Professionalism in the Workplace

True professionalism is an interesting phenomenon and seems to be vanishing as an office worker art. And it’s not just the fault of recent college graduates who are new to the workplace. If new workers don’t see professionalism in action it’s not likely that they’ll pick it up by accident or osmosis. Being professional doesn’t mean you acquire a façade of used car salesman falseness. It doesn’t require that you become an automatic yes-man or yes-woman either. Professionalism isn’t taught in university, but I’m starting to think it should be. Being professional at all times while still being willing to challenge the status quo requires nuance and subtlety. There is a fine line between innovation and insubordination.

A comeback for Brooks Brothers suits and wingtips?

In lieu of Professionalism 101, companies might do well to consider instituting a formal mentoring plan that could include older individuals with a good track record of professionalism instilling their insights into new employees over time. Things that most people consider basic common sense such as appropriate workplace manners and clothing choices could be part of a continuing emphasis on professionalism. I know that the trend toward casualness in the workplace isn’t going to change anytime soon and I’m not advocating a return to Brooks Brothers suits and wingtips…necessarily. But casualness can quickly descend into coarseness and before you know it the tramp stamps on display lead to inappropriate conversation talking points and HR is getting a deluge of complaints. The corporate uniform of the 1950s and early 1960s sure seems safer in comparison. Even the casual wear of the era looks good today.

Dress codes remind us of who we are

The corporate uniforms of the past may be relegated quickly to the same forgotten dustbin of history as slide rules and dinosaurs. And if you feel this way, you may be right. I’ve been accused of being stuffy and I’m closer to dinosaur status than I am to my undergraduate years. But one thing that dress codes did—even if they were unwritten—was to remind people of where they were. When you put on your suit and tie or dress and cardigan, it helped put you in a professional mindset. On a subconscious level, dressing professionally helped remind us that we weren’t in our living rooms. It helped us take ourselves seriously. And when you take yourself seriously you do good work.

Clothes, not even PJs, do not make the man

Your speech and actions are different when you’re dressed in a professional way than they are when you’re wearing ripped jeans and a stained t-shirt. It’s a logical extension of your persona. This is, incidentally, exactly why I never wore pajamas to class in college, even when it was the preferred clothing choice of undergraduates everywhere. I never met a student who wore pajamas to the class who regularly made the Dean’s list. But I digress. Clothes may not make the man. But dressing professionally can sure help a person act more professionally in the workplace.

Mediocrity is the natural enemy of professionalism

I would never argue that professionalism should require you to become a clotheshorse. But how many well-dressed individuals in your company do mediocre work? I bet not many. And mediocrity is seeping into the corporate culture at an alarming rate. It may start with relaxed corporate clothing codes but it doesn’t stop there. It begins to infiltrate its way into water cooler conversation through ill-advised and inappropriate humor which has no place in a professional setting. Once on a roll, mediocrity — as the natural enemy of professionalism — can continue its march until positive professional attitudes devolve into defeatism and corporate culture corrodes from within.

Final thoughts

Arguing for a return to the corporate clothing cues of long ago may seem anachronistic or quixotic. But try dressing up every day for a week and see if you notice a difference in your work. Clothing may be a small part of professionalism but I think it’s an important part. And while you’re at it, if you find that wearing a pair of polished wingtips helps you take yourself seriously, break out the shoe polish and horsehair brush and get to it.

For more professional tips, check out 7 Little Known Tips to Jump-Start Your Career.

Author: Jesse Langley lives near Chicago. He divides his time among work, writing and family life. He writes on behalf of and has a keen interest in business blogging and social media. He also writes for

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