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We wanted to shine a light on one of the most widely sought after—and frequently misunderstood–soft skills.


Ask any employer if they think professionalism is important, and they’ll agree in a flash. Who would go out of their way to hire an unprofessional worker, right? Then ask the same employer to define professionalism. To say what it means in terms of the everyday behavior. To show how they would consider it, ahead of making a hire… Chances are they’ll need rather longer to come up with a response.

Why professionalism’s so hard to pin down

What does professionalism mean to you?

  • Dressing appropriately? (Whether that’s pressing a shirt, or remembering a hard hat.)
  • Talking the talk? (About projected levels of market penetration for this financial quarter, or about recent changes to the school’s curriculum.)
  • Simply looking, somehow, right for the job? (That guy was born to wear a stethoscope…)

One of the reasons professionalism is so hard to define is that it can be highly job-specific.   Imagine you’re hiring for company that designs and sells tablet computers. The marks of professionalism you look for in a new sales assistant could include:

  • Arriving on time
  • Showing attention to detail when handling customer orders
  • Staying up-to speed with the features of your latest products and being able to share those aspects with your customers

But if you’re hiring a product designer, you’re going to look for professionalism to manifest itself in different ways. For example:

  • Being engaged with evolving trends in consumer tech design
  • Following best practices in documenting product requirements
  • Mastering the technologies required for successful design

The definition of professionalism tends to vary by industry too. In oil and gas, for example, it’s hard to think about professionalism without thinking, first and foremost, about safety.   This means that, when you’re hiring, it’s vital you know what ‘being a professional’ means for the individual job role you’re trying to fill.

Applying universal marks of professionalism

There are a few professional behaviors that will serve a worker—and their employer—well, whether they’re developing apps, running a busy hospital ward, or teaching liberal arts.   Here are three competencies that spell professionalism in almost any situation:

  • Being dependable – whether it is being on time or delivering a work product on time
  • Following instructions
  • Having a strong work ethic – not only doing the job, but investing time and resources to do the job really well.

(In fact, many of the job-specific professional qualities discussed above—punctuality, for example, or sticking to health and safety rules—could be seen as facets of these deeper, underlying competencies.)

Identifying professionalism during hiring

So, you’ve thought about what professionalism means for the job position you’re trying to fill, and you’ve also got a good idea of what competencies are likely to result in professional conduct, in any set of circumstances.   How do you use this knowledge to help you choose the right candidate? As we’ve seen, turning up to an interview on time, with newly shined shoes, isn’t necessarily evidence of the kind of professionalism you need.

Like all other soft skills, the most illuminating evidence of a candidate’s professionalism invariably comes from the people who’ve worked with them in previous, similar roles. Direct reports, co-workers, managers—the more people you can quiz before extending an offer, the better your chance of avoiding a bad hire, and taking on a future star.

That’s because professionalism isn’t something you claim. And it’s not something you can ferret out in a personality test.   Professionalism is something you demonstrate – day in and day out, on the job.   And that’s why it’s so important to use a scientific way of evaluating professionalism based on past performance in recent jobs.

Read our eBook ‘Soft Skills, Hard Benefits’, to learn more about why soft skills, such as professionalism, are too important to overlook—and how talent analytics are providing new ways to uncover more insight on a candidate’s professionalism.

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