Last week I was running a referral generation workshop for a small law firm. When we were discussing what stopped us feeling confident at networking, the old chestnut appeared. You know, the one about ‘wanting to appear professional’, so not being able to bring your personality into the conversation. I see this worry about being ‘professional’ popping up time and time again, particularly with the junior lawyers and accountants. So in this blog post I will explore what it really means to be professional at work.

What does it really mean to be professional at work?

I’ve pondered this question for a long time. (I really must get out more!) Over time I’ve come to realise that what it means to be professional means very different things to very different people. You normally don’t realise you’ve not acted professionally until someone tells you: “that really wasn’t professional”. In effect, when someone tells you that you’ve not acted professionally, it normally means your behaviour, appearance or attitude does not match up to their standards of what it means to be a professional. Yes, being professional really is all about someone else’s expectations of how you will act and behave!

What doesn’t ‘being professional’ actually mean (but most people think it does)

I’ve seen this time and time again: where people think that being professional means leaving their personality and uniqueness at home. You see this all the time on places such as LinkedIn and bios on a firm’s website. All the personality is stripped out of the individual and how they describe themselves, or what they do in their life outside of work. Being a professional does not mean that you are not allowed to show your personality at work or with clients, or hide the fact you have a life outside of work. In fact, the very opposite is true. The most ‘professional’ people I know, are the ones who are confident enough to turn up to work or work-related events and be themselves. Yes, their authentic self, warts and all.

Being professional does not mean only talking about work related matters when networking.

Being professional is linked to the standards your firm expects

Of course, when you are representing your firm either in front of a client or at an event, there are standards you must adhere to. However, these standards are more often than not either enshrined vaguely in the firm’s values or sometimes laid out in a firm-wide policy. There is rarely a checklist or document which truly sets out what it means to be professional in your firm. However, whenever you are representing your firm you have a duty to remain professional.

What being professional normally means?

As I’ve mentioned previously, there is no one defined standard about what it really means to be professional at work. Being professional is a very subjective thing and based around our own expectations of what we see as professional behaviour. However, it typically means for most firms and people:

  • Taking care over your personal appearance and hygiene, and adhering to the dress code of your firm
  • Respecting the relationship with the client and putting the client at the heart of what you do
  • Treating your colleagues with respect and turning up as ‘one team’
  • Staying the merry side of sober when going to an event where there is alcohol
  • Not getting yourself into a compromising situation
  • Not posting anything on social media which could embarrass you, a client, or the firm

Why is it important to be authentic rather than ‘professional’?

You will progress your career much further if you are interesting. That means being prepared to take your personality to work and talk about your life outside of work. If you turn up as someone you are not, or try and squash your personality, you will struggle to build rapport and relationships with the people who really matter to you and your career. If you find that you are continually needing to alter your personality in order to ‘fit in’ to your firm, then you are probably in the wrong firm for you.

In summary:

The more authentic you can be at work, whether talking with clients or at an event, the more successful you will become.

Read more great tips on how to be real, and professional, at work:

6 tips to avoid stirring up trouble on social media Is the curse of professionalism limiting your career? How can I make myself memorable at networking events? How to communicate your strengths, and still make friends