Professionalism Today: Tips for Turning Unprofessional Behavior Around

Posted on December 30, 2013 by VITAL WorkLife

According to a 2012 survey on Professionalism in the Workplace conducted from the Center for Professionalism at York College of Pennsylvania, professionalism is more prevalent in existing employees than in new hires.

Nearly a third of the 309 HR professionals and a fifth of the 312 manager/supervisors responding to the survey felt that professionalism had decreased in the past five years.


There was general agreement among both the HR and manager groups that the predominant qualities associated with professionalism are:

  • Interpersonal skills
  • Appearance
  • Communication skills
  • Time management
  • Confidence
  • Being ethical
  • Having a work ethic
  • Being knowledgeable

The qualities named most often as unprofessional by both groups were:

  • Inappropriate appearance
  • Lack of dedication
  • Poor work ethic
  • Sense of entitlement
  • Disrespect
  • Poor communication skills
  • Lack of focus
  • Poor attitude

According to managers, the worst problems associated with new employees in terms of professionalism were:

  • Lack of urgency in getting a job done and poor time management (cited by 32.6% of managers surveyed)
  • A sense of entitlement (27.2%)
  • Poor performance coupled with a mediocre work ethic (23.0%)
  • Poor attendance (22.2%).

The root cause of most unprofessional behavior is not so much a willfully out-of-control employee as an employee who has no idea that what he or she is doing is wrong. Does your organization provide clear guidance around its expectations in regard to professionalism? If not, chances are you, as a manager or supervisor, will encounter unprofessional employees more than once in your career.

Causes of Unprofessional Behavior: Perception and Reality

It's not all in your head. We have a generation joining the workforce that has been shielded from criticism and failure to an unprecedented extent—particularly the children of middle-class baby boomer parents.

"The workplace may be the first time many young employees will confront an environment where simply 'trying our hardest and doing our best' may not be enough to win them a good sportsmanship medal and certainly not the promotion or career advancement they desire," notes Matt Steinkamp, MSW, LICSW, vice president of services for VITAL WorkLife.

On the other hand, this new generation is the most technologically wired ever seen—and this is often perceived as "wasting time" by older, less technologically savvy workers.

Confronting Unprofessional Behavior: Not Your Natural Skill Set?

Most managers and supervisors have been promoted due to their professionalism. They intuitively know to show up on time and dress appropriately—and they tend to have a superior work ethic and dedication. As a result, they themselves have probably never been confronted or coached about unprofessional behavior.

They are often at a loss as to what to do or say when an employee exhibits unprofessional behavior. Here are some guidelines recommended by Steinkamp.

Preventing Unprofessional Behavior: Communicate Your Expectations

"Don't assume your employees know your expectations," says Steinkamp. "Be very explicit during the interview process and initial onboarding about your expectations regarding punctuality, attire and work ethic."

Steinkamp recommends that you and each new report complete the following sentence as an on-boarding exercise: "One thing you should know about working most effectively with me is..."

"This exercise gives you an ideal opportunity to set expectations around professionalism," notes Steinkamp. "It will also give you a heads up as to what you can expect from this employee."

Make Assignments Crystal Clear: Provide Detailed Assignments And Deadlines

When giving assignments, don't assume your employees will automatically know how to do them and when they should turn them in based on how you'd perform that task.

"Until you're confident you and the employee are on the same page, give detailed instructions, hard deadlines and invite the employee to come to you with questions if he or she isn't sure how to proceed," advises Steinkamp.

Assessing Unprofessional Behavior: Is the Employee Even Aware of the Problem?

"Don't assume that an employee displaying an aggravating behavior is being deliberately obnoxious," says Steinkamp. "Many times, the employee has exhibited the behavior in another work environment and has no idea that his or her loud voice, sexual humor, strong perfume or noisy gum chewing are considered unprofessional in this environment."

Managers can make discussions about these behaviors less painful by providing open and honest feedback the first time the behavior is observed. Don't wait for the next performance review.

  1. Start by saying, "I'm not sure that you're aware that you (do whatever the unprofessional behavior is)."
  2. Discuss what the desired behavior or acceptable alternatives would be.
  3. If the employee seems resistant to addressing the behavior, go on to discuss the likely short- and long-term consequences of the behavior.

"The employee is less apt to become defensive when you make it clear that you're invested in his or her success and that addressing behaviors perceived as unprofessional will be critical to their consideration for advancement," says Steinkamp.

Case Study: Flip Flops & Tube Tops? Redefining Casual Friday

If your employees don't have a clue about what's appropriate dress for "Casual Friday," chances are you haven't clued them in.

"Younger employees may define 'casual' very differently from the baby boomers and veterans on your staff," says Jody Bertram, EAP consultant for VITAL WorkLife. "You can't assume that all your employees understand what 'business casual' means to you."

Bertram also advises against using Casual Fridays as a test of your employees' business savvy. "There's no reason to let employees embarrass themselves inadvertently," says Bertram.

Help your staff maintain a professional dress code and avoid wardrobe missteps by making it clear that "casual" doesn't include bare midriffs, toes or any attire more appropriate for the beach than the office.

Addressing Inappropriate Dress: A Case Study

Several months ago, Bertram got a call from a manager concerned that one of his staff reported to work on a casual dress day wearing jeans—that though new and very expensive, had large holes in the thighs, frayed hems and rode very low on her hips.

While jeans were permissible at that workplace, jeans that revealing were not. "Isn't this an issue of common sense?" asked the manager. "Yes and no," replied Bertram.

While companies can and should expect employees to employ common sense, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. After consulting with Bertram, the manager went to HR to develop a casual dress guide that provided both verbal and pictorial guidelines for acceptable casual attire. The "don't" pictures were adorned with the International Symbol for stop.

Bertram also coached the manager about pulling the employee in to have a one-on-one discussion about the new guidelines to make sure the expectations were entirely clear.

"Some organizations are comfortable with casual attire that includes pajama bottoms, others don't even allow jeans," notes Bertram. "Every organization is free to set their own policies but they're also advised to make sure everybody knows exactly what those policies are."

Offering Additional Resources: How Your EAP Benefit Can Help

Need help defining, describing or communicating with employees about inappropriate dress or other unprofessional behaviors? VITAL WorkLife is here to help. Simply call 800.383.1908 and ask to speak to an EAP consultant.

Also, one way to convince your employees that you're invested in their success is to refer them to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for coaching and skill building. "This is why your organization provides an EAP," says Steinkamp. "We've helped countless managers and employees address such issues."

If you're uncertain about whether a behavior is truly unprofessional or have concerns about how to approach an employee exhibiting unprofessional behavior, don't hesitate to call 800.383.1908 and ask to speak to an EAP counselor—any time of the day or night.

Your EAP benefit provides free, unlimited and confidential counseling, coaching and support by telephone 24/7—not just for you and your family members, but also your employees and their families. This benefit also includes free face-to-face counseling with master's- and doctorate-level professionals. All you have to do is ask.

Understanding Professionalism: Helpful Online Resources

The VITAL WorkLife website offers helpful tools and information designed to help managers and supervisors address issues related to understanding and enhancing professionalism, including:

  • Etiquette Classes (Pardon Me) Catch on with Corporate Climbers
  • Fine Line Between Flattering and Being a Brown Noser
  • Get Credit for Your Work
  • Small Talk Can Have Big Benefits at Work
  • Winning at Office Politics Without Selling Your Soul
  • Surviving the Staff Meeting
  1. To find these articles, go to, click on member login and enter your user name and password.
  2. On the page that comes up, in the left hand column, click on the "Your Work & Life Resources" button.
  3. In the shaded area at the top of the screen, click on the pull down menu that says " Working ," pull down to "Career Development," and explore the articles in the category "Advancing within Your Organization."

We Can Help

  • EAP members call 800.383.1908 or access resources through your VITAL WorkLife App
  • Physicians Well Being Resources members call 877.731.3949 or access resources through your VITAL WorkLife App


For more information about our well being solutions for all organizations, contact us online here.

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