Being “professional” can mean a lot of things. In a sociological sense, it is about the rise of a professional class, and the changes in the structure and performance of work (Evetts, 2003; Hall, 1968). Professions are knowledge-based categories of occupations. Professionals are then the people who utilize specialized knowledge to do those occupations.
Professions also have value systems that form a moral community for those in an occupation. People in these communities have similar beliefs about how to perform those jobs ethically and functionally (Evetts, 2003). A formal professional community is a professional association. For example, the Association for Business Communication is an international, interdisciplinary organization with the mission of “advancing business communication research, education, and practice” (ABC, para 2). It has developed a code of ethics for its members that includes being truthful, honest, fair, and respectful. Early professions were law and medicine, but the line between occupations and professions is now blurred—many groups are attempting to professionalize and call their occupations “professions.” Shifting from defining a professional as someone belonging to a specific occupational group, a professional can also be defined generally, with a set of characteristics or behaviors.
Imagine a professional in your mind. How does this person behave, what do they look like? We often learn what it means to be professional in one context or another through socialization or the process through which we observe or are told the norms and expectations of a group. In general, we might say being a professional means taking care, being courteous, and following conventional business norms. Professionalism serves a gatekeeping function. Individuals judge messages, and in turn the sender of those messages, by their professionalism. Those that are seen as professional will have better access to individuals and information. An unprofessional message may be ignored and it likely will not achieve its purpose—it could even offend others and damage relationships.
Researchers at the University of Louisville (Lucas & Rawlins, 2015) surveyed practitioners, businesses, business communication course curricula across the country, and academic literature to articulate core business communication competencies. Being professional is one of the core competencies. In business communication, professionalism consists of three components: care, courtesy, and convention.
Care is the first component of professionalism in business communication (Lucas & Rawlins, 2015). It involves paying attention to details. In writing, paying attention to details means proofreading, checking your spelling grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and not using texting lingo. Taking care means making sure that you send the correct times, dates, and locations for meetings, and attach the right required documents. Another part of taking care involves your personal appearance, being clean, dressing well and so forth.
Care: Pay attention to details
- Proofread, spelling grammar, punctuation, capitalization, no texting lingo
- Times, dates, locations, correct attachments
- Check font type, color, size
- Your personal appearance
“Courtesy” is the second component of professionalism in business communication (Lucas & Rawlins, 2015). This includes following the standards of business etiquette—in other words, being polite. So, saying “please” and “thank you”, and using proper forms of address such as Mr., Ms., Dr., or another title such as Vice President, Dean, etc., and following the chain of command. Being courteous involves an appropriate display of emotions and being cognizant of your tone and word choice.
Courtesy: Follow the standards of business etiquette
- “Please” and “thank you”
- Emotional control—tone and word choice
- Proper forms of address (Dr., Ms., Mr., other professional title such as Director, President)
- Chain of command
The final component of professionalism in business communication is “convention” (Lucas & Rawlins, 2015). This component refers to following the accepted norms of business communication. So, formatting documents properly and using standards of design. Organizations might provide you with specific formatting guidelines, but learning what is standard for the business world and your field and organization in specific is a part of your professional development. Breaking conventions or organizational norms can distract from your message.
Convention: Follow accepted norms
- Breaking conventions or organizational norms can distract from the central message
- Formatted properly, standards of design
- In an organization, you may be provided with specific formatting guidelines
Being professional can help you stand out as a job applicant or new member of an organization, and be accepted as an organizational peer. As you interact with individuals in your professional network, remember to take care, be courteous, and consider business communication conventions.