Jacob Kaplan-Moss


What is “professionalism” and why am I writing about it?

I’m starting a new series on professionalism. I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for some time, but it’s a tricky topic and I haven’t been able to completely map it out. I still don’t, so this is going to be different from some of my previous series. It’ll be more occasional; I’ll add to it over time, rather than all at once. And I’m not entirely sure where it’s going; there’s unlikely to be a satisfying conclusion unless I find one along the way.

What is “professionalism”?

We talk about professional behavior, but rarely explicitly define it. There are probably some behaviors that most will agree are unprofessional – outrageous things like taking your pants off at the office, or lying about a co-worker to get them in trouble. But there are many more behaviors that are on the margins. How about: “giving two weeks’ notice when you quit is professional behavior” – is there consensus about this one? Maybe? There are certainly all sorts of exceptions and shades of gray here.

However you see the specifics, the important part is that none of this is written down. There’s no standard professional code of conduct, no default “rules of the road” for behavior at work. But just because the rules aren’t written down doesn’t mean they don’t exist! If you violate these unspoken rules you may find it’s difficult to connect with your colleagues, or that your behavior makes others uncomfortable.

These unspoken rules are going to differ, sometimes widely, in different workplace cultures. I’m writing from a perspective of knowledge work (sometimes referred to as “white collar”), in the United States, with a distinct tech industry bias. There are differences between what’s seen as professional in this environment and other US workplaces: e.g., factory jobs have a different culture, and there are even some subtle differences between what “professionalism” means at a Bay Area versus a New York City tech job. I assume the unspoken rules around professionalism are even more different in office cultures in other parts of the world (but have little first-hand experience here).

This can be particularly difficult for people for whom these rules are new or a departure from what they’re used to. I have a friend who transitioned from an industrial manufacturing job into tech, and he was initially very annoyed by his colleague’s lax approach to their start times. He’d arrive promptly at 9 am and watch the rest of his team roll in over the next hour, somewhat randomly. In her old job, if you weren’t at your station the line couldn’t start, so being late was disrespectful. So he saw his new co-workers’ lax attitude towards the start time as disrespectful. However, the specific time your butt hits your seat doesn’t matter in most tech jobs. Arriving “around 9ish” is totally fine and completely professional – in that context.

So to sum up:

  • There are a set of behaviors (how to act, what to say, how to say it) that are generally accepted to be “professional” – proper behavior for the workplace.
  • These expected behaviors aren’t written down but they do exist; there are consequences (sometimes minor, sometimes major) for violating them.
  • These rules are contextual to some degree: some behaviors will generally be accepted to be “professional” in all contexts, but others that will vary depending on the specifics of the workplace culture.

The goal of this series: document some of these rules

That brings me to the goal of this series: write down some of these rules, and explore their implications. Eventually, I hope to have a pretty solid list of what “professional behavior” really means.

This will be primarily oriented toward the United States tech industry. I’m going to aim to focus on the areas that I believe are more widely applicable, but my lack of deep experience with other industries and other countries will almost certainly lead to some lacunae. Readers from other industries and countries are encouraged to write in and tell me how this stuff applies elsewhere!

Up next: honesty

The next post in this series will explore the first topic: honesty. Professionalism requires you to be honest at work, but what does that mean, specifically? And, are there occasions where lying at work is OK? (Yes, absolutely.)

If you’d like to be notified when that article drops, you can subscribe for updates. And, if you’ve got suggestions about other topics that you’d like to see covered in this series, get in touch: jacob at jacobian dot org.