Sue McGuire thinks about porridge for breakfast – and vivid pink lipstick

I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about professionalism lately, and have been having some interesting conversations about it. One of the first things to say is that it’s a bit of a difficult term to define – and as to what is professional or unprofessional, well everyone has an opinion on that score, it seems.

In my own case, one of the first times I remember being moved to consider what was ‘professional’ or not was when I got rather exercised about what appeared to be a growing movement in our office for people to eat their breakfast in the office, at their computers.

I put up with it for a while but eventually, as deputy manager of that team, I had to say something in the team meeting. Basically, I wasn’t enamoured about people clocking in then going into the kitchen to make breakfast – after some of them had put their make up on in the toilets, as well.

This wasn’t taken lightly. Why was it any different to eating a sandwich at your desk at lunch time etc.? Well, it’s a fair point and I admit to bringing some of my perhaps puritanical and judgmental nature to bear here. (I think you can tell that from the make-up remark!).

In the end, we agreed that you could have your breakfast at work as long as you didn’t clock on until after it was made. All’s well that ends well, but I still shudder to see a bowl of porridge by a computer; having your breakfast in work seems to me to be evidence of a very disorganised home life, it seems to me.

I’ve seen other examples of similar behaviour, of course. I remember that at one authority I worked in, all PC games, such as solitaire, were removed from all desktops. Later on, in another authority people were often seen playing these games in their lunch times (and sometimes not only lunch times), quite openly. I thought this appalling, and wondered what people visiting our big open plan office might think. The response: it was their break times, they should do what they like.

I don’t know. I guess I’m a kind of ‘you don’t go to work to enjoy it’ person. So the following thoroughly grabbed my attention the other day and I did read it and reflected on it at length. Seven things that brand you unprofessional by Liz Ryan.

Apart from the fact that I had been discussing the experiences above very recently, I was brought up a Catholic – and there is no-one like an ex-Catholic for raking up the past for things to feel guilty about! So I had to read this and put myself through the mill.

Liz’s piece opened my eyes to a few things about this whole set of questions about what is and what isn’t appropriate in the office. It made me feel a bit bad, for example, for picking on trivial reasons for applying the term unprofessional. ‘Professional’, she says, doesn’t make you stiff or staid – and presumably, being stiff or staid doesn’t make you professional. I was very struck by some of the things she says are professional – such as ‘telling the truth’ and ‘being compassionate’. These are much bigger ‘asks’ to maintain than a lot of people give credit for and I’d be willing to bet we can all think of a time when we didn’t maintain our standards to our satisfaction on those items.

I also really like her seven ‘don’ts’ about professional vs unprofessional and if I had to go back to carrying a card around with me to tell me what values I should espouse (as one employer tried to make me do!) I’d be happy to put these on it.

• Don’t drop you commitments – do what you say you’ll do or don’t say it
• Don’t blame others for your mistakes
• Don’t attend events ‘impaired’
• Don’t assault other people’s senses
• Don’t throw your co-workers to the wolves
• Don’t cut corners
• Don’t bad-mouth your employers or their associations

I think really what they are saying is that being unprofessional consists in many small daily acts of unkindness or lack of consideration.

I can think of times when I’ve let both myself and others down on some or all of these.

It’s very good advice. So I think something is emerging here about what started out as being a controversial term, perhaps – about how being professional is about being a person others can trust, someone whose consistency and values are clear and obvious. About being someone who explains why when things aren’t as perfect as you’d like them to be and will keep trying to make them better against momentous odds. And yes, someone who keeps on trying.

The concepts ‘professional’ and being ‘unprofessional’ deserves discussion in teams and among leaders and managers. It’s a good debate and I think it’s worth knowing what people think they look like, both for good team cohesion and for good organisational motivation.

It’s also a discussion about detail and not just broad concepts. Will it sanction the freedom to eat porridge at work and wear the brightest shade of lipstick you can buy? Worth finding out, surely?