Skip to content

How to teach employees professionalism in the workplace


Professionalism in the workplace is a critically important quality for employees to exhibit.

Regardless of your company’s unique culture, and whether you have a more formal versus more casual atmosphere, you want your employees to work well together.

Plus, as a leader, you want to feel confident in how your company is represented.

In this article, we will:

  • Define workplace professionalism
  • Explore the consequences of unprofessional behavior
  • Identify where employees may struggle

Along the way, and perhaps most importantly, we’ll highlight practical strategies for nurturing your team’s professionalism, too.

Defining professionalism in the workplace

So, what is professionalism?

  • Displaying the types of behavior and traits that command the respect of colleagues and customers, and make people want to be around you (for example, being courteous, helpful,  persuasive, responsive and polished)
  • Taking work seriously, and being reliable, ethical, competent and mindful of others in the process
  • Maintaining composure despite challenges
  • Being able to build business relationships that can further skills development and support career advancement

Essentially, your employees need to put their best foot forward and represent your company well.

Ultimately, the ability of your employees to embody professionalism in the workplace means having a more productive and harmonious work environment, as well as a positive brand image.

However, some employees may require some additional assistance honing these skills.

Consequences of unprofessional behavior

Lack of professionalism in the workplace can lead to:

  • Disgruntled or frustrated employees
  • Low engagement and morale
  • Toxic atmosphere
  • High turnover
  • Avoidable obstacles for recruiting, retention and succession planning  
  • Negative brand reputation among customers, vendors and industry partners – which may result in lost business opportunities and reduced revenue

Areas of struggle for employees – and what you can do to help

1. Interpersonal skills

Common unprofessional behaviors

  • Demonstrating resistance to working alongside others
  • Inability to discern the feelings of others and adapt behavior according to these cues (lacking empathy)
  • Being inflexible: Change is a constant in the workplace, regardless of industry or the type of work, and agility is a must.
  • Adopting an inappropriate communication style for a particular audience: For example, an employee may treat one of their colleagues like they would a personal friend, throwing casual slang into conversation and broaching topics that may not be suitable for the workplace. It’s key that employees understand all types of professional audiences and modify their communication accordingly.

What you can do

Develop a robust “feedback culture” focused on delivering timely and accurate constructive criticism – from both managers and peers – when employees exhibit unprofessional behaviors.

Keep in mind, however, that people tend to respond more to positive reinforcement. That’s why you should also compliment employees when they do something well or when you notice an improvement in a certain behavior.

Offer training centered on developing communication and interpersonal skills, as well as one-on-one coaching.

You can also pair employees who could benefit from additional training with a more experienced mentor who can teach and model the desired interpersonal skills.

2. Image, conduct and attitude

Common unprofessional behaviors

  • Failing to show up in appropriate, business-worthy attire: Whether your office requires a suit and tie or allows jeans, your employees should still appear presentable and neat. For most businesses, this means avoiding attire that causes unwelcome distractions, friction among team members or doesn’t align with your company’s culture.
  • Flouting office rules and policies, such as constantly being late to work, and engaging in negative talk
  • Demonstrating unwillingness to be part of a larger team or participate in company events (whether mandatory or voluntary)
  • Expressing frustration with customers or other external parties
  • Indulging in emotional outbursts, such as yelling or losing one’s temper
  • Having a messy and disorganized office or email inbox: If an employee’s workspace appears chaotic, people will wonder which tasks or details are escaping their attention and slipping through the cracks. It just doesn’t reflect well.
  • Portraying an undesirable image on social media: This is especially important on employment related sites such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor, but it’s also becoming a more prominent issue on all social networks including  Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

A special note about social media

Traditionally, employees have treated their social media accounts as private spaces outside the purview of the workplace.

However, in recent years, employers increasingly view employees as extensions of the company and monitor their online presence for behavior that doesn’t represent the company well.

The lines between personal social media use and work persona have blurred, and what employees publish online can impact perception of them in the workplace.

What you can do

Striving to instill a desirable image, conduct and attitude in your employees starts with having established policies. This is how you set expectations and remove any mystery about your company’s requirements.

Policies, when applied consistently, also demonstrate your fairness to the entire organization.

Have written and consistently applied policies governing:

Ideally, these policies are documented in your employee handbook. As part of your formal onboarding process for new hires, you should review these policies in detail and have employees acknowledge their receipt of the policy in writing.

In your social media policy, set parameters for how employees can talk about the company and their work publicly. Discuss with them how to leverage their business acumen to determine what’s permissible – and even wise – to publish for public consumption.

Cultivate an open-door culture in which employees feel comfortable asking questions to clarify policies and proactively seek permission when they’re unsure about something.

Engage employees in one-on-one coaching. You’ll want to find out what’s going on with the employee professionally or personally so you can pinpoint the root cause of the behavior. This will enable you to address image or behavior problems most effectively.

If a personal issue is the cause of negative behavior, refer the employee to your employee assistance program (EAP). You could also consider making a workplace accommodation.

However, if the problem is that the employee simply refuses to comply with office policies or make improvements in their image, conduct or attitude, you need to document this and initiate the disciplinary process.

3. Technology use

Common unprofessional behaviors

  • Not knowing how to write a proper email, evidenced by:
    • Engaging in too many back-and-forth exchanges
    • Being overly verbose
    • Making basic spelling and grammar mistakes
  • Not discerning which modes of communication are best: Just as not every issue requires an in-person meeting, using impersonal media such as email, text or instant messenger (IM) can flub the delivery of a complex, more nuanced message.
  • Excessive Internet or smartphone usage: This issue has gotten more complicated because of the world we live in and our reliance on doing many personal tasks online. But there is a fine line between an employee taking a short break to attend pressing personal matters (for example, scheduling a doctor appointment) versus idling away hours shopping, playing games or perusing social media.

What you can do

Provide training on proper email etiquette, and coach employees on the savvy application of technology to communicate with others in an optimal way. Encourage your employees to rely on easily accessible spelling and grammar resources online.

Establish policies on personal Internet and smartphone use. Document it and be consistent in its application. If you decide to take a more relaxed, “as long as work is getting done, it’s fine” approach, make sure people understand that work comes first.

If all else fails, enlist your IT department to enforce professional use of technology. Ask your IT team to block access on office computers to certain categories of websites. Perform periodic, random audits of employee Internet use to ensure fairness.

4. Leadership skills

Common unprofessional behaviors

  • Lack of consistent treatment toward different team members
  • Not being in tune with what’s going on with direct reports professionally and personally
  • Setting a poor example by not following the company’s policies: Resentment occurs when employees perceive more lax standards for business leaders.
  • Demonstrating a lack of trust
  • Becoming too chummy with direct reports: Be careful about blurring the lines between personal friendship and the professional manager-employee relationship.

What you can do

Your leaders – particularly less experienced leaders – should undergo regular training. You can also set up a mentorship program through which newer managers are paired with seasoned, more senior managers. This can help develop more appropriate and effective leadership practices.

You can also ask employees how managers could improve, since employees experience manager performance firsthand. Send out employee engagement surveys to see what’s working well, what you can continue to build on, and what needs work.

With these assessments in hand, you can improve your work developing managers.

Establishing professionalism in the workplace

When working to clarify your expectations regarding staff professionalism, carefully set and maintain the tone and atmosphere you want your office to embody upfront.

To craft clear standards and benchmarks, ask yourself:

  • What culture and image do I want to have?
  • What behavior is required of employees to achieve this?
  • How am I communicating these aspirations to both new employees and employees who have been with the company for awhile?
  • Are leaders modeling my desired behaviors every day?

Once you have those answers, work to not only communicate but also assess and – most importantly – model those standards continuously.

Remember: To succeed at nurturing workplace professionalism, you must expect of yourself the same high, consistent standards you expect of your team.

When employees fail to improve workplace professionalism

If an individual employee just isn’t “getting it,” you have to determine whether you’ve given them all the support and assistance you can.

After all, termination is often the costliest option.

If you’ve invested all the time and resources you can in an employee, however, you may need to initiate discussions about continued problems with professional behavior. Ask them: Is this job the right fit?

After this point, if things don’t improve or they’re engaging in behaviors that are seriously or increasingly problematic, you may have to begin the disciplinary process leading toward termination

Summing it all up

Professionalism in the workplace is undoubtedly critical for maintaining harmony and a positive image among stakeholders while also developing and promoting internally. Fortunately, it’s often an easy skill to teach, and it’s transferrable between roles, companies and industries.

In other words, nurturing professionalism in the workplace is a great investment to make in your people.

For more information on how to guide your employees’ training and development, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.