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Professionalism in an age of face masks and social distancing

By David Hugh Smith

How do you define “professionalism?” Behaving in a “professional” way can touch on many aspects of excellence in one’s work.

In the wake of COVID-19, work life will be reevaluated and reconceptualized. We’ve discovered that more jobs can be done from home – and that working from home works well for many employees and their employers. But it remains to be seen how working from home – where supervisors may be dozens or even hundreds of miles away – will impact standards of professionalism.

So I would like to share some thoughts about professionalism – thoughts resulting not just from decades in the working world but broad experience as a customer or client of other working professionals and businesses.

I would define professionalism simply as performing a job in a way that provides excellent service to others. Moreover, it involves conducting oneself in a way that inspires confidence that tasks will be done in a manner that is thoughtful, competent, effective, and honest. Professionalism means meeting an employer’s expectations as well as those of the clients and business partners of one’s employer, and everyone else in an organization.

Professionalism creates the confidence that underlies the success of our American economy. If we don’t trust others to provide good value in exchange for what we pay them, and if they don’t trust us to behave in an honest and fair way, our economy will fail. Take a look at economies that aren’t doing well and you will see countries where there is a lack of professionalism, a lack of honesty, and, as well, a lack of education and “professional development” needed to provide good work.

Meanwhile, and I believe this is of paramount importance to everyone who is part of the Professional Development Collaborative – individuals who have demonstrated a high level of professionalism, who have shown they are willing to work in a way that is useful and helpful and principled and fair, will find it hugely easier to find and retain meaningful and well-paid employment.

Can those who value professionalism take these high standards and transfer them into a world where many people now work much of their time from home, and where meetings take place on Zoom and other virtual-meeting sites? I believe they can – if professionals continue to value professionalism.

I’ve been thinking of the issue of professionalism recently in the wake of experiencing a number of examples of a lack of professionalism. For example, I’ve been seeing a form of poor professionalism gain acceptance: that of not returning messages – phone calls, emails, etc. – if the person receiving the message feels busy or that responding is a nuisance.

Many years ago, as a cub reporter for a newspaper, I was asked to get in touch with an extremely prominent and busy and important individual who had run some years earlier for vice president of the United States. I found his name in the telephone book (remember those?) and I called him. He quickly answered his own phone, and readily and graciously agreed to do what I called to request.

Indeed, it can seem a nuisance to behave in a polite and professional way by, say, responding in a helpful way to an inquiry when there are other tasks that seem more closely tied making money. (A client is unhappy with what they purchased a month ago. But what does that have to do with my making money right now, selling other things?) But a willingness to see that “what goes around comes around,” by taking time to respond with help, even if in doing this one sees no benefit to themselves, is a crucial support beam to our economy. And those who do this will be rewarded with a reputation for helpfulness and integrity.

I’ve thought of writing a piece of fiction about a dystopian world where the economy has crashed and people are starving even as everyone, all workers, are frantically busy. And everyone is busy because they are spending most of their formerly productive time trying to get in touch with other people they need cooperation from in order to accomplish their tasks. But even as they make desperate attempts to make these contacts, they themselves are ignoring other individuals who are trying to get in touch with them in order to do their jobs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I remember with nostalgia that many businesses were focused on “mission statements” that included the words “meet or exceed expectations.” This is still very much the ethic for many organizations and many professionals, but in my own experience I feel I’m seeing more instances of organizations and individuals basically behaving in a way where they appear not to care if some are disappointed.

Recently a large business reneged on a pledge they had made to me to provide a service at a discount. This pledge was written on document I provided to them after I had taken advantage of this service.

When I alerted the employee to the promise that had been made – the employee had brought a large bill without this discount – he called a manager. The manager very pleasantly but firmly told me she would not honor the pledge that had been made. (And the document I’d given them had disappeared – the employee had removed it.)

The manager told me she would require me to pay the full amount for a service I never would have purchased without the discount – it was grossly overpriced. And she seemed perfect happy doing this despite my warning her she would lose me as a customer.

Here we see how a professional attitude would have prevented this business from permanently losing an excellent customer. It’s not hard to see how this situation, viewed on a macro level, could undermine our entire economy.

As a fellow member of the Professional Development Collaborative I’d like to put a word in for our own organization, which I feel promotes a high standard of professionalism and commitment to serving others. The PDC helps its membership; members help each other, and we all, as a group, demonstrate a caring, helpful attitude that is exemplified in our professionalism. Our courses are about being better prepared to be professionally adept in our jobs in order to better help others. And as the dynamics of our post-pandemic business culture evolve, these standards of professionalism – standards exemplified by the PDC – will help lead the way.


David Hugh Smith serves as editor of the PDC Post. He also is a freelance writer/editor/oral historian. His email address is:

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