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Leaders, think twice before calling someone ‘unprofessional’

What’s considered ‘unprofessional’ can vary dramatically, depending on settings or cultural norms. Using this word can silence important conversations.

Leaders, think twice before calling someone ‘unprofessional’
[Source photo: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels]

Several years ago, I was discussing an issue with the director of an assessment program at my university. I noted that the approach taken was going to generate poor data. “Well, that’s the policy,” she told me. “Well, that’s BS,” I replied.

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The director was not amused and told me I should not swear. Of course, being the annoying person that I am, I asked, “Why not?” Her rather quick answer was, “Because it’s unprofessional.”

I must admit that I have never thought of swearing as unprofessional, although I have noticed that people in Texas seem to swear much less frequently than people did in the Northeast, where I grew up. And this raises a problem: The definition of “unprofessional” is not objective. It varies in relation to individuals, organizations, professions, even cultural regions.

For example, I’m reasonably confident that most players and coaches on Major League Baseball teams consider themselves professionals. Having spent quite a bit of time around baseball players, I’m also confident that many of them swear. They also spit. Often. Indeed, I remember a Red Sox playoff game many years ago in which the opposing pitcher kept throwing to first to hold the runner. After doing this a few times, I heard someone in the Sox dugout yell, “Throw the f-ing ball!” I doubt the manager turned around and scolded the player for being unprofessional. Who knows? It may have been the manager who yelled it.

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So which is it? Is swearing unprofessional? The answer is that it depends on the organizational environment and even on individual proclivities. No unambiguously agreed upon definition for the term can be found, because behavior that constitutes unprofessionalism in one environment may be perfectly normal in another. In the case of the director, she used the term “unprofessional” as though it were an objective category of behavior that contrasts unambiguously with the equally objective category “professional.” Therefore, I should not have used the term “BS.” No debate needed. In short, it was unprofessional because she didn’t like it. We might agree that to her, my words were distasteful. But it’s not reasonable to define professional and unprofessional behavior on the basis of personal likes and dislikes.

Clearly there are some behaviors that we can unambiguously define as unprofessional. Commenting on a coworker’s physical appearance has come to be widely viewed as unprofessional. Behaviors that are racist, sexist, or that involve bullying are generally accepted as unprofessional. But there is a significant gray area between those types of behaviors and something like swearing—and definitions for actions like what constitutes bullying are not uniform across all professions. Harsh words spoken in an IT firm after a serious mistake may be viewed quite differently from the same words spoken in a military organization, where the stakes are life and death.

Another example may be useful. After hearing concerns raised by graduate students, a colleague at another university became troubled that a particular practice in her department unintentionally represented a potential form of discrimination. When she raised this to her department chair, he responded by claiming that there was no issue, and it would not be discussed. Rather than backing down, my colleague continued to argue, pointing out the flaws in her chair’s position. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well, and she was told her tone was aggressive and her behavior was “unprofessional.”

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My colleague was surprised, because her assumption had been that university departments were environments that encouraged and protected open and reasoned debate. But her criticism was basically shut down as soon as her department chair pulled out the “unprofessional” card.

And this is the crux of the issue.

Terms like “unprofessional” can become weaponized for the purpose of silencing debate, disagreement, and constructive criticism and can even marginalize workers who speak, act, or interact differently from those in positions of power. A quick way to shut down a disagreement or difference of approach is to tell someone that what they are doing is unprofessional, even if their behavior represents just a different way of interacting or thinking about how to debate and disagree. This type of attempt at social manipulation is often exhibited through tone policing. It’s also displayed when leaders ignore or scold individuals for having an emotional response to troubling or problematic institutional policies or individual behaviors.

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The result is that the label “unprofessional” effectively squelches the opinions of those who may simply be different or unconventional and has the potential to create a kind of pall on open discourse. Few want to be viewed as unprofessional, so an easy way to shut down disagreements and difference is for someone in power to claim that someone with whom they disagree or whose ideas they simply don’t like is being unprofessional. 

While there is no doubt that unambiguously unprofessional behaviors exist, we also need to recognize that the concept is often used as a weapon for social control aimed at squelching ideas and criticism by people who don’t necessarily adhere strictly to assumed organizational conventions—regardless of the value or appropriateness of those conventions.

Leaders should be careful in how and when they use the term “unprofessional.” Not only does inappropriate labeling of behaviors or individuals as unprofessional mute disagreement and dissent, but it also devalues the meaning of the term itself when applied to behaviors that genuinely ought to be viewed as unprofessional, and restricts the definition of professional behaviors to those that align neatly with organizational convention. Flagging behavior as unprofessional that is simply unconventional is an excellent way to inhibit workers from thinking creatively and raising ethical and other concerns that may need attention by leadership.

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J.W. Traphagan is a professor in human dimensions of organizations at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is Embracing Uncertainty: Future Jazz, That 13th Century Buddhist Monk, and the Invention of Cultures. Follow him on Twitter @John_Traphagan


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