Professionalism Defined

It’s interesting how many workplaces are emphasizing the word professionalism in their value statements or recruiting ads. Certainly there is a level of respect, confidence and admiration that we give to a professional. I’ve noticed that today, no matter what the job, we ask people to be professionals. In many cases, the word is attached to those who neatly fit into the organizational culture. The label non-professional can become a euphuism for someone who is different. Does it mean we all have to work and talk exactly the same way? In conflict, someone might suggest more professional behaviour is the solution. Does this mean we can’t disagree, or think differently? Does it mean we can’t have fun, laugh and enjoy our work?

Generally, workplace professionalism means creating an environment where people are valued, treated with dignity and can do their best work – and where customers feel served. It’s not enough to say it. Here are some tips to implementing professionalism so everyone gets it.

Use specific and behavioural terms to describe professionalism in your workplace. Talk about what is and what isn’t ok. Give real-life examples. In some workplaces it is unprofessional to be 5 minutes late for a meeting – in others, it’s commonly accepted practice. At some companies you wouldn’t dare interrupt a person who is speaking – at others it’s OK to jump in and out of the group’s flow. Without embarrassing your employees, correct their mistakes privately. Don’t assume that they know what is OK and what isn’t. You don’t know what it was like in their previous work place, school, club or home.

Don’t hide behind legislation. Getting people to sign a code of conduct and follow strict rules aimed at stopping discriminatory communications is all good. But it’s not enough. There are a lot of unprofessional and disrespectful behaviours that will impact your workplace environment that are not illegal. Unconstructive behaviours like gossiping, blind ccs on emails, sarcasm, riddle-making, withholding information and aggressive challenging in front of others are examples. Generally, people expect to be treated with respect, honesty and dignity. Practice clear and compassionate communication.

Take generational differences into consideration. Walk into many offices and you’ll see a mini-battle between the generations over what professional behaviour looks like. If you are 45 and up you likely expect that those in senior positions, or those with more age and experience, should be shown automatic respect. Younger generations hold the view that respect is earned, not won. If you want to be treated professionally, ensure that you are respecting everyone around you – regardless of level or age. Don’t call it unprofessional when subordinates don’t defer to you – perhaps it’s that they disagree. Most employees want to have more open and democratic conversations. Check your behaviour for habits that create disdain. Do you talk about “your people”? Do you roll your eyes when a new idea is introduced? Is the office voice tone you use with younger staff more suited to your kids? 

Ditto on the physical attributes. For some folks, nothing says unprofessional faster than an un-tucked shirt and a face piercing. Today’s style is comfortable – shirts un-tucked, and layered as well. Body piercing and tattooing is mainstream. That doesn’t mean you have to lower your standards on basic issues such as cleanliness and modesty – but consider that you may be out of sync with what people are wearing these days. Visit a mall, window shop and sit and watch passers-by. The best way to set your dress-code standard is against the criteria of the work that is being done. Ensure everyone is safe, and consider what your target customers will most appreciate.

Learn to be more a more sensitive communicator. People who’ve been offended or hurt by something we’ve said often give lots of non-verbal clues. They may get very quiet and look down instead of directly at you. They often blush. Sometimes you can’t see the emotional impact of clumsy communication right away, but a person’s attendance becomes erratic or they avoid face-to-face meetings. In some cases, thinking they don’t fit into the existing culture, people just leave. If you have an inkling that something is up, check in. “Have I said something to offend you?”

 Don’t forget that leaders institutionalize culture.  Keep the bar high. Hold managers, supervisors,  team leads, project leaders, sales representatives, front-line employees and especially senior executives to a very high standard. Take the time to observe them with others, particularly with subordinates and those who have less power. Some leaders believe that aggressive words and gestures are the best way to show what is most important. Passion is fine, but take immediate action to stop any hint of abusive language or demeanour. Don’t assume all is OK because no one complains. It’s still the uncommon employee who will take the risk of confronting  a leader to correct them on bad behaviour.  Jill Malleck is an organization development consultant and coach at Epiphany at Work. She helps individuals and groups to build productive and respectful workplaces. She can be reached at (519) 894-1198.

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