Just what does it mean to be a professional?

I was asked that question as I prepared a seminar for a client recently. It gave me pause and think: We use the word “professional” all the time, but what are the traits that embody professionalism?

Immediately, and not unsurprisingly, etiquette came to mind, specifically the three principles of etiquette: consideration, respect, and honesty.

Consideration. A professional person is able to look at a situation objectively, to understand what is going on and how it is affecting everybody involved. It means being aware of the bigger picture.

Respect. Certainly professional people show respect toward those with whom they interact. That means they treat other people considerately. They think about how their actions will affect the people with whom they interact. Perhaps most importantly, they act in ways that not only deal with the situation at hand but also positively affect the other people involved.

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Honesty. The professional person is truthful. Deception—even a white lie—is not part of his or her make-up. Honesty also means sincerity. A core trait of the professional person is that he or she exhibits sincerity in their interactions.

The importance of these three characteristics is in the consistency with which they are employed. When practiced consistently, they engender trust. When they are part of who you are, they help others to develop confidence in you, and it is through confidence that you build trust. Business is built on trust. It takes effort and repetition to build trust. Just one insincere act can cause trust to be lost, and once lost it is very difficult to regain.

Hand-in-hand with the principles of etiquette, the professional person is also:

Competent. Professional people are good at their jobs. They have mastered their job skills. That mastery engenders confidence not only with clients but also with colleagues, managers, and suppliers.

Honors commitments. Being responsible certainly means being a person others can count on—getting the job done right and getting it done on time. Responsibility also implies a willingness to own up to problems when they occur and, where possible, having a solution in mind. It’s not a question of if someone is going to make a mistake at work, it’s how the person handles it when the mistake occurs that matters.

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Projects a positive image. That image is affected by attire to be sure, but it also is affected by actions such as eye contact, posture, body language, and curtailing nervous habits that can imply a lack of self-confidence.

Add these six traits up, and you begin to have an image of a person who is a professional.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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