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A Look at Professionalism in the Workplace

Ethics in the workplace typically refers to a set of standards that establish expectations for right and wrong behavior. Ethics standards generally address issues such as basic standards of conduct and in relationships with suppliers, customers, and the public. Most companies have ethics standards although, as I mentioned in my blog about the GlaxoSmithKline fraud and its code of conduct earlier this week, a company may not follow its own standards. In the Glaxo case the code became window dressing to acknowledge the importance of having a code but not a living document that guided actions in the workplace.

Many people confuse the term “professionalism” with ethics. However, there is an important distinction to be made. Professionalism deals with one’s technical knowledge and ability to apply it to the job with conviction and maintaining a level of behavior that respects others. A troublesome employee may follow the code of conduct but create tension and conflict in the workplace that is inconsistent with professionalism. Basic courtesy is an integral element of civility whether in the workplace or in other endeavors.

The issue I look at in this blog is how to foster an environment of professionalism in the workplace. First, here are ten values that support professionalism and enable ethics in the workplace:

Committed                                                                  Competent

Considerate                                                                 Cooperative

Courteous                                                                    Dependable

Empathetic                                                                  Act with Integrity

Respectful                                                                   Trustworthy

With unemployment at record highs, the importance of professionalism in the workplace cannot be overstated as a key to success and advancement.  How you act, interact with others, and carry out workplace responsibilities creates an image of you with respect to being a professional. I have found in my years of teaching college students that professionalism is an unknown concept. Young people have become so accustomed to communicating on line – texting, tweeting, and so forth – that they fall short in professionalism when they enter the job market. That is why I address professionalism issues in the workplace in my ethics classes.

In my opinion what is missing from today’s workplace-bound college students is a strong work ethic. All too many do the minimum necessary to get by and still expect to receive high grades for their “efforts.” Oral and written communication suffers from the social-media-driven culture. Recruiters tell me all the time that hires can’t write an effective memo. I even had one recruiter tell me an employee sent e-mails to clients rather than pick up the phone and discuss matters where there can be give-and-take. Another employee ends e-mail communications to a client with a happy face.

York College of Pennsylvania's Center for Professional Excellence conducted a survey earlier this year into professionalism in the workplace. The study used two randomly selected national samples. A total of 309 human resource professionals were surveyed first. The second sample consisted of 312 persons responsible for managing or supervising employees.

The results show that professionalism is more prevalent in existing employees than in new hires. Consistently, managers were less likely than the HR respondents to report a lack of professionalism. When managers specified the employee segments that most lack professionalism, they pointed to younger employees. The generation gap in behaviors and expectations discovered in earlier studies continued in the current study.

The predominant qualities associated with professionalism are: interpersonal skills, appearance, communication skills, time management, confidence, being ethical, having a work ethic, and being knowledgeable.

The quality of interpersonal skills involves several dimensions. It includes etiquette, being courteous, showing others respect, and behavior that is appropriate for the situation.

Similarly, time management encompasses being punctual as well as using one’s time efficiently.

My conclusion is that one of the reasons employers are hesitant to hire new workers is the lack of professionalism. They rather extend the working hours of the employees currently on board who can be trusted to act like a professional than hire someone who lacks the ethics and professionalism skills to be successful in the workplace and add value to the organization.

A lack of a work ethic and a lack of ethical standards is, in my opinion, the greatest danger in the American workplace. Down the road I see the problem only getting worse because I don’t see these issues addressed in college or in society in general. Add to the mix disrespectful, uncivil, and selfish behavior fueled by the Internet, social media, and the entertainment industry, and we have a recipe for disaster with respect to professionalism in the workplace.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 12, 2012