Rants N Raves: “Professional” is a relative term

I’m starting a new series today called “Rants N Raves.” The motivation? To give colleagues and friends without a blog a chance to…well, rant and rave. I thought it would be fitting if I started this series with a post from my good friend, and trusted confidante, Jen Wilbur. You can find Jen’s wit, sarcasm and insights littered throughout the comments sections on a number of well-read PR blogs like David Mullen’s Communications Catalyst, Lauren Fernandez’s blog and Kellye Crane’s SoloPro. And even though she does maintain a blog (hint: It involves her passion for her dogs), she always has great thoughts to build on. So, I thought why not give this super-smartie my stage for a day. I couldn’t be more honored. 


“Jen, you need to work on acting more professionally. For instance, at the client event last month you drank your beer straight from the bottle.” This was the response from a supervisor when I asked why I wasn’t being promoted to account executive after more than a year of hard work and positive results. I’m not kidding.

The fact that my client handed me the bottle of beer while drinking out of his own beer bottle is moot. Heck, what if I had sipped from a beer bottle when everyone else was drinking “civilized” wine out of crystal goblets? What does my refreshment portal have to do with my professionalism? It’s not like I shot-gunned a can of PBR!

229535311_88d1ded352_b This now-infamous-with-my-friends memory was sparked by Lauren Fernandez’s recent post about how her “flirty nerd” style has bit her in the past (former bosses accused her of being too flirtatious with clients), and asked readers if they felt like they have to rein in their personality to remain professional. I understand that early in your career it is often necessary to conform a bit so your quirks don’t overshadow your abilities and strengths, but do you have to shove your true being deep “where the sun don’t shine” to get ahead?

The definition of professional: of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession b: engaged in one of the learned professions c (1): characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2): exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.

So, according to Webster, the definition adapts by profession (a PR professional may be expected to act and dress differently than a professional baseball player). The definition of a pro is a bit vague and words like “businesslike manner” are meant to be applied to reflect various conventions of differing professions, but the first part of the definition focuses on technical and ethical standards.

Is it just me, or do people talking about someone acting “professionally” often seem to make judgments based on one’s dress, language and polish, rather than on the quality of one’s ethical behavior and technical savvy?

All those Wall Street bankers we read about last year, with their sharp pinstriped suits and Italian leather loafers, lookedprofessional. But did they act professionally when they stole our money or recklessly risked it?

What about the manager who dresses in designer duds, carries an $800 handbag and is repeatedly promoted, yet badmouths people she manages when she is with other subordinates? Or the supervisor who uses his power inappropriately?

Is appearing professional more important to your career’s future than being professional? How do you balance this without losing yourself? Do you just suck it up until you’re successful and can go your own route? Or do you take the more difficult road (as I did) of being yourself while resisting professional standards that focus more on form than function?3365580647_aaa5c5a37d

I’m at the point in my life now where I don’t worry about how every facet of my personality and on-the-job style appears, but I wonder about those just entering the field or facing this pressure as they advance in their career.

To those of you who have been in the business for a while, do you see the pressure to conform to a traditional “business style” changing since your early days? I don’t just mean the addition of Casual Friday, but in management’s – and your – overall attitude?

How do you define “professionalism?” Is following a conservative dress code with buttoned-down conduct more important to your career in PR than a killer work ethic or respectable billing practices? Face it, in some disciplines and professions, and particularly for some employers, your personal style in dress and action can carry you a long way up the career ladder or hold you to a low or mediocre rung. Perhaps your personal style does not fit in one environment and you would do better to change employers or your style.

Then too, lapses in business ethics or technical judgment can throw you completely off the ladder. Changing employers will not “fix” poor ethical judgment or incompetent technical decisions. Correcting these is not as easy as tossing out sensible shoes, a paisley tie or sipping from cut crystal. I know where my professional focus is; how about you? 

jenw1Jennifer Wilbur is an independent PR professional, principal of Rockstar Communications and semi-retired party girl. Follow her on Twitter, and connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Though she has been caught red-handed drinking beer from a bottle (and maybe even a can once), she prefers red wine and vodka martinis (in glasses).

Note: Photo credits to DP+Company and jeremy.plemon via Flickr 

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49 comments on “Rants N Raves: “Professional” is a relative term

  1. Glad my post sparked this Jen. 🙂 (and, seriously, will I never live down the whole ‘flirty nerd’ label you gave me?)

    Here’s my thing: I think it’s sometimes about the company’s perception of what is acceptable and what is not. Brands are what they are – and so are your clients. Frankly, I think it’s BS to be told you’re “flirty” just because you engage in conversation and the client responds well. Some people are just personable – and I was fortunate to learn all about business from my dad (a national sales manager for a big corp.) Being aloof and snooty isn’t the way I operate. Some might consider that “professional”, but if I were a client, I would want to feel at ease and trust my PR firm. I treat everyone pretty much the same, and my personality is beneficial in my current job and where I work.

    I have also found that a lot of times women are just cut-throat. I think it’s also something that women have been facing forever.

    Can you change yourself (outer appearance, style of communication, etc) to fit in with the brand? Sure. But why? You won’t believe 100 percent in what you’re doing, even if you try.

    That stuff is easy to change. Work ethic, dedication and readiness to learn can’t be taught.

  2. GREAT ‘Rant’ Jen!…And An Excellent Way to Get the Conversation Started!

    What chaps my hide about something like this is that anytime you have someone who is more worried about the rules and how one conducts oneself has got something to hide. If you’re ‘bringing the goods’ for the client, you’re a ROCK STAR.


    Yes, the client(s) want to like you, be your friend, have a confidante, etc. But, at the end of the day, the client is looking to YOU for your expertise, talent and savvy. What that means is that if you’re a good friend (one who knows what to do, wear, etc. at the right parties) but is not-so-great at what you do, they WILL move on to another shop.


    I once worked with a gal who was a bit aloof, odd and had horrible people skills. But because she was intense and GREAT at what she did, the agency kept her on…for years…and kept her away from dealing with the clients directly. Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t a parasite; but when it came to ‘relating’ with the clients, it never worked.

    So, being a professional can have MANY forms and likenesses – just b/c one my not work at one shop doesn’t mean that it would work at another. So long as you stick to adhering to solid business principles, you’ll do fine. HOW you get about to keeping the client happy is your unique take (within reason) to being your own Rock Star – be it a Robert Plant, a Jill Scott, a Jonas Brother (young or old) or a Jimi Hendrix…!

  3. Arik – Thanks again for lighting a fire under my you-know-what.

    Lauren – Great addition to my post. Work ethic is key. You will always be a flirty nerd to me. One of my favoritees.

    Narciso – You HAD to get that music reference in there somewhere! Love it. And I think I worked with that same aloof woman. Exactly. She has her place where she shines. Fantastic.

  4. David Spinks says:


    I wouldn’t worry about that kind of mentality for much longer…times are changing and while some of the older execs remain with their corporate thinking, they’ll be gone soon enough.

    I watched Mark Hughes speak a couple of days ago (wrote Buzz Marketing) and he said it very well…

    “People don’t trust corporate America anymore”. To put on a suit and paint a perfect professional picture is to say “we’re perfect, nothing to see here” and people just aren’t buying that bs anymore. The customer appreciates the honest “we’re not perfect, but this is who we are” approach.

    There’s certainly a line that you shouldn’t cross when working in a professional environment, but hey, I’ve worn flip flops and shorts to my last two gigs, and there is nothing not awesome about that. “Professional” = fake and uncomfortable. “Personal” = real and comfortable. Which would you rather have?

    …looking forward to the day when I can close a deal by shotgunning a PBR. A boy can dream (=


  5. Thanks David! Yes, my last two gigs (before my own) have been super casual and easy going (the SoCal life I was looking for!). I’m happy to hear that it’s the same in other areas. Uh oh, does this mean we have to have a #PBRtweetup?

  6. This started a heated conversation among my co-workers today. We came to many different conclusions. Basically, we think it sucks that our professionalism is judged by how we dress, not our performance. That regardless of our client interaction and past performance, if we’re not constantly on our best behavior we’re seen as being unprofessional.

    We all agree that when we first started out, we were more consious of how we acted and looked in public, especially at work/client functions. Now we’re not always as careful, but know enough that we don’t annoy, embarrass or alienate clients and co-workers.

    Having worked for entrepreneurs for the last 10 years, the way someone dresses is not always indicative of their performance, and entrpreneurs are often the most unprofessional people I meet (in dress, not action). They valued performance over professionalism. Once they started focusing on professionalism, the company just wasn’t the same. The values shifted and it felt like the company jumped the shark.

    Just my two cents… Give me a place where I can be myself, dress nicely (but not a suit!), and perform. Is that too much to ask?

  7. I’ve always had a horrible time in corporate environments. HR hates me. Bosses alternately love me or hate me. I’m a disruptor (and with that comes a great deal of baggage).

    How do I deal with it and survive? Make allies who are invested and embedded within corporate structure. I’m going to piss people off. However, 9 out of 10 times my idea is better. Therefore I need a person to stand next to me and articulate/communicate the sheer volume of stuff that comes out of my head.

    This is why people always ask me when I’m starting my agency btw. They just assume that the corporate environment makes my head explode. Which it does…but I’m learning to play within those confines (with the eventual goal of destroying them).

  8. I have to wonder: How much of this is generational? I know someone who used to require their employees to all wear suits to every client meeting — even if the client was more informal. That seemed bizarre to me. I agree with the consensus here: The quality of one’s work should speak for itself. That said, absolutely, there are times when a suit or a more formal conversation tone is appropriate. But, I tend to think us PR people should take direction from the client. If they’re very formal and we’re just starting to work together, I understand why we should “dress up.” But, if they’re laid back and they trust the quality of our work — do you think they really care what we’re wearing? Probably not. There are many ways to demonstrate one’s professionalism — clothing shouldn’t be the only litmus test.

    Heather (@prtini)

  9. Heathers and Stuart – thanks for reading and commenting. I definitely think generation, geography, profession and environment (corp v. start-up, etc.) are all huge factors. The bottle incident was 12 years ago, but in SoCal, which surprised me. The agency I worked for in KC (a much more conservative town) required suits, but everyone was SO relaxed and casual in nature. We “sexually harassed” each other often and enjoyed each other’s differences. Funny, now that I think about it, seems I’ve seen that happen a few times. The more conservative the dress expected, the more relaxed the vibe from management. Never realized that until now. interesting.

  10. Kellye Crane says:

    I enjoyed this rant! But to add to the discussion let me point out one area that’s non-negotiable in my book: provocative dress. I’m surprised how many young women sometimes cross this line, but it has always been — and will always be — unprofessional. Call me old school, but do you want to be known for your ideas, or T&A? If the latter, then your career will be short (there’s always some fresh T&A around the corner!). And of course you fellas should stay away from the tight pants, too. 🙂

    Beyond that one topic, I agree with Heather that taking a clue from your client is a great way to go. And if you work for yourself, you get to choose your clients to suit your work style!

    Another point: I think social media is helping everyone feel more comfortable with being themselves. I’m seeing a more informal tone in all communications, and this is welcome change.

    BTW, I would never pour my beers into a glass — makes ’em get hot too quickly. Good colleagues understand this!

  11. You are so right Kellye! Provocative dress is just bad form most of the time (not that there isn’t a right time ;). Of course, we could start a whole new conversation on how relative “provocative” is. 😉

    I drink my beer too fast to worry about it getting hot.

  12. arikhanson says:

    What a great conversation out here today. Interesting viewpoint by all, even you Narciso…. 😉

    Personally, I’m torn on this issue. I’m a big believe in first impressions and appearance, because even though we may hate to admit it, they matter. Big time.

    For example, I battle the perception issue personally all the time. When folks meet me for the first time, they tend to think I’m in my late-20s (hint: add 10 years). In order to establish credibility out of the gate, you’ll often see me fairly dressed up for first meetings. On more than one occasion, I’ve noticed it does make a difference. But, to the larger discussion here, it should not be the only determining factor.

    I also liked David’s point about the new culture vs the traditional culture. That’s a very interesting discussion–the whole “people don’t trust corporate American anymore” and then making the link to dress having an impact on that. Probably a whole separate conversation, wouldn’t you say David?


  13. David Spinks says:

    Absolutely Arik, although I can’t take credit for those exact words (that’s all the genius of Mark Hughes) it’s a concept I’ve believed in and hoped to be a part of since I first began learning about business.

    Could warrant a post (=

  14. Funny how most people are focusing on the attire part of this. Not sure why, but I find it interesting. A former colleague of mine, Arik, used to love it when he had a reason to dress up for work (everyday dress for most was shorts and flip-flops). He said it made him feel smarter and more confident. I just feel uncomfortable. I think you should definitely wear what makes you a better worker. I always wondered why that colleague and friend didn’t just dress nicer every day. I’m guessing he didn’t want to stand out and look ” TOO professional” to all the other slackers i the company. 😉

  15. Speaking on the attire thing – every place I have worked at is casual, unless a client or a board member is in the office. Interesting approach, but one boss told me he’d rather ‘pitch in jeans than in a suit.”

  16. lulugrimm says:

    This has been a phenomenally stimulating conversation. I was unable to comment earlier – and I’m kind of glad because it’s fun to see what everyone has written. My thoughts…

    I think that this issue, along with many others (I’m sure to come), fit within a social confine or construction of how we should be. In this case we are speaking of the social construction around professionalism, which a whole rant or essay could be written. I think that it’s good for all of us to take a step back and say, “Okay, I’m a part of a dynamic in society that has set rules, functions and ideals.” Then ask yourself, “Am I behaving with integrity within those confines?” Meaning, do your insides match your outsides. Are you living the life you want to live and need to live to achieve your dreams and goals? OR… Are you without even knowing it just accepting the fact that this is how it is? Accepting the power dynamic of the suit, the superior, the system? What I find, through observation, is that people just accept the BS handed them. I get we all have to play the game a little, but why the heck should we alter who we are or conform to X person’s view of us? I mean think about it a little. What’s the point? So in three years you can maybe get promoted, maybe get the bosses approval, maybe get something that is a potential uncertainty.

    DO NOT GET ME WRONG HERE – I believe that we all need to learn, grow, etc. Not everyone is a Joe Mauer, the type who climbs over everyone else and rocks it. But, what I do believe is that if the culture or environment in which you spend at least 40 hours a week is not conducive to your values and ideals, then bye bye. I understand that the current economic environment is sketchy at best, but if you are truly talented – defy the system (Stuart – I’d like to know how breaking that one is going). Everything works out in the end. If you have lived and survived anything moderately difficult (which everyone has) then you have proof there. We are all capable incredible things. If we can just take a step back, look up and see the puppet strings that operate us, it becomes much easier to say, “I don’t think so.”

    Jen – A truly great post that fully illustrated some really important things. Thanks for sharing.

  17. LAF – if he was the same boss that accused you of being too flirtatious, consider me floored. =8)

  18. Amen Lisa! Thanks for the very thoughtful additional comments.

  19. Danny Brown says:

    I once had a similar conversation with an old boss of mine back in the day. He said, “The clothes come first; the person second.”

    I looked at him like he was a space cadet, thought a minute, and said, “Do you know where George Lucas got his inspiration for the Imperial officers in Star Wars? Nazis. Why? Because they gave off a sense of importance in their smart outfits but, ultimately, were outsmarted by a bunch of ragamuffin soldiers. You want me to be like a Nazi?”

    Um… I got fired. BUT… I went on to join a company that didn’t care about dress code and were more into the people as opposed to the fashion. Turns out they were competitors of my old employers, bought them, and one of the first things they did was get rid of the corporate dress crap.

    Here’s how I look at it. You can dress the smartest you want. You can have a set of “rules” that dictate professionalism. You can have HR say you need to do this, you have to do that. Rules, professionalism, standards – they all boil down to one thing: perception.

    You take in your surroundings and you act accordingly. If your client is fun-loving, you party it up (within reason) with them. If they’re strait-laced, you rein in your exuberant side.

    How you deal with a situation (and how you react to a problem) is where professionalism comes in. Not a $600 suit. Not a designer handbag. Not HR’s view of how thing should be done. But how you *get* them done.

    Now where’s the bar… 😉

  20. Nice Danny! And as long as you have the confidence to pull “the real you” off, you have no choice but to see success. Might be a few hiccups here and there, but all well worth it in the end.

  21. David Mullen says:

    Lots of terms thrown around as absolutes are entirely relative. This one included, of course.

    One way to get ahead of this is to ask lots of smart questions during your interview about company culture and observe what you see while you’re being carted from office to office for the next interview. Those two things will tell you a lot about what the company values as “professional” and help you make a decision about whether or not your professionalism would mesh well with the company’s own definition of the concept.

    You have to take cues from clients, too. It’s part of being able to understand their culture and read people. Regardless of your agency culture, you have to morph into client culture when you’re with them. The more clients you have, the more varying degrees of “professional” you’ll have to work with.

  22. hjomats says:

    There are some really great points of view here and the beer in the glass is obviously out of line (who drinks beer in a glass anyway?), but it is basic human nature to adapt…Even people who claim to not adapt will in the right situation.

    It isn’t about not being yourself, it is about doing what is best for yourself in any given situation. If you are a waitress and you make your living on tips…is it wrong to flirt with customers to increase the money you bring in even though it is out of character for you? (I waitresses for a long time…and flirting really makes a difference :))

    If you are being forced to adapt in a manner that goes against your beliefs or morals then it is time to step back and ask yourself if the position, relationship, outfit, whatever it may be, is right for you. If it is not, then it may be time to make a change and find a better fit.

  23. David – that is excellent advice! I have turned down clients and jobs in the past for reasons you listed.

    Holly – right on. if you don’t adapt, you die. or leave. 😉

  24. When in Rome, do as the Romans do: If the client offers you a beer and they’re already drinking it, take it. Your boss that day was completely out of line. Would he have cared if you drank Pepsi out of a bottle? Does he make sure you use your salad fork too? 😀

    I once worked for a Corporate VP who had a such a drinking problem that every client and vendor dinner or cocktail party ended in embarrassing side glances. She would start slurring her words, cracking obnoxious jokes, talking about her ex-husband (TMI) and generally making everyone uncomfortable with her completely inappropriate behavior. (Yet she thought she was the shiz, and so did her boss. In reality, she was a complete moron.)

    Her favorite staffer didn’t know when to quit either. At an industry event, she got so drunk that she fell face first in a fountain in front of all of most of the major players’ leadership. The story gets told every year as people wonder a) if she will show up and b) if she will grace them with a repeat performance.

    Peas in a pod, those two.

    Ironically, they constantly complained about other people’s “unprofessional” behavior. And when I mean constantly, I am not exaggerating. Not just to each other, but to other managers. I guess they believed that THEIR behavior was professional. Sad, right?

    A lot of the “acting professional” thing is about image, sure. About the book cover: The clothes, the accessories, the grooming, the way you carry yourself, the way you speak, the way you order at a restaurant, the way you treat people, the way you keep confidential info confidential. You can’t get around that. It doesn’t make you good at your job, it doesn’t make you a rock star at whatever you do, but it’s important.

    Where many people fail, however, is when they allow a polished exterior to excuse or conceal dysfunctional behavior behind closed doors and crappy job performance. And sadly, that happens a lot.

    Great post, Jen.

  25. Correction: If the client is drinking their own beer… not the one they offer you. 😀 (It would be a little weird if they offered you their own beer.)

  26. Olivier – your comments cracked me up. Thanks for that! Amen!

  27. Marie says:

    I think this is a brilliant topic and kudos for bringing this up. I have worked for a number of PR firms and have a few things to add:

    If you have an event and/or client function, observe your boss carefully. Does he/she drink? If your boss is not drinking, that means you should not be drinking either.

    I’ve had bosses that were upfront and simply did not allow drinking at any function where you were representing the firm. I’ve also had bosses that lined up tequila shots for me.

    I definitely have had clients offer me drinks and I think you have to make a judgement based on your surroundings and the event.

    If you are interacting with a client on a one-on-one basis, then that also comes with its own set of rules. I think it really depends on the situation and comfort level. However, be careful of being “too” comfortable with a client. At the end of the day, they are still your client.

    As for clothing, I always ask my boss what the dress code is for any event. That way I’m not overdressed or undressed.

  28. Marie says:

    I mean under dressed. I apparently have not had enough coffee 🙂

  29. timotis says:

    Based on everyone’s analysis of this argument, the issue seems to be more about fitting the cultural mold, and office culture has always been about how you dress. How do we know this? It’s one of the first things out of a new hire’s mouth: ‘So how do I dress.’ I don’t think we need to analyze the post down to a “T”, though I’m sure some earlier communication theorists would have something to say about it the interaction between Jen and her colleagues or Danny and his former colleague.

    This post is also about seniority. What’s the adage again: “always kiss the person’s ass above you.” While not my cup of tea and probably not Jen’s either, people listen to those higher up on the ladder than themselves and that includes how to hold their glass, and rub their tummy and pat their head while also shining the senior level’s shoes. Yes, it’s corporate america and you do have a choice.

    Jen, aren’t you independent? Makes sense.

  30. Hey Marie and Tim – just now seeing your comments. Thanks so much for joining the discussion! Much appreciated.

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