What it means to be professional

ACCA believes good accountants are always professional.
Iwona Tokc-Wilde finds out what being 'professional' actually means

You often hear how important it is to behave professionally at work. But what exactly does it entail? Peter Johnson, HR partner at accountancy firm Cassons, says: ‘A professional is someone who displays high levels of expertise and efficiency.’ 

So, to be perceived as a professional, is it enough to simply do your job well?

‘Professionalism is a jigsaw with many pieces and technical expertise is only part of this jigsaw,’ says Penny Clarke, programme director of BSc Accounting at Manchester Business School. ‘My view is that professionalism is exhibited in a person who knows when to speak and when to listen, when to challenge and when to submit, and when to lead and when to be a team player.’

To most people, acting like a professional means working and behaving in such a way that others think of them as competent, reliable and respectful. Professionals are a credit not only to themselves, but also to others. ‘As an accountant, you are representing your profession, your professional body and your organisation,’ says Johnson.

Professionalism is incorporated throughout the ACCA Qualification, but, you cannot learn professionalism solely by reading a textbook or going to a lecture. In fact, ‘professionalism cannot be taught, it’s not a skill but a collection of attributes which need to be developed over time,’ says Clarke. It is important you understand what some of these key attributes are as you strive to work and act professionally.

Attributes of Professionalism


First of all, accountancy professionals are known for their specialised knowledge and skills backed up by their accountancy qualification. It is expected and required that they will keep this knowledge and skills up-to-date throughout their careers (undertaking regular continuing professional development – CPD) so that they can always deliver work of the highest quality, in accordance with accounting standards and relevant laws and regulations.

Reliability and accountability

True professionals plan in advance and never turn up to client meetings unprepared. They honour their commitments and can be relied upon to always get the job done – they deliver what they said they would deliver, and on time. But if things are not going exactly to plan, they do not look for excuses but do their best to put tasks and projects back on track. If mistakes are made, they accept responsibility for the part they played.

Honesty and integrity

Personal accountability is closely linked to honesty and integrity, another two tenets of professionalism. Professionals always tell the truth and never compromise their values. They will do the right thing at all times and in all circumstances, even if it means others will disagree or disapprove.

‘There are also contributory factors of morality and ethics – a professional person should demonstrate a squeaky-clean, whiter-than-white stance,’ adds Clarke.


Imagine being faced with an irate client or supplier. Instead of getting angry in return, you will act like a professional if you stay calm and business-like, and if you do everything you can to understand and help resolve the issue. Professionals can do this because they have a good degree of emotional intelligence, which means they consider the emotions and needs of others.

At work, professionals keep calm under pressure no matter what, even though they might act differently if faced with a similar situation in their personal lives.

It is possible because they have developed a work persona that is separate from their personality outside of the office, says Rona O'Brien, dean of business and management at GSM London: ‘In your personal life there are situations where you will be angry, shout, start an argument or be difficult with other people. While you don't want to entirely remove your individual personality at work, you must be able to dampen down the negative sides.’


Your contract of employment may state that your workday ends at 5pm, but some days you may have to stay half an hour late to get a task or project finished on time. This does not mean you should ignore important commitments in your personal life, but you do not want to be seen leaving important work not done just because you want to go to the gym.

‘Your employer expects you to demonstrate a commitment to your role, as well as being flexible enough to adjust to any changes,’ says Johnson. Plans, goals and parameters evolve as work moves forward. 

Respect for others 

Treating all people with respect and kindness is part and parcel of being professional. This includes people junior to you and those in support roles, as well as people you dislike. Sometimes you will have to work with colleagues you just do not get on with or who are not very nice. Remain professional by always being polite to everyone you come into contact with, no matter what their role is and no matter what you think of them.

Respecting others also involves supporting them when they need it and being generally helpful, which sometimes means doing that little bit more. You gain a reputation as a professional by going over and above the bare minimum requirement of your job description. This means always looking for ways to do your job better, helping out colleagues and not balking at new responsibilities.

Professional image

Professionals always look the part. What you wear (this includes hair and jewellery) needs to exude an air of confidence and respectability, ‘as you are always on show and being judged,’ says Johnson. ‘This does not necessarily mean that you have to conform to the stereotype of a pin-striped suit and white shirt, but you do have to be very smart. Lasting impressions are made in a split second.’

Appearance also extends to external emails and written documents you present to clients, suppliers and other parties. ’Untidy reports with poor grammar will imply you are careless or disorganised and will therefore call into question the quality of the content,’ says Johnson. They will also call into question your professionalism.

If you want to develop or improve your professionalism, focus on developing or improving the attributes above.

‘Perhaps also seek out someone within your organisation who is successful and experienced, and observe how they handle the technical aspects of the job and how they interact with others,’ suggests Johnson.

’Senior managers, for example, will have significant experience of working with clients and with staff so "being professional" is second nature to them.’ Pay particular attention to how they handle themselves and how they react in difficult situations.

"In your personal life there are situations where you will be angry, shout, start an argument or be difficult with other people. While you don't want to entirely remove your individual personality at work, you must be able to dampen down the negative sides"

Rona O'Brien - GSM