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Californian contributing columnist Robin Paggi.

A few years ago, I was asked to be a judge at a fashion show involving business majors at a local college. The show consisted of the students modeling three versions of business attire: inappropriate, business casual and dressy. The students and I agreed on what constituted inappropriate attire; however, we had different definitions of casual and dressy business attire.

One of the things that causes misunderstandings between people is that we sometimes have different definitions of the same words. For example, a recent survey implies that what HR managers and front-line supervisors consider to be professional differs from that of new hires, especially young ones.

Each year, York College of Pennsylvania's Center for Professional Excellence conducts a national survey of professionalism in the workplace. Its findings are used "to track changes in the state and definitions of professionalism" and to help create the content of professionalism seminars that the Center provides for the college's students, faculty and administrators. According to the survey, the qualities most cited by HR managers and front-line supervisors that best describe professionalism include:

* Interpersonal skills. Survey respondents said that being courteous, showing others respect, exhibiting behavior that is appropriate to the situation, and using proper etiquette demonstrate one's interpersonal skills.

* Work ethic. According to survey respondents, having a good work ethic means working instead of abusing information technology (excessive twittering and Facebooking, inappropriate use of the Internet, text messaging at inappropriate times and excessive cell phone use for personal calls). It means showing up for work every day on time (survey says the most common factor that causes employees to be fired is attendance: being late, leaving early and numerous absences). It means not displaying a sense of entitlement ("what can the company do for me?"), but demonstrating a commitment to the employer ("what can I do for the company?").

* Appearance. Survey respondents said that a person's appearance demonstrates professionalism and has an impact on being hired, promoted and being perceived as being competent. Deterrents to being hired or promoted include attire, facial piercings other than ears, visible tattoos, unnatural hair color and personal hygiene.

* Communication skills. The survey results don't provide much information on what "communication skills" means other than "competent verbal and written communication." Therefore, I'll take the liberty of providing my own definition. Having good communication skills includes being able to talk without overusing slang (for example, "I'm like, you didn't say that. And, she's like, yes I did!"); using grammatically correct sentences (for example, "I saw her yesterday" instead of "I seen her yesterday"); and refraining from cursing and talking about really personal stuff at work.

Not surprisingly, survey respondents specified that the employee segment that most lacked professionalism was younger employees. I'm willing to bet that the younger employees they were referring to, like the business majors in the previously mentioned fashion show, thought they were being professional. They probably just have a different definition of the word.

Also not surprising to me was that most of the respondents admitted that their companies do not have any kind of formal program that tells new employees what professionalism looks like and sounds like. They undoubtedly assumed the employees would know and then dinged them when they didn't.

My advice to employers and supervisors is that if you want employees to look, sound and behave professionally, tell them what that means to you. Assuming they have the same definition of the word leads to needless misunderstandings and problems.

-- Robin Paggi is the training coordinator at Worklogic HR Legal Solutions. Reach her at These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.