equal to their own needs. But that’s weak: it implies consideration for others, calmness, efficiency, caring about how people see things.

    This is beginning to sound like some ancient eastern philosophical tract: “The Way of Professionalism”. Which works — to me the word has some of the connotations that ‘honourable’ might have had in the 19th century. But that’s just me.

    Hmm. “The professionalism that can be explained is not the real professionalism”…?!

  9. 9  Martin Wisse  November 20, 2009, 1:01 pm 

    Being professional means you have the outward markers of being a Serious, Dedicated Employee down pat (business suit, executive style hair, speak the lingo undsoweiter) so that you can get away with your inherent cluelessness and fuck up the work of your more capable, but less presentable cow-orkers.

  10. 10  sw  November 20, 2009, 2:10 pm 

    “Professionalism” is incorporation into a role; it involves an enactment of the ethics, codes, values, and social expectations that come with working, whether in a general job or a specific one.

    Jobs are part of our identities, jobs are a way of identifying ourselves: jobs are more than just the actual act of production, or negotiation, or plumbing, or whatever it is that one does or does not do in order to earn the paycheck as part of a transaction; this excess, this “more than”, is the culture of the job, the cultural idea and identity of the job – and cultures have their ethics, their codes, their rules, etc.

    “Professionalism” doesn’t really mean one thing other than this value- and culture-laden incorporation into a role, because there are so many possible professional identities; obviously, one could pack together common threads to create an ideal “professionalism”, but, like all such compromises, it starts to look a little bit bland. A writer’s “professionalism” may not entail avoiding fuck (although it may), hiding your feelings (although it may), or regular work hours (although it may), but it other attributes that, rightly or wrongly, inhere in “being good enough to get paid to do it”.

    Something like that? It’s all very well to sneer at “professionalism” as The Man exploiting the man, but it is also an all-encompassing term for values and work ethics and ideas of expertise that I for one like to see in, say, pilots and brain surgeons, but also in plumbers and judges and busdrivers and cabdrivers and hairdressers and the barista who chooses not to spit in my coffee.

  11. 11  Steven  November 20, 2009, 3:59 pm 

    the barista who chooses not to spit in my coffee

    That’s setting the bar rather low for barista professionalism, I feel?

  12. 12  Katherine Farmar  November 20, 2009, 4:30 pm 

    Depending on how badly the customer behaves, choosing not to spit in his or her coffee may require heroic fortitude.

  13. 13  Steven  November 20, 2009, 4:45 pm 

    I for one admire the professionalism of a surgeon who chooses not to saw my head off just because he doesn’t like the cut of my jib.

  14. 14  sw  November 20, 2009, 4:47 pm 

    And you should see how I behave towards baristas! “I said more foam, not less, you wretched, wretched thing! If I wanted only a scurvy little fleck of foam on top of triple caramel fracchiato, I would have made it myself! FUCK!”

    That’s what happens when, almost by definition, you work with people before they’ve had their coffee.

  15. 15  Steven  November 20, 2009, 4:59 pm 

    *drops cigarette into sw’s coffee*

  16. 16  Charlotte  November 20, 2009, 5:20 pm 

    It’s like, performative, innit? Not just doing your job but performing it to a set of culturally agreed standards.

  17. 17  pilgrim  November 20, 2009, 7:42 pm 

    I don’t suppose this is applicable generally – I hope it isn’t – but in the case of at least some “professions”, I take it to mean that regardless of whether what they do is actually any use, the “professional” gets paid anyway.

  18. 18  Ricardo  November 20, 2009, 11:28 pm 

    Maybe the less “professional” a job is the more “professionalism” it needs to sustain its own mythology.

    You can’t imagine a surgeon needing to be told to be more “professional” – either he’s doing the job write or not at all.

    Conversely, a bunch of virtually pointless middlemen creaming off their 15 per cent need as much “professionalism” as possible so that society doesn’t clock that they’re just parasites.

    So, if a middle manager tells an underling who is performing a vital function in a satisfactory manner to be more “professional” he is merely judging that employee by his own low standards.

  19. 19  sw  November 20, 2009, 11:51 pm 

    You can’t imagine a surgeon needing to be told to be more “professional”

    Oh yes you can.

  20. 20  shadowfirebird  November 20, 2009, 11:56 pm 

    Interesting how much negative press this word is getting.

    I think there are plenty of ways a surgeon can be unprofessional. He/she could draw mustaches on the patents while they were under. Or stop for a coffee break half-way through an op. Or refuse to operate on anyone with red hair.

    None of these things are necessarily dangerous to the patient, depending on the circumstances — but they are unprofessional. Would you feel comfortable being treated by that surgeon? I wouldn’t.

  21. 21  Alex  November 21, 2009, 12:09 am 

    Isn’t the formal definition of a profession that it has its own internal discipline and self-governing institutions? Of course, this implies that a lot of unspeakers use the word when they want the exact opposite. But that’s yer unspeak!

  22. 22  Steven  November 21, 2009, 1:34 am 

    I think there are plenty of ways a surgeon can be unprofessional. He/she could draw mustaches on the patents while they were under. Or stop for a coffee break half-way through an op. Or refuse to operate on anyone with red hair.

    Surely those things are not so much unprofessionalism as grounds for dismissal?

    I think sw at #10 and Ricardo at #18 and Alex at #21 are all right, which is why it’s such a confusing word. Isn’t it strange, by the way, that to say “I am a professional x-er” means nothing more than “I get paid to x“, but professionalism in one’s x-ing is some supervenient quality?

    As to what that supervenient quality, professionalism, actually consists in (our correspondent’s question!), it’s intriguing to note that people seem to be finding it easier to define negatively than positively. “I know it when I don’t see it”?

  23. 23  Liam  November 21, 2009, 5:04 am 

    It’s being competent without being annoying, arrogant, or smug. Competent, and …likeable?

    As if you can infer from the way the person conducts themselves in their professional capacity that they’re a *reasonable*, *rational*, nice person beyond their employed life….

    It’s an empty signifier….which I can only explain with more empty terms…

  24. 24  democracy_grenade  November 21, 2009, 5:29 am 


    The problem with the idea of “professionalism” as a combination of likability and competence is that the term simultaneously carries with it a certain implication of cool, even mechanised, efficacy.

    To “prove” that I’m not just talking bollocks, I turned up a Times Online piece about a German serial killer who “seems to kill with almost professional precision.” Obviously the author isn’t saying, “cuh — she should really be getting paid, this girl.” The suggestion is that the offings are achieved with an unnervingly disinterested sterility.

    Simultaneously, though, I was initially attracted to defining “professionalism” as a marrying of good ethical practice and good work practice. So I know where you’re coming from. I’m tempted to go for the “floating signifier” explanation, but that always feels like kind of a cop out.

  25. 25  John Fallhammer  November 21, 2009, 4:46 pm 

    When I entered the World Of Work in the early 90s, the things I read and heard led me to the conclusion that professionalism essentially meant a) not trying to join a union and b) doing overtime for free. This still seems to me a pretty good summary of what a lot of people mean by the term.

    Having done many jobs at varying levels of incompetence, what it means to me now is taking the trouble to think about the work (which often means doing it slower) and to study around the work, the main purpose of which is to _never_be_taken_by_surprise_ by what might get thrown at you. As an example I would point to pilots doing simulator exercises in which everything possible goes wrong.

    wrt “Pro” products, much as I love Macs, I think when Apple use the suffix “Pro” it just means “not deliberately crippled”.

  26. 26  roger migently  November 22, 2009, 1:56 pm 

    Liam. For an “empty, or floating, signifier” just use “Paris Hilton” as your example. No, perhaps you’re right. More empty terms…

  27. 27  roger migently  November 22, 2009, 2:07 pm 

    I don’t see that “the obvious inference is that the manager clearly sees some lack in her subordinate” is necessarily the case. The manager’s request for some “developmental objective” (spew) may as easily be a vote of confidence that the colleague in question clearly has the capacity significantly to advance her qualifications and skills (and, perhaps, “professionalism”), thereby becoming a more saleable commodity for whose more skillful services clients can be charged more, or even becoming upper management material and be paid more.
    Yours very truly,

  28. 28  ejh  November 22, 2009, 3:47 pm 

    I think if it does mean anything, as opposed to being either cant or superfluous, it means doing your job with exceptional thoroughness and having the capacity, both temperamentally and it terms of your work-related knowledge, to do so. I don’t think many people actually come up to that mark, in the professions or anywhere else.

    I’ve been meaning to write a piece (and may still do so, when I have time) about professional chess players observing that rather than fulfilling these criteria, many “professionals” have actually entered that “profession” in order to avoid having to do so.

    I might add. partly from my professional experience as a librarian, that anybody who ever says “are you questioning their professionalism?” nearly always needs their professionalism questioned….

  29. 29  roger migently  November 23, 2009, 8:13 am 

    Surely “professional” just means that’s how you earn your living. There is a suggestion that you’re pretty good at getting results (which is why you can earn your living at it) but it is an inference drawn by others, not a guarantee. “Professionalism” is just good bedside manner, all about perception.

  30. 30  shadowfirebird  November 23, 2009, 10:39 am 

    The penny has just dropped, as we say over here. I know why my view of the word is different from everyone else’s.

    I used to work for myself.

  31. 31  couldberubbish  December 2, 2009, 4:15 pm 

    My def: a professional is an individual who carries out their profession – which is… *dikshunaree steal* –>

    1. “The body of people in a learned occupation”
    2. “An occupation requiring special education (especially in the liberal arts or sciences)”

    Therefore you can’t have professional salesmen, cleaners, estate agents or admin assistants.

    Another def (which i don’t know is true) is that a professional is personally liable for their actions – not their employer. If a surgeon saws your leg off by mistake, sue the surgeon – that’s why professionals, especially in the us, often have liability insurance.

  32. 32  Mark Clapham  December 2, 2009, 4:44 pm 

    couldberubbish’s definition seems sound, but there’s been a push in recent years to turn certain ‘generalist’ jobs into ‘professions’ by creating a ‘qualification’ from thin air – Human Resources has the obvious one.

    I’m sure some enterprising college could come up with professional qualifications for cleaners etc if they really tried.

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