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13.1: The Requirements of Professionalism

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    Learning Outcomes
    1. Define the terms profession and professionalism.
    2. Define the term “ethics” and recall several modern ethical lapses in organizations.
    3. Understand the importance of respecting one’s coworkers.
    4. Explain the concept of personal responsibility in the workplace.
    5. Differentiate between formal and informal language.

    What is professionalism? A profession is an occupation that involves mastery of complex knowledge and skills through prolonged training, education, or practical experience. Becoming a member of a specific profession doesn’t happen overnight. Whether you seek to be a public relations expert, lawyer, doctor, teacher, welder, or electrician, each profession requires interested parties to invest themselves in learning to become a professional or a member of a profession who earns their living through specified expert activity. It’s much easier to define the terms “profession” and “professional” than it is to define the term “professionalism” because each profession will have its take on what it means to be a professional within a given field.

    According to the United States Department of Labor,1 professionalism “does not mean wearing a suit or carrying a briefcase; rather, it means conducting oneself with responsibility, integrity, accountability, and excellence. It means communicating effectively and appropriately and always finding a way to be productive.” The U.S. Department of Labor’s book Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success goes on to note:

    Professionalism isn’t one thing; it’s a combination of qualities. A professional employee arrives on time for work and manages time effectively. Professional workers take responsibility for their own behavior and work effectively with others. High-quality work standards, honesty, and integrity are also part of the package. Professional employees look clean and neat and dress appropriately for the job. Communicating effectively and appropriately for the workplace is also an essential part of professionalism.2

    The Requirements of Professionalism

    As you can see here, professionalism isn’t a single “thing” that can be labeled. Instead, professionalism refers to the aims and behaviors that demonstrate an individual’s level of competence expected by a professional within a given profession. By the word “aims,” we mean that someone who exhibits professionalism is guided by a set of goals in a professional setting. Whether the aim is to complete a project on time or help ensure higher quarterly incomes for their organization, professionalism involves striving to help one’s organization achieve specific goals. By “behaviors,” we mean specific ways of behaving and communicating within an organizational environment. Some common behaviors can include acting ethically, respecting others, collaborating effectively, taking personal and professional responsibility, and using language professionally. Let’s look at each of these separately.


    Every year there are lapses in ethical judgment by organizations and organizational members. For our purposes, let’s look at ethical lapses in 2017 and 2018.

    1. We saw aviation police officers drag a bloodied pulmonologist off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his seat on United Airlines.
    2. We saw the beginnings of the #MeToo movement in October 2017 after Alyssa Milano uses the hashtag in response to actor Ashley Judd accusing media mogul Harvey Weinstein of serious sexual misconduct in an article within The New York Times. Since that critical moment, many courageous victims of sexual violence have raised their voices to take on the male elites in our society who had gotten away with these behaviors for decades.
    3. Facebook (among others) was found to have accepted advertisements indirectly paid for by the Kremlin that influenced the 2016 election. The paid advertisements constituted a type of cyber warfare.
    4. Equifax had a data breach that affected 145 million people (mostly U.S. citizens as well as some British and Canadian customers) and didn’t publicly disclose this for two months.
    5. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, committed many ethical lapses during his tenure with the agency prompting his resignation. Some of the ethical lapses included ordering raises for two aides even when White House rejected them, spending $3.5 million (twice times as much as his predecessor) on taxpayer-funded security, using that security to pick up his favorite moisturizing lotion and dry-cleaning, renting a room from a lobbyist who had dealings with the EPA for $50 per night, installing a $43,000 private phone booth in his office that allegedly was used once, spending $124,000 on first-class flights, purchasing two season-ticket seats at a University of Kentucky basketball game from a billionaire coal executive, tried to use his position to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise, and others.

    Sadly, these ethical lapses are still frequent in corporate America, and they often come with huge lawsuit settlements and jail time.

    The word “ethics” actually is derived from the Greek word ethos, which means the nature or disposition of a culture.3 From this perspective, ethics then involves the moral center of a culture that governs behavior. Without getting too deep, let’s just say that philosophers debate the very nature of ethics, and they have described a wide range of different philosophical perspectives on what constitutes ethics. For our purposes, ethics is the judgmental attachment to whether something is good, right, or just.

    In the business world, we often talk about business ethics, which involves things like not stealing from a company; not lying to one’s boss, coworkers, customers, or clients; not taking bribes, payoffs, or kickbacks; not taking credit for someone else’s work; not abusing and belittling someone in the workplace; or simply letting other people get away with unethical behavior. For example, if you know your organization has a zero-tolerance policy for workplace discrimination and you know that one supervisor is purposefully not hiring pregnant women because “they’ll just be leaving on maternity leave soon anyway,” then you are just as responsible as that supervisor. We might also add that discriminating against someone who is pregnant or can get pregnant is also a violation of Equal Employment Opportunity law, so you can see that often the line between ethics and rules (or laws) can be blurred.

    From a communication perspective, there are also ethical issues that you should be aware of. W. Charles Redding, the “father” of organizational communication, breaks down unethical organizational communication into six specific categories (Table 13.1.1).4

    Table 13.1.1.Redding’s Typology of Unethical Communication
    An organizational communication act is unethical if it is... Such organizational communication unethically...
    • abuses power or authority
    • unjustifiably invades others’ autonomy
    • stigmatizes dissents
    • restricts freedom of speech
    • refuses to listen
    • uses rules to stifle discussion and complaints
    • attacks others’ self-esteem, reputations, or feelings
    • disregards other’s values
    • engages in insults, innuendoes, epithets, or derogatory jokes
    • uses put-downs, backstabbing, and character assassination
    • employs so-called “truth” as a weapon
    • violates confidentiality and privacy to gain an advantage
    • withholds constructive feedback
    • willfully perverts the truth to deceive, cheat, or defraud
    • sends evasive or deliberately misleading or ambiguous messages
    • employs bureaucratic euphemisms to cover up the truth
    • uses hidden cameras
    • taps telephones
    • employs computer technologies to monitor employee behavior
    • disregards legitimate privacy rights
    • uses silence and unresponsiveness
    • hoards information
    • hides wrongdoing or ineptness
    manipulative/ exploitative
    • uses demagoguery
    • gains compliance by exploiting fear, prejudice, or ignorance
    • patronizes or is condescending toward others

    Respect for Others

    Our second category related to professionalism is respecting others. In Disney’s 1942 movie, Bambi, Thumper sees the young Bambi learning to walk, which leads to the following interaction with his mother:

    Thumper: He doesn’t walk very good, does he?
    Mrs. Rabbit: Thumper!
    Thumper: Yes, Mama?
    Mrs. Rabbit: What did your father tell you this morning?
    Thumper: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.

    Sadly, many people exist in the modern workplace that need a refresher in respect from Mrs. Rabbit today. From workplace bullying to sexual harassment, many people simply do not always treat people with dignity and respect in the workplace. So, what do we mean by treating someone with respect? There are a lot of behaviors one can engage in that are respectful if you’re interacting with coworkers, leaders, or followers. Here’s a list we created of respectful behaviors for workplace interactions:

    • Be courteous, polite, and kind to everyone.
    • Do not criticize or nitpick at little inconsequential things.
    • Do not engage in patronizing or demeaning behaviors.
    • Don’t engage in physically hostile body language.
    • Don’t roll your eyes when your coworkers are talking.
    • Don’t use an aggressive tone of voice when talking with coworkers.
    • Encourage coworkers to express opinions and ideas.
    • Encourage your coworkers to demonstrate respect to each other as well.
    • Listen to your coworkers openly without expressing judgment before they’ve finished speaking.
    • Listen to your coworkers without cutting them off or speaking over them.
    • Make sure you treat all of your coworkers fairly and equally.
    • Make sure your facial expressions are appropriate and not aggressive.
    • Never engage in verbally aggressive behavior: insults, name-calling, rumor mongering, disparaging, and putting people or their ideas down.
    • Praise your coworkers more often than you criticize them. Point out when they’re doing great things, not just when they’re doing “wrong” things.
    • Provide an equal opportunity for all coworkers to provide insight and input during meetings.
    • Treat people the same regardless of age, gender, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc.
    • When expressing judgment, focus on criticizing ideas, and not the person.

    Now that we’ve looked a wide range of ways that you can show your respect for your coworkers, we would be remiss if we didn’t bring up one specific area where you can demonstrate respect: the language we use. In a recent meeting, one of our coauthors was reporting on some work that was being completed on campus and let people in the meeting know that some people were already “grandfathered in” to the pre-existing process. Without really intending to, our coauthor had used gendered language. One of the other people in the room quickly quipped, “or grandmothered.” Upon contemplation, our coauthor realized that the seemingly innocuous use of the phrase “grandfathered in,” which admittedly is very common, is one that has a gendered connotation that limits it to males. Even though our coauthor’s purpose had never been to engage in sexist language, the English language is filled with sexist language examples, and they come all too quickly to many of us because of tradition and the way we were taught the language. This experience was a perfect reminder for our coauthor about the importance of thinking about sexist and biased language and how it impacts the workplace. Table 13.1.2 is a list of common sexist or biased language and corresponding inclusive terms that one could use instead.

    Table 13.1.2. Replacing Sexist or Biased Language with Inclusive Terms
    Sexist or Biased Language Inclusive Term
    Businessman business owner, business executive, or business person
    cancer victim; AIDS victim cancer patient; person living with AIDS
    chairman chairperson or chair
    confined to a wheelchair uses a wheelchair
    congressman congressperson
    Eskimo Inuit or Aleut
    fireman firefighters
    freshman first-year student
    Indian (when referring to U.S. indigenous peoples) Native American or specific tribe
    policeman police officer
    man or mankind people, humanity, or the human race
    man hours working hours
    man-made manufactured, machine made, or synthetic
    manpower personnel or workforce
    Negro or colored African American or Black
    old people or elderly senior citizens, mature adults, older adults
    Oriental Asian, Asian American, or specific country of origin
    postman or mailman postal worker or mail carrier
    steward or stewardess flight attendant
    suffers from diabetes has diabetes; person living with diabetes
    to man to operate; to staff; to cover
    waiter or waitress server
    Mindfulness Activity

    We live in a world where respect and bias are not always acknowledged in the workplace setting. Sadly, despite decades of anti-discrimination legislation and training, we know this is still a problem. Women, minorities, and other non-dominant groups are still woefully underrepresented in a broad range of organizational positions, from management to CEO. Some industries are better than others, but this problem is still very persistent in the United States. Most of us mindlessly participate in these systems without even being consciously aware. Byron Lee puts it this way:

    Our brains rapidly categorize people using both obvious and subtler characteristics, and also automatically assign an unconscious evaluation (eg good or bad) and an emotional tone (ie pleasant, neutral or unpleasant) with this memory. Importantly, because these unconscious processes happen without awareness, control, intention or effort, everyone, no matter how fair-minded we might think we are, is unconsciously biased.5

    These unconscious biases often lead us to engage in microaggressions against people we view as “other.” Microaggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”6 Notice that microaggressions can be targeted at women, minorities, and other non-dominant groups. Research has shown us that these unconscious biases effect everything from perceptions of hireability, to job promotions, to determining who gets laid off, and so many other areas within the workplace.

    Byron Lee has devised a five-point strategy for engaging in mindful intercultural interactions:

    1. Preparing for your interpersonal encounter by recognizing and gently observing preconceptions, biases, emotions, and sensations as part of your ongoing internal experience (Nonjudging). Bringing into awareness an intention to connect (Presence).
    2. Beginning your conversation by remaining open to hear whatever the person may bring (Acceptance), and a willingness to get close to and understand another’s suffering (Empathic Concern).
    3. Bringing a kindly curiosity to your own internal experience and to the experiences shared by the other person throughout the encounter (Beginner’s Mind).
    4. Noticing and letting go of your urge to “fix” the “problem” (Non-striving) and letting the process unfold in its own time (Patience).
    5. The collaborative interaction concludes when you mutually reach a way forward that reflects the other person’s world view and needs (Compassionate Action), and not your own (Letting Go).7

    For this activity, we want you to explore some of your own unconscious biases. To start, go to the Implicit Association Test (IAT) website run by Project Implicit. On their website, you’ll find several tests that examine your unconscious or implicit biases towards various groups. Complete a couple of these tests and then ponder what your results say about your own unconscious biases. After completing the tests, answer the following questions:

    1. Were you surprised by your scores on the IATs? Why?
    2. How do you think your own implicit biases impact how you interact with others interpersonally?
    3. How can you be more mindful of your interactions with people from different groups in the future?

    Personal Responsibility

    Let’s face it; we all make mistakes. Making mistakes is a part of life. Personal responsibility refers to an individual’s willingness to be accountable for what they feel, think, and behave. Whether we’re talking about our attitudes, our thought processes, or physical and communicative behaviors, personal responsibility is simply realizing that we are in the driver’s seat and not blaming others for our current circumstances. Now, this is not to say that there are never external factors that impede our success. Of course, there are. This is not to say that certain people have advantages in life because of a privileged background; of course, some people have. However, personal responsibility involves differentiating between those things we can control and those things that are outside of our control. For example, I may not be able to control a coworker who decides to yell at me, but I can control how I feel about that coworker, how I think about that coworker, and how I choose to respond to that coworker. Here are some ways that you can take personal responsibility in your own life (or in the workplace):

    • Acknowledge that you are responsible for your choices in the workplace.
    • Acknowledge that you are responsible for how you feel at work.
    • Acknowledge that you are responsible for your behaviors at work.
    • Accept that your choices are yours alone, so you can’t blame someone else for them.
    • Accept that your sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem are yours.
    • Accept that you can control your stress and feelings of burnout.
    • Decide to invest in your self-improvement.
    • Decide to take control of your attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors.
    • Decide on specific professional goals and make an effort and commitment to accomplish those goals.

    Although you may have the ability to take responsibility for your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, not everyone in the workplace will do the same. Most of us will come in contact with coworkers who do not take personal responsibility. Dealing with coworkers who have a million and one excuses can be frustrating and demoralizing.

    Excuse-making occurs any time an individual attempts to shift the blame for an individual’s behavior from reasons more central to the individual to sources outside of their control in the attempt to make themselves look better and more in control.8 For example, an individual may explain their tardiness to work by talking about how horrible the traffic was on the way to work instead of admitting that they slept in late and left the house late. People make excuses because they fear that revealing the truth would make them look bad or out of control. In this example, waking up late and leaving the house late is the fault of the individual, but they blame the traffic to make themself look better and in control even though they were late.

    Excuse-making happens in every facet of life, but excuse-making in the corporate world can be highly problematic. For example, research has shown that when front-line service providers engage in excuse-making, they are more likely to lose return customers as a result.9 In one study, when salespeople attempted to excuse their lack of ethical judgment by pointing to their customers’ lack of ethics, supervisors tended to punish more severely those who engaged in excuse-making than those who had not.10 Of course, even an individual’s peers can become a little annoyed (or downright disgusted) by a colleague who always has a handy excuse for their behavior. For this reason, Amy Nordrum recommends using the ERROR method when handling a situation where your behavior was problematic: Empathy, Responsibility, Reason, Offer Reassurance.11 Here is an example Nordrum uses to illustrate the ERROR method:

    I hate that you [burden placed on person] because of me (Empathy). I should have thought things out better (Responsibility), but I got caught up in [reason for behavior] (Reason). Next time I’ll [preventative action] (Offer Reassurance).

    As you can see, the critical parts of this response involve validating the other person, taking responsibility, and providing an explanation for how you’ll behave in the future to avoid similar problems.

    Language Use

    In the workplace, the type of language and how we use language is essential. In a 2016 study conducted by PayScale,12 researchers surveyed 63,924 managers. According to these managers, the top three hard skills that new college graduates lack are writing proficiency (44%), public speaking (39%), and data analysis (36%). The top three soft skills new college graduates lack are critical thinking/problemsolving (60%), attention to detail (56%), and communication (46%). One of the most important factors of professionalism in today’s workplace is effective written and oral communication. From the moment someone sends in a resume with a cover letter, their language skills are being evaluated, so knowing how to use both formal language and jargon or specialized language effectively is paramount for success in the workplace.

    Formal Language

    Formal language is a specific writing and spoken style that adheres to strict conventions of grammar. This is in contrast to informal language, which is more common when we speak. In the workplace, there are reasons why someone would use both formal and informal language. Table 13.3 provides examples of formal and informal language choices.

    Table 13.1.3 Formal and Informal Language Choices
    Characteristic Informal Formal
    Contraction I won’t be attending the meeting on Friday. I will not be attending the meeting on Friday.
    Phrasal Verbs The report spelled out the need for more resources. The report illustrated the need for more resources.
    Slang/ Colloquialism The nosedive in our quarterly earnings came out of left field. The downturn in our quarterly earnings was unexpected.
    First-Person Pronouns I considered numerous research methods before deciding to use an employee satisfaction survey. Numerous research methods were considered before deciding to use an employee satisfaction survey.
    We need to come together to complete the organization’s goals. The people within the organization must work towards the organization’s goals.

    As you can see from Table 13.1.3, formal language is less personal and more professional in tone than informal language. Some key factors of formal language include complex sentences, use of full words, and the third person. Informal language, on the other hand, is more colloquial or common in tone; it contains simple, direct sentences; uses contractions and abbreviations, and allows for a more personal approach that includes emotional displays. For people entering the workplace, learning how to navigate both formal and informal language is very beneficial because different circumstances will call for both in the workplace. If you’re writing a major report for shareholders, then knowing how to use formal language is very important. On the other hand, if you’re a PR professional speaking on behalf of an organization, speaking to the media using formal language could make you (and your organization) look distant and disconnected, so using informal language might help in this case.

    Use of Jargon and Specialized Language

    Every industry is going to be filled with specialized jargon, or the specialized or technical language particular to a specific profession, occupation, or group that is either meaningless to outsiders or difficult for them to understand. For example, if I informed you that we conducted a “factor analysis with a varimax rotation,” most of your heads would immediately start to spin. However, those of us who study human communication from a quantitative or statistical perspective, we know what that phrase means because we learned it during our training in graduate school. If you walked into a hospital and heard an Emergency Department (ED) physician referring to the GOMER in bay 9, most of you would be equally perplexed. Every job has some jargon, so part of being a professional is learning the jargon within your industry and peripherally related sectors as well. For example, if you want to be a pharmaceutical sales representative, learning some of the jargon of an ED (notice they’re not called Emergency Rooms [ERs] anymore). Trust us, watching the old television show ER isn’t going to help you learn this jargon very well either.13

    Instead, you have to spend time within an organization or field to pick up the necessary jargon. However, you can start this process as an undergraduate by joining student groups associated with specific fields. If you want to learn the jargon of public relations, join the Public Relations Student Society of America. If you want to go into training and development, becoming a student member of the Association for Talent Development. Want to go into nonprofit work, become a member of the Association for Volunteer Administration or the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. If you do not have a student chapter of one of these groups on your campus, then find a group on LinkedIn or another social networking site aimed at professionals. One of the great things about modern social networking is the ability to watch professionals engaging in professional dialogue virtually. By watching the discussions in LinkedIn groups, you can start to pick up on the major issues of a field and some of the everyday jargon.

    Key Takeaways
    • A profession is an occupation that involves mastery of complex knowledge and skills through prolonged training, education, or practical experience. Professionalism, on the other hand, involves the aims and behaviors that demonstrate an individual’s level of competence expected by a professional within a given profession.
    • The term ethics is defined as the judgmental attachment to whether something is good, right, or just. In our society, there have been several notable ethical lapses, including those by such companies as United Airlines, Facebook, Equifax, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Starting in fall 2017, the #MeToo movement started shining a light on a wide range of ethical issues involving the abuse of one’s power to achieve sexual desires in the entertainment industry. This movement has raised awareness and legal action against a broad range of individuals who had previously gotten away with the illegal behavior in the workplace.
    • Respecting our coworkers is one of the most essential keys to developing a positive organizational experience. There are many simple things we can do to show our respect, but one crucial feature is thinking about the types of langue we use. Avoid using language that is considered biased and marginalizing.
    • Personal responsibility refers to an individual’s willingness to be accountable for what they feel, think, and behave. Part of being a successful coworker is taking responsibility for your behaviors, communication, and task achievement in the workplace.
    • Formal language is a specific writing and spoken style that adheres to strict conventions of grammar. Conversely, informal language is more colloquial or common in tone; it contains simple, direct sentences; uses contractions and abbreviations, and allows for a more personal approach that includes emotional displays.
    • Think of a time in an organization where you witnessed unethical organizational communication. Which components of Redding’s typology did you witness? Did you do anything about the unethical organizational communication? Why?
    • Look at the list of respectful behaviors for workplace interactions. How would you react if others violated these respectful behaviors towards you as a coworker? Have you ever been disrespectful in your communication towards coworkers? Why?
    • Why do you think it’s essential to take personal responsibility and avoid excusing making in the workplace? Have you ever found yourself making excuses? Why?

    This page titled 13.1: The Requirements of Professionalism is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.