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      6 Elements that Take the Guesswork out of Defining Professionalism

      A guest blog by Amy Johnson, BS, LVT, RLATG, CVJ

      Professionalism helps us construct a shared code of what is acceptable behavior in, and often outside of, the workplace. I set out to write an article about professionalism that did not include my opinions and was based in solid fact. The problem is that the official definition of professionalism is vague and subjective, leaving it open to interpretation. For example, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, professionalism is defined as “The conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person.” Big help, right? Besides this, there are a few additional challenges when seeking to define professionalism.

      First, it means different things to different people. What you view as professional is not necessarily how someone else might size up the situation. Second, generational changes in the workplace are forcing us to take a fresh look at behaviors that were once considered professional. Millennials and Gen Z-ers have different parameters than those that came before them. 

      So, where do we start? The Department of Labor has said that “professionalism isn’t one thing; it’s a combination of qualities.” And luckily for those in the veterinary industry, there are several qualities that forge an atmosphere of professionalism regardless of what one’s specific role in the practice may be. The six elements below will help any veterinary employee take the guesswork out of what it means to be “professional!” 


      1. Communication

      Communication is a part of professionalism


      Communication is an important factor in professionalism, whether it’s between staff and customer or between staff members themselves. Communication skills can make or break relationships in any business, but especially in veterinary medicine. Miscommunication can lead to problems in the quality of care our patients receive and can cause customers to leave our practice and write negative reviews online.

      It is important to remember that communication is much more than what we say. It’s also the tone in which we say it, and our body language. Good communication skills are necessary when writing as well. Think emails and even text messages. When speaking with clients in any communication medium, we want to make sure everyone is on the same page. This means knowing your audience and making sure you are using the appropriate terminology when talking with clients versus the medical term.


      2. Great customer service

      great customer service is a part of professionalism


      Customer service is much like professionalism – we know it when we see it, but putting a finger on exactly what it is can be difficult. We want the client to walk away with a feeling that they and their pet are in good hands. To accomplish this, we need to be reassuring, relatable, friendly, trustworthy and empathetic. These qualities will be expressed through both our words and our actions.

      Great customer service includes actively listening to the needs of the client and addressing their concerns in an efficient manner.


      3. Confidence and knowledge

      knowledge and confidence are a part of professionalism


      A confident staff member will help clients feel at ease that they have made the right decision in trusting your practice. Show your knowledge and competence through how you carry yourself and how you communicate. A client can tell when you are confident in what you are discussing, and when they are reassured by your demeanor they are more likely to pay attention to what you are saying and “buy in.”

      Knowledge and competence come from being willing to learn and improve your skills. Veterinary medicine is changing at a rapid pace, and continually educating yourself is important in order to keep yourself from becoming close-minded and “stuck in old ways.”


      4. Clean appearance and good hygiene

      clean appearance and hygiene are part of professionalism


      This area can often get us in the weeds when we discuss professionalism. It is important to understand that a dress code is going to be set by the practice based on core values, clientele, location and other factors. How staff dress or express themselves through things like visible tattoos, non-natural hair colors or body piercings is up to each practice to define for itself. There is no one right answer when discussing how each practice decides to present itself. Professionalism means following the dress code and standards set by the practice. Uniforms, whatever they may be, should be clean, non-wrinkled, non-ripped and fit appropriately, and staff members should always follow good hygiene practices.


      5. Dependability

      dependability is part of professionalism


      A true professional is someone who can be relied upon to be there when required, and to follow through on their word. Dependability means showing up for work when scheduled, arriving on time and being accountable for meeting deadlines. A dependable employee shows respect for everyone in the practice, shows a consistent quality of work and builds trust over time.


      6. Team player

      proefssionalism requires being a team player


      When evaluating an individual’s professionalism, it is important to consider how they interact with their team. It is not necessary to be best friends with colleagues, but you do need to be able to get along with them and work amicably side by side.

      Team players avoid gossip, leave personal problems at the door before starting a shift, take personal initiative and go the extra mile to help where and when needed. Accountability also is a big part of being a team player. If you make a mistake you need to own up to it. Team players will help build a positive culture and contribute to a happier staff overall.

      How professionalism is defined for your staff is of utmost importance while in the building, but it also needs to be said that staff members represent the business outside of your walls as well. Staff members should be following a set code of professional conduct at continuing education events, community events and any other time they are representing the practice, even when not in your building.


      Don’t let your team guess what you expect from them. How you expect your team members to represent you needs to be laid out in your practice’s mission, vision and core values. These expectations should appear in the job descriptions and employee manuals, and should be emphasized in coaching conversations and referenced in employee evaluations. Everyone in the practice needs to exemplify these values, including leadership. Everyone must “walk the walk,” or the only way professionalism will be displayed in your workplace is just that vague word on a piece of paper.

      Combining these elements and laying them into a solid foundation will guide your team to embody the values that your practice upholds, creating a culture that takes any subjectivity out of the word professionalism.


      Amy Johnson is a Patterson Veterinary University Education Development Specialist. If the subject of defining professionalism resonated with you, we know you would find our PVU course on communication and service to be a valuable resource. After all, professionalism starts with solid communication skills! We invite you to learn more about this course HERE on the Patterson Veterinary University website, where you can also view a complete list of current course offerings.