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The Changing Meaning of Professionalism and Its Impact in the Workplace

written by: ciel s cantoria•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 8/23/2011

Why is professionalism important in the workplace? It seems that the business community today expects more from a professional aside from the body of knowledge one has acquired. Perhaps there is more to its concept that we should understand in order to meet the challenges of one’s chosen career.

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    Reflecting on Its Origins

    First there was the word professional, which initially meant someone engaged in an occupation connected to a scientific learning that was liberally acquired. As a worker, his or her accomplishments stood in contrast to the artisan or craftsman or whose skills were acquired through manual labor using traditional methods.

    During the Victorian era (1837 - 1901), the suffix “ism" was added to coin the word “professionalism", which denoted a practice or condition that was related to a doctrine, principle, characteristic, devotion or adherence. Hence, putting both together gives a definition of professionalism as the practice of an acquired scientific learning in accordance with its principles and doctrines.

    Jack Burgess Kerslake 

    Let us reflect on the Victorian era to come to an understanding of the conditions that gave rise to the concept of professionalism. It was during Queen Victoria’s rule that the British people experienced peace and prosperity for quite some time and particularly for the educated middle class.

    This was largely attributed to the advent of industrialization and the acceptance of scientific knowledge as a tool for improving man’s way of life. In earlier years, science was taboo because it was considered as a tool for wizardry and witchcraft.

    The British nobility now included the British gentleman or lady who had reached prosperity through his or her acquired liberal education without regard for his or her ancestral origins. As prosperity was attained, many of the British leaders instituted political and moral reforms, which gave rise to the Victorian morality.

    These referred to the ethics and principles that were founded on the common desire to make the world a better place for all mankind. The leaders were collectively known as “the Victorians" who spoke of and recognized a sense of shared responsibility toward the less fortunate although they specifically excluded the alcoholics and the lazy members of the poor sector.

    Nevertheless, they planted the seeds of the new breed of professionals in the workplace. They were those who had the desire to either eliminate or be lifted out of poverty through hard work, honesty, thrift and the elimination of child labor.

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    America During the Victorian Era

    411px-Undark (Radium Girls) advertisement, 1921 

    The most notable effects of the Victorian influence in America were the abolition of slavery and child labor as the emergence of the independent United States developed the same breed of professionals. Political and moral reforms were taken to the hilt by instituting fair labor laws and fair trade practices and dismantling monopolies.

    It was only after the Great Depression and World War 2 that corporate excesses came to a standstill because every organization was rebuilding from scratch. Thus, from 1945 to the early years of the 1960s, the era of economic prosperity painted a picture of professional occupations as the gateway to wealth and popularity. However, this era was marred by the shadow of the Vietnam War and a decline among male professionals as they had entered into active military duty.

    Moreover, the numbers of those who professed interest in the science of technology were decreasing as the new generations became more interested in the arts and sciences of finance. America had birthed a new breed of professionals and those individuals had made their marks in the capital markets. The thrust for innovations and new technologies were overshadowed by the high-paying occupations in business finance.

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    Advent of the Young Urban Professionals in the 1980s

    423px-60 Wall St by Matthew Bisanz 

    The 1980s were the era of the “young urban professionals" or the “yuppies", and they were initially hailed as the heroes of the 70s and 80s decades. They were represented by successful professionals who wore expensive Italian suits and stylish Ray-bans, drove in their gleaming BMWs and were often seen dining with the rich and famous. However, their high profiles were marred by the stock market crash of 1987.

    The yuppies beguiled the investors with their seemingly successful auras and appearances because the former were more into judging the cover than examining the contents of the books.

    The Securities and Exchange Commission seemed powerless over the infatuation of the investors with the new trend in which new companies grew not as a result of consumerism but as a result of trading on the stocks of other companies and junk bonds. The long and short of the yuppies’ professional feat was that they were merely trading bubbles, which eventually exceeded their capacity to hold anything but air.

    The professional of the 80s was described as someone who was obsessed with his or her career; hence, it was important that he or she be engaged in an occupation that was personally meaningful and provided a means for self-expression. They were characteristically extravagant and ostentatious, which was signaled by their owning something that only a fellow yuppie would like and could afford. They were admired for their elegance and classy taste but when their careers ended because of the Wall Street stock market crash of 1987, they were remembered only for their greed, self-centeredness and indifference to their social surroundings.

    The handiwork of some of them was carried over during the 1990s, but their modus operandi did not withstand the capabilities of the incoming age of computerization. The Y2K-scare at the beginning of the new millennium was real for these breed of professionals because it eventually proved to be the undoing of those who were still scamming investors for money.

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    Coming to an Understanding

    By revisiting the earlier years, we perceived how the concept of professionalism took shape and form and how it deteriorated in a century that was filled with political corruption and excesses. Today, the meaning of professionalism has once again changed; presumably back to its original concept of hard work, honesty and social responsiveness.

    The study of behaviors and attitudes among professionals has become an important factor in this day and age. The series of developments during the past century saw these individuals as having the largest influence either in upholding or breaking down the scaffoldings of various institutions.

    An informal online poll-survey provides us with some opinions about why employers in the business industries have altered their views on what they look for in professionals. The following poll results were based on the personal views of those who are also interested in understanding the reasons why professionalism has evolved into its present meaning during the past 20 years.

    • Technology – 43%
    • Business Attire – 21%
    • Common courtesies and civilities – 21%
    • Relationship management and networking – 7%
    • Others (which includes all of the above as the reasons) – 5%

    (Source: pursueinc.wordpress.com/2011/02/28)

    Microsoft Certified Professional 

    Technology: plays an important role since companies are now working on real-time information without enough room for accounting manipulations. In addition, employers, creditors and investors are provided with tools to examine key performance indicators, which they can use as a basis for making sound decisions.

    Business Attire: The yuppie-era spurred an aversion for designer suits and formal attire; hence, earnest professionals who are immersed in real work tend to dress down. Nonetheless, corporate organizations still prefer that their employees reflect an image of a professionally managed workforce.

    Modern-day professionals are allowed to express their creativity through individualism but most management requires that as far as dressing for work is concerned, employees should follow the 5 Cs:: (1) clean, (2) classic, (3) credible, (4) consistent and (5) covered.

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    450px-Apple Cinema Display aluminum and external iSight camera-2007-08-24 

    Common Courtesies and Civilities: Inasmuch as today’s businesses are reverting to consumerism, corporate management is helping their employees fight the stresses of everyday life by providing work-life balance and recreational outlets.

    In return, employees are expected to show their appreciation by behaving in the workplace with due courtesy, respect and civility toward their superiors, their co-workers, their customers and everyone associated with the company. Employees present an image of a well-managed and well-compensated workforce of a successful company.

    Relationship Management and Networking: The advent of the Internet, technological innovations and social networking sites afforded individuals tools that allow them to keep in constant contact with family, friends and business associates.

    Worried parents can easily monitor their children’s whereabouts or learn about their interests. The single employee who finds work away from home and family can easily get in touch through instant messaging and web-cams. The important element in all of these is communication and ability to reach out.

    Others: For those who have wider perceptions, the professionals of today have changed as a combination of all of the above factors.

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    Today's Professionals

    Fig 104 - are you a professional or managerial workers 

    Professionalism in the workplace today is about a behavior that does not have to be governed by written rules but comes from one’s innate traits. It is manifested by desirable attitudes that are seen through individuals' dealings with the people around them or in certain types of interactions and reactions to conflict, stress or challenging situations. All these could be influenced by the individual’s background and upbringing.

    Professional behavior starts with self-respect and a show of respect to others for their capabilities. It is followed by a willingness to accept responsibility, which comes with an acknowledgment of one’s boundaries, and is exhibited in such a way that he or she does not encroach on others’ affairs. In manifesting all these, the professional chooses his or her words carefully in communicating his or her agreement, dissension, opinion and explanations by using only appropriate words.

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