The High Cost of Low Professionalism

“In business ‘professionalism’ is not tactic but a moral value.”
Amit Kalantri, author


UnprofessionalMaybe I’m biased or old-fashioned, but when it comes to the workplace, I believe people “should” behave in certain ways. And I don’t care if those people are called CEO’s, part-time, entry-level, or full-time workers, I believe those people … and everyone else … “should” be professionals.

And apparently so do a lot of team leaders, supervisors, and managers, because I’m constantly getting e-mails and phone calls about HOW to get their people to be more professional.

For example, a manager at a high-tech company told me she’s upset because one of her employees continually comes to work five minutes late and leaves for home ten minutes early at the end of the day. According to her, that’s not professional.

The superintendent in a construction company emailed me saying it drives him crazy when some of his crew members do not put away their tools and clean up the messes they make during the day. It’s not professional.

And a partner of an accounting firm was so taken back when another accountant showed up for work in flip flops and shorts that he didn’t know what to say. So he said nothing.

So HOW can you get others to become more “professional” in their behavior?

1. Define professional behavior.

That’s right. Define what professional behavior means to you. Make a list. Get specific. After all, you can’t expect others to deliver behavior that you haven’t even defined.

For example, my list of professional behavior would include:

  • Refraining from using crude, vulgar, and profane language,
  • Putting things away and tidying up your work area at the end of the day, 
  • Picking up trash you see on the floor, whether or not it’s “your” job,
  • Lowering your voice when talking on a mobile phone,
  • Waiting for everyone to be seated before you start to eat;
  • Leaving the restroom clean and neat after you’ve used the facility,
  • Listen when others are speaking, and not doing other things, such as glancing at your email,
  • Sending a thank-you note on a timely basis when you receive a gift,
  • Dropping someone a note who is sick or has suffered a setback,
  • Refraining from outbursts of anger, whether in person or via email,
  • Taking time to fix your hair, press your clothes, and/or polish your shoes before going to work,
  • Arriving a little early so you can start work on time,
  • Arriving on time for appointments and meetings,
  • Checking your work before turning it in and delivering it on time,
  • Avoiding loud voices when trying to make your point or get your way,
  • Refusing to speak to people or refer to people in a derogatory manner,
  • Avoiding the sharing of gossip and the spreading of rumors, and
  • Investing some of your own time and money to develop personal skills and emotional intelligence.

Basically, when there’s a gap between the way people are behaving and they way you think they should be behaving, you’ve got a set-up for anger, conflict, frustration, and irritation. And most often this gap is a “lack of professionalism”.

If you want to reduce or eliminate this gap, your first step is to define what “professionalism” means to you. Write out your list.

And then…

2. Communicate your definition of professionalism.

In “Professionalism is for Everyone,” James R. Ball says the cause of non-professional behavior often lies in the fact that other people let them get away with it.

In the above examples, the hi-tech manager should insist her employee put in a full-day’s work, not a workday cut short 15 minutes every day. The construction superintendent should not look the other way when his crew members do not put their tools away. And the accounting partner should have told the other accountant that his attire did not fit with the company’s culture.

When I’m consulting for an organization or presenting my program on “Staying UP In A Down World: How To Create A Workplace Filled With Excellence And Excitement”, I’ve noticed that a lack of professionalism is rarely caused by demographic factors or economic drivers. More often than not, the problem is caused when leaders allow it to exist. They fail to establish, clarify, and enforce a code of conduct or principles of professionalism.

(If you would like an outline of the “Staying UP” program or would like to consider this program for an upcoming meeting, just drop me an email, and I’ll send you a copy of the outline.)

In other words, if your work culture is lacking in professionalism, according to Ball, “We unknowingly do it to ourselves.” We invite and perpetuate unacceptable behavior when we accept mediocrity. We reinforce unprofessional behavior when we look the other way. And we sabotage professionalism and our own standards of conduct when we do not provide consequences for noncompliance.

There’s a psychological principle that says “We get what we expect.” If you expect people to perform poorly, more often than not they will perform poorly. And as silly as it sounds, you can’t expect them to do what you want if you never told them what you want.

But there’s an even more important psychological principle that says “We get what we accept”. If you tolerate unprofessional behavior, or if you ignore professional behavior, or if you do not provide consequences for the behavior you don’t want to happen, there’s no reason for that behavior to stop.

And to make matters worse, a lack of professionalism in a company culture has a growing cancerous effect. When one person acts unprofessionally and gets away with it, other people begin to behave in a similar manner. The one employee who always comes in late and goes home early now becomes two, three, or several employees who behave in the same manner.

If you want your company to be productive and profitable for the long haul over the years, then you must have a culture of professionalism. Anything less than that is going to cost you in terms of wasted time, money and energy.

Come back next Tuesday and I’ll give you a step-by-step plan for building and then maintaining a culture of professionalism in your organization.


If you were to write out your definition of professionalism, what would be ten behaviors you would put on your list?