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I've had 3 jobs and 3 managers (all different companies), and each of them has had the same complaint about me, so I don't think moving jobs will fix it. At every job, my manager is happy with my work and performance, but they always say I just don't have a very professional attitude about it. I've always asked for more details or for them to name specific things and they say something like "it's not just any one thing, it's just that you seem unprofessional in general".

What are some ways I can deal with this? I can't get any more details from the managers' perspective but I can answer questions if someone has any here.

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    Can you try to describe how you act at work? Do your coworkers handle things differently? Do you dress appropriately for work? – Thijs Tijsma Mar 4 at 5:54
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    How do you respond when assigned a task you don't like? What kind of wording do you use when you give someone feedback? Do you give off any unprofessional non-verbal cues? Do you show up late for work? – さりげない告白 Mar 4 at 6:00
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    What industry do you work in? Professionalism for a software developer (where shorts, t-shirt, beards and pizza nights are the norm) is quite different from someone like a lawyer (where... ok, I don't know what the norm is, suits, polished shoes, upright posture and carrying a briefcase?) – Dark Hippo Mar 4 at 14:28
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    If you're a huge fan of sarcasm then I recommend being less sarcastic. The receiver of sarcasm usually finds it demeaning but might shrug it off with a laugh. Think about your day-to-day interactions with others and try to think whether you would want someone acting that way towards you. – MonkeyZeus Mar 4 at 14:56
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    Some details that might help improve this question: What positions you were in at your three jobs, The country you are in, Whether or not you followed dress code, The stated reason for you being let go (They have to provide a reason for dismissal legally in some jurisdictions), as it stands there is very little advice we can give you without more information about your work. – Zibbobz Mar 4 at 15:25
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To be honest, I'm not sure that your bosses are being very professional - they should be able to provide specific advice on how to improve when they provide vague criticism.

Next time you are given this criticism and they deflect with "it's not just any one thing, it's just that you seem unprofessional in general", follow up with this:

I would still like to improve myself. What would you consider my least professional behaviour so that I can address that?

If they still can't come up with any answer at that point, there quite possibly isn't anything you can do other than just keep on doing what you're doing - you say they're happy with your work and performance, and maybe that's good enough. You could try talking to your peers instead.

If you continue to be worried about this, then there are a few other things you could do - please bear in mind that I have no idea if you already are doing any of this:

  • make sure you are dressed acceptably for your workspace and culture;
  • ensure you are on-time to start work and for meetings;
  • pay attention in meetings (hopefully you don't have too many and they're not too long);
  • try to be proactive - look ahead sometimes, rather than just at what's in front of you;
  • stay off your phone when you're at your desk;
  • minimise time away from your desk outside of meetings;
  • minimise time chatting about non-work topics (you don't have to completely stop - it's good to be social at work - but be careful a quick chat at the water-cooler doesn't extend into a thirty minute conversation);
  • avoid using emojis and net slang in emails (and don't overuse them in your corporate Slack or other discussion channels - try to follow how others behave here);
  • on the issue of Slack/discussion groups - again, minimise the time you spend discussing non-work topics.

There's probably a bunch more - I also suggest you take it one step at a time.

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    For young people, choice of words and range of emotion are probably the two biggest issues. For online chat, use of emoticons, gifs or net abbreviations/slang... – Mars Mar 4 at 6:06
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    Great list. I would add that making remarks regarding coworkers' look and health, marital status or sexual preferences will put you in the non-professional box. Similarly, hitting on coworkers is inadvisable as a rule of thumb. – user3819867 Mar 4 at 17:03
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    You can also use HorusKoi's list and ask yes/no questions that they can address, e.g. "You mentioned it's not any one thing, but I'm a bit lost without more concrete examples. Does it have to do with how I [speak, dress, handle problems, insert domain-specific item here, etc.] at the workplace?" And if they say yes, ask them how to improve that one specific feature. – eurieka Mar 4 at 19:35
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    I'd add "Don't use the internet at work for entertainment, social media updates, or online purchases." – MaxW Mar 4 at 19:58
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    @Mars clearly your workplace slack doesn't have fast parrot – alexdriedger Mar 4 at 20:00
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"Professionalism" is about appearance/image.

Do you appear clean?
Do you appear organized?
Do you appear respectful?

Cleanliness

  • Dress appropriately
  • Take care of your hygiene

Organization

  • Look like you take proper notes
  • Respect deadlines
  • Be on time

Respectfulness

  • Use your please and thank you's
  • Write and speak proper sentences, without slang
  • Create the image of listening attentively--do not appear to be distracted
  • Don't bring "personal" into the workplace
  • Show that you understand that you are at the workplace to work. Being caught looking at social media is generally the easiest way to kill your image, and there are many other blunders you can make.

Just some simple tips, and probably nothing without its exceptions.
For further info, there are whole books on the subject.
I expect a large bookstore would have a section on professionalism/career advice.

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    The fact that 3 managers have declined to offer a specific explanation for what they mean leads me to think this answer is on the right track. The managers probably all feel there's something about this person's appearance that's unprofessional, but are too scared of the HR/alwsuit fallout for identifying it directly. For example, a female worker whom wears clothes that are too provocative might find themselves hearing the same thing. The managers really want the behavior to change, but are terrified of having to vocalize to the employee anything related to sexuality or attractiveness. – Graham Mar 4 at 19:03
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    Continuing @Graham's line--noting that no one was willing to say why--another possibiity is that it's too socially awkward to bring up. Body odor or bad breath, for example, would be something no one would want to tell an employee about. It seems likely that there is something to the fact that no one would be specific. OP might need a good friend--a really good friend--to give them a frank assessment of what the problem could be. If you smell bad (hard to even type, I don't want to offend!), no one is going to want to be the one to tell you, but no one wants to have to work near you either. – msouth Mar 4 at 21:01
  • Professionalism isn't just about appearance, it's about behavior and ethics as well. But this is a great answer for the appearance part, and @Graham's point about the managers and lack of specifics suggesting appearance is part of it seems on target. Very useful answer. – T.J. Crowder Mar 6 at 9:26
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    @T.J.Crowder In this case, I mean appearance as in image, not physical. Your behavior creates your image, but I guess I'll check that wording. – Mars Mar 6 at 9:28
  • Strongly dIsagree with the first line of this answer - professionalism is about attitude and behaviour - it's not about appearance. Indeed, it is not unheard of for people who appear who dress up extremely well to be severely lacking in professionalism - e.g. someone with high ambition may dress up well to try to impress others (almost "fake" professionalism), yet their attitude to their job/colleagues/etc may still be extremely poor, or may lack respect for others, or be out to put their own interests ahead of their employer, (Those are just examples to labour a point of course). – Ben Cottrell Mar 7 at 11:19
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Take cues from people they think do behave professionally

It's possible what's going on here is that any particular examples of your unprofessional behaviour aren't individually significant, but they happen frequently enough or in such a combination that the overall effect is significant.

Your managers may have been focusing on the big picture, avoiding specifics because they are too numerous to cover, to avoid going down rabbit holes on inconsequential details, even hypocrisy if they or other team members occasionally behave similarly, and generally missing the wood for the trees.

They want to keep it general, so a good way forwards is to ask for general counter examples - individuals who they think do behave professionally. Take that list and pay attention to how they behave across all aspects of their jobs, critically contrast that with your own behaviour, try to understand why your manager prefers their way and move your future behaviour closer to theirs.

Check back in with your manager occasionally, perhaps monthly, and ask for updated feedback on this, perhaps mentioning particular differences you've noticed and tried to change to assure them you're taking this seriously. Iterate as appropriate until the feedback becomes positive.

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  • The caveat to this advice is to avoid becoming a robot. Actually watching people should help avoid this, but if the watcher uses only the "professional" traits they see 100% of the time, this can also cause problems. A professional person knows when it's ok to not be professional, too, and what the limits of those "unprofessional" times and actions consist of. It takes time to understand all this and someone right out of college might not understand all of it right away, as well as each company seems to have their own idea of what "professional" is. – computercarguy Mar 5 at 0:51
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    The managers may also have been avoiding details because the "unprofessional behavior" is something they legally can't speak about. Just posing this as a possibility – Mars Mar 5 at 1:16
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Others have given great "general advice" answers. So I'll do a Frame Challenge here.

A different question you might wonder is why you receive unclear feedback from your bosses. As others mentioned, if I'm criticizing someone, I should always prepare a few exemples to support my criticism, this is important both because the other person might not even notice or remember some relevant quirks or past happenings that play a relevant role on making the criticism necessary. I should be able to give clear and truthful examples, but I'll normally delineate with "that's just an example of a recurring issue/characteristic of yours". There are cases when this feedback preparation simply never reaches a concise, professional and relevant message, often they involve me not having good enough examples, or the kind of reaction I might expect from you.

There are a few reasons someone might avoid giving honest, complete feedback about your professionalism:

1. Something happened mid-way an escalating situation.

Maybe you had every right to be mad at someone who wronged you, maybe I'd have lost my temper if I were in your shoes. Nonetheless, it would still have been more professional from you to keep your temper, maintain a normal voice tone and not respond ironically and de-escalate a conflict situation. Learning to breath and letting things pass is an important but increasingly rare skill (both professionally and in personal life).

2. They involve your managers being partially wrong

Take the earlier example, now image I am your manager and maybe I was the one pissing you off. Then, I'd really not be in my rights to further complain about you. It's like your doctor telling you to stop smoking with a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. The message is valid nonetheless, but the messenger himself is not ideal.

3. They actually think you don't handle feedback well.

Everybody has some negative feedback they should hear, you and I are no different in this regard. But if every time I try to give you negative feedback, you bluntly disagree with what I am saying, and I leave with the impression that I've damaged our relationship and there is no hope for an improvement on your part, I'll probably refrain from addressing issues with you directly. In effect, you might be intimidating people who attempt to give you negative feedback.

4. They involve a collection of individually harmless events

Everybody makes some slightly inappropriate joke or comment here and then, or even funny harmless jokes. Calling someone's attention for doing so is just not worthy. But maybe, if excessive harmless jokes disrupt meetings, this reflects badly on you. Maybe something you do has some remote probability of offending someone, but you do such things so often that the law of large numbers is just around the corner before you actually get into trouble. People generally tend to disagree with this kind of feedback.

5. You are crossing blurry lines

Maybe half the people in the office have some small tattoo like a butterfly on the ankle or a peace sign in the wrist, and the company doesn't want to sound conservative by forbidding visible tattoos in the workplace. But you have some big (albeit non-offensive) arm tattoo that could easily be hiding under sleeves, but is almost always on display. Maybe the company has a casual dress code, but everyone suits up for meetings with clients, except for you. So you are not exactly wrong, but your manager has no clear-cut lines to point out when you've trans-passed.

6. You don't communicate with clarity

Maybe you accept every task given to you, but you send an unclear message when being given such task. Sometimes ambiguous sentences like "I'll see what could be about it" is supposed to mean "I'll handle this situation" (this is what your boss wants to hear), but these phrases are also used by people who mean "I'll won't do it, but I need to dismiss this conversation without denying explicitly". Maybe on your job things are not even clear-cut enough that your boss is able to tell afterwards what you've meant. Think about "plausible deniability", maybe many things you say give room to misinterpretation, and this happens so often that people start thinking it's deliberate. It's very annoying to work with someone who talks or acts like this.

7. You complain too much or are too pessimistic

You are in every right not to be cheerful on some idea, and maybe bad things happen to you and you need to vent. It's not exactly unprofessional to complain when chit-chatting nor to express negative opinions. But if those come from you way too often, you cross the professionalism line. I've heard about the experiment where you are challenged not to complain about anything at all for a week, it is said that once you do it, other people's rants become unbearable to you, and that may be how other people are perceiving you. However, coming from a manager, this advice might sound cynical and maybe censoring, which again is something a manager should avoid.

8. You disdain rules

If some new rule is announced, and many companies are full of "someone screwed up something, so now we have a new rule in place...". Maybe you are often heard short afterwards mocking the rule or its announcer. You (maybe unintentionally) send an ambiguous message that you might not follow the new rule, and maybe you are motivating others to join you. This both shows a problem with authority (which managers want to earn, not demand), and also creates a dilemma for rule makers: "Do I censor this guy, or do I wait until he breaks the rule?".

9. Maybe you don't understand authority

If the company's CEO or whichever else big cheese asks for something, in most conditions, you do it. If you direct manager asks something, you should negotiate the terms and generally do what you've been asked or respect what was "suggested" ( i.e. imposed) to you. Exceptions will always happen but should be exceptional, not the rule. Nobody will enjoy coming to you and explaining this, and no manager will constantly threaten you with his actual authority-granted powers (i.e. firing you). Also no good manager will tell you do act without question, but you might be overdoing it because you just don't get the spirit of the hierarchy dynamics within the company's culture. I've seen a place were people had a really hard time informing a high-level executive that a big event had long being scheduled to a given date after he wanted to confirm a two-month earlier date during a meeting. Stupid as it sounds, if you were in that meeting in that company and just said "the event has always been scheduled for X date", you'd have done the textbook procedure on how to handle the situation, but in that company, I would expect people to think that you simply don't understand authority (and I myself don't understand them). Yet, I doubt someone would have the nerve to be honest about it to you.

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  • Signed up to up vote. Most likely situations leading to OP's dilemma covered – beeshyams Mar 4 at 20:51
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3 out of 3 bosses gave you similar feedback, still they might all be wrong. So I'm not trying to comment your case, I'd rather give you my experience about professionalism for reference.

Professionalism is hard to express for most of us, because these things are so personal and we don't learn much about them in school (which is a pity). Even HR finds it hard to go into this territory.

The points in the top rated answer are totally valid, I'd say they are mostly related to work etiquette. These are usually straightforward to fix, because these are documented most of the time, so you can remind people to follow the rules.

Let me share when and why I gave people feedback about professionalism. It happened only a few times, also then with concrete issues. A generic professionalism discussion may hurt and offend people. That's why it's better to specify exactly.

As I said before, etiquette can be described and fixed. Also huge professionalism flaws can be described and fixed easily (like cases of theft in the office or people climbing public buildings at night totally drunk).

Everything in between is soft.

I think of professionalism gap when one or more team members bring team focus from the joint goal to personal issues.

This might happen in many forms, like excessive joking, spending too much time complaining on meetings, blaming others and many more. The scheme is that we bring personal focus where joint concerns are meant to be addressed.

We all do this to some extent, because I think it fills some human need. :) It's just not good for the team in large amounts.

For example, we may talk about how inefficient a certain team is (not our team, of course) and come up with horror stories for 30 minutes, instead of coming up with an action plan that our team can execute (not that other one) to move forward in 5 minutes.

The great toll is that there are often 10 or more people listening to one or two person's complaints or blames that they cannot address right there.

Same thing with etiquette like issues like dress code, being notoriously late or using bad language: these bring the focus from the joint goal to one or two individuals.

Personal issues have a place, complaints and blames can be discussed in various ways, usually between two people in a delicate way.

So my definition of professionalism would be that we address common interests and goals on broad forums and meetings and address private matters in a small circle delicately. And we don't mix up the two.

When I initiated a discussion about professionalism with people this was the scheme behind. What really bugged me was that personal matters on public forums affect the morale of the entire team and brings our focus in a place where we cannot take action.

This might not be applicable to you at all. And we all do this to some extent because we are not robots. So it's hard to draw the line when it's too much.

I initiated such discussions when I saw that the situation was not sustainable for the team. In these meetings I described the habits exactly that do the harm and asked people to change these behaviors. It was not always well received. These cases worked out pretty well in the long run though.

Throwing this feedback at a person without a concrete action plan and help from someone who knows people matters is itself unprofessional; It brings your focus to personal matters rather than joint goals and without giving you tools to address it.

You might go back to your boss and ask more questions but you might end up in more confusion if you don't get specifics.

I would suggest a simple practice that you can do right now and see if things get better. Bring your focus to team goals, do your job well and see what you can do to make the entire team more successful. Help others be better at what they are doing. Help team members make the next step in their careers. This is highly professional, this is what leadership is about.

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In the past, people have often reproach me that I was not "professional". Most of the time, they would refuse to tell me more. This is only hypothetical, but my guess is: they were afraid that I could law-suit them for discrimination if they were to say something and later fire me.

I have been working for more than four years now, and here are some of the things people find unprofessional about me:

  • The way I dress.

    I have an extreme skin sensitivity which mean that I only buy very large (and comfortable) cloths. Those kind of cloths are often seen as "unprofessional". However, if I wear to dress like "professionalism" request of me, I would feel like my skin is on fire and would be totally unable to function and do my work.

  • The way I sit.

    I don't sit in the "regular" way. I sit in a way that most people would find weird and, thus, "unprofessional". I sit this way because it's comfortable for me and prevent pain that I could have otherwise. So, basically, sitting in an "unprofessional" way makes me better at my job since I would be less efficient if I had to work while in pain.

  • The stim toys I have in my desk.

    I have several anxiety issues and being able to let my hands play with stuff helps me calm down. It also help me focus, think and work more efficaciously. For this reason, I will often bring one of my stim toys to meetings. Some people might see this as very unprofessional, as if I am not interest in what they have to say. Yet, being able to keep my hands busy during those meeting actual help me listen better.

  • My inappropriate reactions.

    One day, at work, we had a major incident. I had to informed one of my coworker about this and I did it with a big smile in my face before starting laughing.

    One of my boss saw me and find my behavior very inappropriate. They though I wasn't taking the situation seriously and that was why I was laughing. It wasn't true. For me, smiley and laughing are an automatic reaction to stress. The more stressful the situation is, the more likely I am to burst into laugh.

Now, I could try to fix all those "unprofessional" behavior of mine. However, they are here for a reason. All those "unprofessional" behavior actually make me a better worker.


That's why I will suggest a slight frame-challenge here:

Yes, you should definitively try to identify why people find your behavior unprofessional. But, once you know why people might see you as unprofessional ask yourself that:

  1. Is my behavior actually harmful?

  2. Would changing the way I look/do things cause me harm/pain?

Depending on the answer to those questions, it might be better for you to simply educate people about why what they see as "unprofessional" is actually important to you.

That's what I did at my current workplace and it worked. Maybe they still see me as "unprofessional" but, at least, they keep quiet about it.

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  • If you've got a disability, you've got a better reason than "they make me a better worker". You've got the ADA, or its equivalent in your country. – nick012000 Mar 6 at 14:32
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While it may seem like three places are describing the same "problem" they all have one thing in common: they can't explain exactly what it is.

So you have to take it with a grain of salt. The real question is if it is holding you back? Is anyone questioning your work? Are they asking you to clarify or follow some procedure in place? Do you ever send an email or say something inappropriate or get strange looks from your coworker?

If not, then I wouldn't worry too much about it. If they can't describe your problem then there's no reason to believe there is one.

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