Confessional Professional

by Alphild Dick, Head Editor, INALJ Washington

Confessional Professional

alphild-dickI admit it. This post is entirely inspired by the flame war on ALATT that started on Sunday. If you don’t follow that group, you should. Well, maybe. It’s half professional inquiry, half goofing off. Most days you can find something useful or entertaining. But I digress.

This post on Sunday was a question from a librarian who wanted to know whether or not drinking a protein shake out of a mason jar at a library service desk would make her seem less approachable. What followed was a 200+ response thread that covered the spectrum from “I brew my own kombucha at the desk” to “Heaven forbid a drop of fluid pass your lips while on duty!” Even more pronounced was the heat that the discussion produced–names were called, accusations were flung, and I think someone might have even laid a curse on someone else’s descendents.

Mild hyperbole aside, the topic of professionalism is an important one. For job-seekers, professional behavior is a real concern. During the job search, not only is our past work behavior up for dissection, but we are also required to explain our philosophy of professional behavior to prospective employers. The ultimate goal for all of us is to build a solid, if not stellar, professional reputation. So let’s talk about what makes us, and our behavior, either professional or unprofessional.

Attitude. There is a whole spectrum of personality types and ways of interacting with others. We can reject the idea that we all need to be chirpy with enthusiasm every day, but there is a difference between being reserved and being difficult. We owe it to others to be polite. Even (especially) when we don’t like them. Day in and day out, this is easier said than done, but being aware your own disposition is enormously helpful. Does working the desk for more an hour make you intolerably grouchy? Do you get territorial over your projects? If you are job hunting, knowing what your attitude trigger points are is helpful in helping you determine whether an environment is the right fit for you.

Respect. Other people have opinions and most of the time, to paraphrase David Sedaris, they don’t think they are second to your opinions. So unless your library or business has a mediator on staff (pretty unlikely), knowing how to respond to and use feedback, criticism, and disagreements will help you maintain mutually respectful relationships with your colleagues. Of course, this doesn’t mean blindly embracing harmful ideas, misguided initiatives, and bad leadership. It does mean that you should give other approaches a fair shake before rejecting them, though. Bonus points: being able to speak honestly about your willingness to do these things is a great asset on the job market, too.

Integrity. In short, do the right thing. I’m not just talking about following the ALA Code of Ethics. That’s probably a good idea in most cases, but I’m also thinking about basic day-to-day integrity, too. Follow your library’s policies. Do the things you say you will do. Be serious (at least most of the time) in your commitments and honest in your efforts.

Be considerate. This is a subset of the three above, perhaps. Being considerate means having a positive attitude, respecting others opinions and ideas, and being diligent in follow through. Being professionally considerate also means helping people when both when they seem like they could just use a little assistance and when they ask for it, not balking when extra projects appear, and being willing to embrace change.

Context. This is a biggie, as all of the aforementioned factors are influenced by context. Every library, whether it is public, academic, school, or special, has its own unique cultural norms. The last library I worked at was a small, two-room library with no private cubicles or offices. There was no real “off duty”–many a patron could spy the director eating salad at her desk. Did this make her less professional? No, of course not. My current coworkers, in a much larger library setting, regularly snack on small treats at the desk when no one is around. A good rule of thumb? Is the behavior harmful or disruptive? Does it prevent you from performing your job to your fullest ability? Does it actively conflict with behaviors expected from patrons? If the answer is not, then you are probably in the clear.

These are obviously generalizations, sketches of what professional behavior should consist of. These ideas can only go so far. But maybe that is what we need to remember—specific advice often backfires in these situations. We should strive to define professionalism for ourselves, for the vision that we have for our own careers.

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