Think twice before calling someone ‘unprofessional’

p 1 leaders think twice before calling something unprofessional

By J. W. Traphagan 4 minute Learn

A number of years in the past, I used to be discussing a problem with the director of an evaluation program at my college. I famous that the strategy taken was going to generate poor knowledge. “Properly, that’s the coverage,” she instructed me. “Properly, that’s BS,” I replied.

The director was not amused and instructed me I mustn’t swear. In fact, being the annoying person who I’m, I requested, “Why not?” Her moderately fast reply was, “As a result of it’s unprofessional.”


I need to admit that I’ve by no means considered swearing as unprofessional, though I’ve observed that individuals in Texas appear to swear a lot much less often than individuals did within the Northeast, the place I grew up. And this raises an issue: The definition of “unprofessional” just isn’t goal. It varies in relation to people, organizations, professions, even cultural areas.

For instance, I’m fairly assured that almost all gamers and coaches on Main League Baseball groups think about themselves professionals. Having spent fairly a little bit of time round baseball gamers, I’m additionally assured that lots of them swear. Additionally they spit. Usually. Certainly, I bear in mind a Purple Sox playoff recreation a few years in the past wherein the opposing pitcher stored throwing to first to carry the runner. After doing this a number of occasions, I heard someone within the Sox dugout yell, “Throw the f-ing ball!” I doubt the supervisor rotated and scolded the participant for being unprofessional. Who is aware of? It might have been the supervisor who yelled it.

So which is it? Is swearing unprofessional? The reply is that it is determined by the organizational setting and even on particular person proclivities. No unambiguously agreed upon definition for the time period may be discovered, as a result of conduct that constitutes unprofessionalism in a single setting could also be completely regular in one other. Within the case of the director, she used the time period “unprofessional” as if it had been an goal class of conduct that contrasts unambiguously with the equally goal class “skilled.” Due to this fact, I mustn’t have used the time period “BS.” No debate wanted. Briefly, it was unprofessional as a result of she didn’t prefer it. We would agree that to her, my phrases had been distasteful. Nevertheless it’s not cheap to outline skilled and unprofessional conduct on the premise of non-public likes and dislikes.

Clearly there are some behaviors that we will unambiguously outline as unprofessional. Commenting on a coworker’s bodily look has come to be extensively considered as unprofessional. Behaviors which are racist, sexist, or that contain bullying are usually accepted as unprofessional. However there’s a vital grey space between these kinds of behaviors and one thing like swearing—and definitions for actions like what constitutes bullying are not uniform throughout all professions. Harsh phrases spoken in an IT agency after a critical mistake could also be considered fairly otherwise from the identical phrases spoken in a navy group, the place the stakes are life and demise.

One other instance could also be helpful. After listening to considerations raised by graduate college students, a colleague at one other college grew to become troubled {that a} explicit observe in her division unintentionally represented a possible type of discrimination. When she raised this to her division chair, he responded by claiming that there was no subject, and it could not be mentioned. Somewhat than backing down, my colleague continued to argue, stating the failings in her chair’s place. Evidently, this didn’t sit nicely, and she or he was instructed her tone was aggressive and her conduct was “unprofessional.”

My colleague was shocked, as a result of her assumption had been that college departments had been environments that inspired and guarded open and reasoned debate. However her criticism was principally shut down as quickly as her division chair pulled out the “unprofessional” card.

And that is the crux of the difficulty.


Phrases like “unprofessional” can grow to be weaponized for the aim of silencing debate, disagreement, and constructive criticism and may even marginalize employees who converse, act, or work together otherwise from these in positions of energy. A fast strategy to shut down a disagreement or distinction of strategy is to inform someone that what they’re doing is unprofessional, even when their conduct represents only a completely different manner of interacting or fascinated with learn how to debate and disagree. One of these try at social manipulation is usually exhibited via tone policing. It’s additionally displayed when leaders ignore or scold people for having an emotional response to troubling or problematic institutional insurance policies or particular person behaviors.

The result’s that the label “unprofessional” successfully squelches the opinions of those that might merely be completely different or unconventional and has the potential to create a sort of pall on open discourse. Few wish to be considered as unprofessional, so a simple strategy to shut down disagreements and distinction is for someone in energy to say that someone with whom they disagree or whose concepts they merely don’t like is being unprofessional. 

Whereas there isn’t any doubt that unambiguously unprofessional behaviors exist, we additionally want to acknowledge that the idea is usually used as a weapon for social management aimed toward squelching concepts and criticism by individuals who don’t essentially adhere strictly to assumed organizational conventions—whatever the worth or appropriateness of these conventions.

Leaders needs to be cautious in how and after they use the time period “unprofessional.” Not solely does inappropriate labeling of behaviors or people as unprofessional mute disagreement and dissent, however it additionally devalues the that means of the time period itself when utilized to behaviors that genuinely must be considered as unprofessional, and restricts the definition {of professional} behaviors to people who align neatly with organizational conference. Flagging conduct as unprofessional that’s merely unconventional is a wonderful strategy to inhibit employees from pondering creatively and elevating moral and different considerations which will want consideration by management.