Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

I consider myself to be a professional. After all, I’m an attorney and a business strategist that runs deep in some good business circles. Most people would classify my career as being a “professional”  career.

But I am also not like every other business professional so every once in a while I run into somebody who will call me “unprofessional”. This often gives me pause. Am I truly not being a professional?

Because this bothers me I wanted to stop and think about what is “professional” and what is “unprofessional” – for you and for me.

What does it mean to be “unprofessional”?

Are people starting to abuse this term?

As I started this article I Googled and looked for a good answer on what unprofessional meant. And according to most sources unprofessional means not being professional. The opposite of professional. Not a very meaningful definition.

So I spent some time digging deeper into what is “unprofessional”. And I also gave some thought and analysis to whether the term was being abused and what it means when someone calls you unprofessional.

1) It’s in the Eyes of the Beholder

Having looked at the definitions of unprofessional, one thing becomes clear. What is professional and what is unprofessional is often in the eyes of the beholder. The person calling or tagging somebody is unprofessional is usually the one making that determination.

Truth is what somebody should or shouldn’t be doing any profession, particularly in this modern era of turmoil and change that we’re seeing throughout our entire economy in the world, is really uncertain. Who really gets determine what it means to be a professional?

So somebody slinging around the term unprofessional is really projecting on you at their values, morals and ethics onto others. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them.

2) Is There a Standard?

There truly is little-to-no standard of what is professional and what is unprofessional. For some of us we have certain regulations or laws that we have to follow (I am an attorney and a CPA and we have certain guidelines that determine what is “professional” with our profession carrying consequences against our license in we behave in certain ways). I can also tell you that sometimes there will be court cases where an expert will testify as to what is professional to set a standard of care. You might see this in a medical malpractice case, for instance.

But for the most part, we’re looking at a hard define standard. Who really gets to determine what is consistent with being a professional, as the definition of unprofessional suggest? Is it the average behavior of some mythical average professional, some standards set by some border body or does each professional get to set their own standards based on their particular needs and wants.

The truth is there really is no standard to what is professional is other than perhaps the legal overlays which we have created in our world.

3) Can Anyone Truly be Unprofessional?

So if there is no standard, it becomes hard to determine what is unprofessional. Basically anything the beholder says is unprofessional is unprofessional. And on the flip side whoever is on the receiving end of the professional’s behavior can say whether it’s professional.

So it’s hard to truly say that somebody is ever unprofessional. Because attaching “un”  to
“professional” shows as much about our values of the beholder as of the professional.

In other contexts we can tell whether somebody “is” there “isn’t” something. I mean you’re either a skydiver, or you’re not. You’ve done skydiving or you haven’t. It’s pretty clear. But for professional, with a moving and undefined target and standard, it’s hard to truly say that anybody is actually unprofessional.

They may do things we don’t like, but we don’t have a standard to attach.

4) It’s Usually a Bully’s Tool

And that leads us to the true nature of calling somebody unprofessional. Somebody that you deem unprofessional is not meeting your standards of what you expect from them and their profession. This journey around this amorphous phrases let us to that understanding.

The simplest answer is if somebody is not the type of professional that you want to do business with is to just not do business with him. And in many cases that’s the choice. You can leave your doctor, your lawyer or dentist just walk away. Find a different professional that you like. Just because you didn’t like how they act means that they didn’t meet your standards not necessarily that they’re not a professional.

When I see the word unprofessional slung around it’s often used by somebody as a bully. It’s a tactic. Rather than walk away or not associate with the person they have to use the slinging to try to force somebody else to behave in a particular way they think that person should behave. It’s kind of silly and childish when you think about it.

5) Don’t Let Others Strong Arm You

So if you’re on the receiving end of the unprofessional tag, don’t let other strong-arm you. They have no sway over what you do or don’t do. Unless they’re that regulatory body or they have some legal rights over you you can simply just ignore them.

And since the term unprofessional really has no meaning all they’re telling you when they call you unprofessional is that they don’t like what you did. And it doesn’t mean that what you did was wrong it just means one particular person didn’t like it.

6) In Most Cases You Set the Standard – And You KNOW

Probably one of the greatest things, and one of the scariest things about being a professional, is it is you that is responsible for your own behavior and setting the standards. As a lawyer, I am regulated by a variety of ethics and other rules, but I get to set the standard beyond those rules. The rules are the floor of what I must do. Just complying with the rules in my opinion does not make me a professional. I get to set the standard of what I consider to be a true professional.

And the same goes for you. It’s your job to know. And as you gain experience and get exposed to more situations you get to understand what you believe is professional. And to me that is all about servicing clients and making a good impact on the world.

So build your standard as a professional. And hold yourself to it. And know whether you’re making it to that level of professionalism or not. The person slinging the word unprofessional doesn’t have the right, or authority, to tell you that you are not a professional.

7) In the End You Answer to You

In the end you answer to you. You are the one responsible for being a professional. And you are responsible for determining when things are unprofessional.

I do hope you make that standard high. But you have to answer to you because the term unprofessional, when attached by others to your behavior, really means nothing.


It really made me stop and think recently when I started hearing the word unprofessional being used. It cause this analysis of the term. And the truth is that both terms mean nothing when thrown from one person to another.

But they also mean everything. Being a professional is something I hold in high regard. But it’s not something to somebody else gets to tell me how to do (with the exception of the legal system). And why the most powerful, and scary, aspects of being a professional is having that responsibility to set that bar.

So go forth and be professional. And don’t listen to others when they tell you your unprofessional. Because deep down you already know.

By: The Our Shawn McBride who is constantly studying the Future of Business as the host of The Future Done Right(TM) Show. If you want regular content on the future of business subscribe to get new blog posts from us here.

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