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7.2: Professionalism

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    Learning Outcomes

    1. Define "professionalism."
    2. Define the term “ethics” and recall several modern ethical lapses in organizations.
    3. Understand the importance of respecting one’s coworkers.
    4. Explain the concept of personal responsibility in the workplace.
    5. Demonstrate the ERROR method.

    Professionalism is one of the most important of the Eight Career Readiness Competencies. Yet a 2019 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that while almost 95% of employers surveyed considered Professionalism to be an essential competency, only 44.2%--fewer than half—found college graduates proficient in this area. (NACE 2019). Clearly, there is room for improvement; yet improvement can begin only after a clear understanding of what professionalism is. In examining professionalism, we will explore a definition of professionalism and three important components: ethics, respect for others, and taking personal responsibility.


    According to the United States Department of Labor,1 professionalism “does not mean wearing a suit or carrying a briefcase; rather, it means conducting oneself with responsibility, integrity, accountability, and excellence. It means communicating effectively and appropriately and always finding a way to be productive.” The U.S. Department of Labor’s book Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success goes on to note:

    Professionalism isn’t one thing; it’s a combination of qualities. A professional employee arrives on time for work and manages time effectively. Professional workers take responsibility for their own behavior and work effectively with others. High-quality work standards, honesty, and integrity are also part of the package. Professional employees look clean and neat and dress appropriately for the job. Communicating effectively and appropriately for the workplace is also an essential part of professionalism.2



    Ethics is one of the important components of professionalism.  The word “ethics” refers to whether something is good, right, or just.

    We first discussed ethics in Chapter 1 as being one of the responsibilities of a communicator. In the business world, ethics are equally important.  Business ethics involves things like not stealing from a company; not lying to one’s boss, coworkers, customers, or clients; not taking bribes, payoffs, or kickbacks; not taking credit for someone else’s work; not abusing and belittling someone in the workplace; or even not allowing others to behave unethically. For example, if you know your organization has a zero-tolerance policy for workplace discrimination and you know that one supervisor is purposefully not hiring pregnant women because “they’ll just be leaving on maternity leave soon anyway,” then you have an ethical obligation to report him or her. We might also add that discriminating against someone who is pregnant or can get pregnant is also a violation of the Equal Employment Opportunity law, so you can see that often the line between ethics and rules (or laws) can be blurred.

    Every year there are lapses in ethical judgment by organizations and organizational members. Let's look at ethical lapses in 2017 and 2018.

    1. We saw aviation police officers drag a bloodied pulmonologist off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his seat on United Airlines.
    2. We saw the beginnings of the #MeToo movement in October 2017 after Alyssa Milano used the hashtag in response to actor Ashley Judd accusing media mogul Harvey Weinstein of serious sexual misconduct in an article in The New York Times. Since that critical moment, many victims of sexual violence have raised their voices to take on some in our society who had gotten away with these behaviors for decades.
    3. Facebook (among others) was found to have accepted advertisements indirectly paid for by the Kremlin that influenced the 2016 election. The paid advertisements constituted a type of cyber warfare.
    4. Equifax had a data breach that affected 145 million people (mostly U.S. citizens as well as some British and Canadian customers) and didn’t publicly disclose this for two months.
    5. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, committed many ethical lapses during his tenure with the agency prompting his resignation. Some of the ethical lapses included ordering raises for two aides even when the White House rejected them, spending $3.5 million (twice times as much as his predecessor) on his own taxpayer-funded security, using that security to pick up his favorite moisturizing lotion and dry-cleaning, renting a room for $50 a night from a lobbyist who had dealings with the EPA, installing a $43,000 private phone booth in his office that allegedly was used once, spending $124,000 on first-class flights, purchasing two season-ticket seats at a University of Kentucky basketball game from a billionaire coal executive, attempting to use his position to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise, and others.

    Unfortunately, these ethical lapses are still frequent in corporate America, and they often come with huge lawsuit settlements and prison time.

    Respect for Others

    Our second category related to professionalism is respecting others. It seems that many people in the modern workplace need a refresher in respect. From workplace bullying to sexual harassment, many people simply do not always treat people with dignity and respect in the workplace. So, what do we mean by treating someone with respect? Here’s a list we created of respectful behaviors for the workplace and academic interactions:

    • Be courteous, polite, and kind to everyone. 
    • Use confirming communication behaviors that were discussed in the chapter on Interpersonal Communication.
    • Do not criticize little or inconsequential things.
    • Do not engage in patronizing or demeaning behaviors.
    • Do not play with your cell phone, answer phone calls, etc., when others are speaking to you.
    • Don’t engage in physically hostile body language. Make sure your facial expressions are appropriate and not aggressive.
    • Don’t roll your eyes when others are talking.
    • Don’t use an aggressive tone of voice when talking with coworkers, instructors, or classmates.
    • Encourage others to express opinions and ideas.
    • Encourage others to demonstrate respect for one another.
    • Listen to others with an open mind. 
    • Listen without cutting them others off or speaking over them.
    • Make sure you treat all of your coworkers fairly and equally.
    • Never engage in verbally aggressive behavior: insults, name-calling, spreading rumors, disparaging, and putting people or their ideas down.
    • Compliment others more often than you criticize them. Point out when they’re doing things well, not just when they’re doing “wrong” things.
    • If you are leading a meeting or team, provide an equal opportunity for all to provide insight and input during meetings.
    • Treat people the same regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc.
    • When expressing judgment or criticism, focus on specific ideas or behavior, and not the person.
    • As we discussed in the chapter on Verbal Communication, replace biased language with inclusive terms.

    Personal Responsibility

    Taking personal responsibility is the third component of professionalism. Let’s face it; we all make mistakes. Making mistakes is a part of life. Personal responsibility refers to an individual’s willingness to be accountable for his or her actions, including mistakes. Personal responsibility is simply realizing that we are responsible for our own conduct and not blaming others for our current circumstances. Now, this is not to say that there are never external factors that impede our success. Of course, there are. This is not to say that certain people have advantages in life because of a privileged background; of course, some people have. However, personal responsibility involves differentiating between those things we can control and those things that are outside of our control. For example, I may not be able to control a coworker who decides to yell at me, but I can control how I choose to respond to that coworker. Here are some ways that you can take personal responsibility in your own life (or in the workplace):

    • Acknowledge that you are responsible for your choices.
    • Acknowledge that you are responsible for how you feel.
    • Acknowledge that you are responsible for your behaviors.
    • Accept that your choices are yours alone, so you can’t blame someone else for them.
    • Decide to invest in your self-improvement.
    • Decide to take control of your attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors.
    • Decide on specific professional goals and make an effort and commitment to accomplish those goals.

    Although you may have the ability to take responsibility for your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, not everyone in the workplace will do the same. Most of us will come in contact with coworkers, classmates, or even relatives who do not take personal responsibility. Dealing with people who have constant excuses can be frustrating and demoralizing.

    Excuse-making occurs any time people attempt to make themselves look better by shifting the blame for their behavior to sources outside of their control.8 For example, an employee may explain her tardiness to work by talking about how horrible the traffic was on the way to work instead of admitting that she slept in late and left the house late. People make excuses because they fear that revealing the truth would make them look bad or out of control. 

    Excuse-making happens in every facet of life, but excuse-making in the workplace can be highly problematic. For example, research has shown that when front-line service providers engage in excuse-making instead of accepting responsibility, they are more likely to lose return customers as a result.9 In one study, when salespeople attempted to excuse their lack of ethical judgment by pointing to their customers’ lack of ethics, supervisors tended to punish salespeople who engaged in excuse-making more severely than salespeople who had not made excuses.10 Even friends or family members can become a little annoyed (or downright disgusted) by someone who always has an excuse for his behavior.

    How can you take the blame for something that is your responsibility in the most professional way possible?  Amy Nordrum recommends using the ERROR method when handling a situation where your behavior was problematic.  This method consists of 4 steps: Empathy, Responsibility, Reason, Offer Reassurance.11 Here is an example Nordrum uses to illustrate the ERROR method:

    I regret that you [burden placed on the person] because of me (Empathy). I should have thought things out better (Responsibility), but I got caught up in [reason for behavior] (Reason). Next time I’ll [preventative action] (Offer Reassurance).

    As you can see, the critical parts of this response involve validating the other person, taking responsibility, and providing an explanation for how you’ll behave in the future to avoid similar problems.

    Key Takeaways

    We have discussed the meaning of professionalism and three important components of professionalism: ethics, respect for others, and professionalism.


    1. What lapses in ethical judgment would you add to the list of unethical examples provided in this unit?
    2. Look at the list of respectful behaviors for workplace interactions. Is anything missing from the list? How would you react if others violated these respectful behaviors towards you as a coworker? Have you ever been disrespectful in your communication towards coworkers? Why?
    3. Why do you think it’s essential to take personal responsibility and avoid excusing making in the workplace? Have you ever found yourself making excuses? Why?
    4. Practice using the ERROR method with a classmate.

    This page titled 7.2: Professionalism is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.