Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thursday unprofessionalism. What is unprofessional?

While I was looking for something to post, this page caught my eye.  I don’t know the context of why this information exists, but it seems clear that it’s a list of responses to a survey on examples of unprofessional behaviour some group of people has experienced.

It’s quite interesting what we consider unprofessional.  Some of the examples seem pretty straightforward and clear-cut.  For example:

Employee stole some secrets and left the company and made his own company.

That seems fairly transparently unprofessional to me.  He did pretty much the exact opposite of what he was paid to do.  But some of them are harder to call.  For example, there are several complaints about the use of profanity in the workplace.  Is this unprofessional?  It’s easy to see situations where it would be.  If it offended a client, for example, that would be unprofessional.  What if it offends an employee?  Creating an environment in which an employee feels uncomfortable could be considered unprofessional, I guess.  Some of the complaints are about people discussing their drunken adventures outside work.  Is it unprofessional to have riotous nights out or just to discuss them at work?  Why should it be more unprofessional to discuss this than the sunday school picnic?

The concept of professional behaviour is a strange one.  There are some rules of conduct which we’re all supposed to abide by at work, but nobody ever tells us what they are.  And more importantly, nobody ever tells us why we’re supposed to abide by them.  Is swearing at your computer going to cause any loss of revenue?  Do employees work harder if they’re dressed according to arbitrary conventions?

This site has a list of the top twelve unprofessional behaviours, based on complaints they’ve received.  Here they are, I don’t know whether they’re in any particular order:

1. Sexy or sloppy attire – Shirts that show cleavage, low-riding pants, tops that look like underwear, torn jeans, flip-flops, t-shirts with slogans, micro-short skirts

2. Poor hygiene – Body odor, bad breath, greasy hair, dirty clothes

3. Profanity – F-word, S-word, B-word, A-word, and many other colorful expletives

4. Fragrances – Perfume, cologne, aftershave, and any other source of scent 

5. Food odors – Heated leftovers, tuna sandwiches, microwave popcorn (yes, lots of people hate that smell)

6. Irritating noises – Gum popping, knuckle cracking, food crunching, stomach rumbling, nose blowing, whistling, radio playing

7. Loud talking – Speaker phones, hallway socializing, yelling from cube to cube, cell phone chatter

8. Crude jokes – Humor related to sex, bodily functions, racial/ethnic characteristics, gender issues

9. Improper chitchat –  Making public comments about customers, complaining to customers, gossiping about coworkers, spreading rumors

10. Sermonizing – Forcing religious information on coworkers, asking coworkers about their beliefs,  leaving religious literature in public areas

11. Personal slurs – Using derogatory terms related to someone’s ethnic origin, race, gender, age, or any other personal characteristic

12. Cluttered workspace – Messy piles of paper, files stacked on the floor, dozens of knick-knacks, tools scattered around

Many of these complaints seem to be about things that can be annoying when a bunch of people who are connected only by the fact that they work in the same building are forced to spend large amounts of time together.  But some of them are just plain preachy.  Take item 2, for example.  I can see why people might be annoyed by smelly people since it creates an unpleasant environment and in most cases shows lack of thought about or consideration for others. But what about dirty clothes?  How does that affect anyone?  And what about item 12?  Are people concerned because there’s an actual problem with the clutter (it’s getting in the way) or because they don’t work like that and don’t think anyone else should?  And is any of this really unprofessional anyway?

Clearly, when we work with people there’s an implied social contract. We should try not to do things that annoy them.  What annoys people doesn’t depend only on our behaviour, but on the nature and status of our relationship with them.  For example, if we know our coworkers well and particularly if we socialise with them, swearing in our interactions with them might be entirely appropriate. If we don’t know them so well, it probably isn’t.  Why not?  Because it makes assumptions about the nature of your relationship with that person.  It assumes a familiarity they might not be comfortable with.  This is an aggressive act.

So perhaps ‘professional behaviour’ is all about the fact that the status of relationships in the workplace are often ambiguous.  In a crowded office, everyone can see, hear and smell what we do so we cater for the most-easily-offended denominator.  We formalise behaviour so that we’re demonstrably not making assumptions about the status of our relationships with coworkers. 

This accounts for smelling bad, but what about dirty clothes?  Perhaps clean clothes are an ostensible sign that we’re capitulating with the social convention.  We’re saying “look, I’m not being annoying”. Even if we are.  That’s the problem with arbitrary formalisation of social conventions.  People can cheat and still fall within the rules.  The biggest idiots in any organisation are the ones who hide behind ‘professionalism’ while screwing everyone over.

Anyway, those are my random thoughts on what professionalism – at least in the workplace – might be about.  It all seems batshit insane to me.  So presumably I’m the one everyone is complaining about.

Update: I forgot to point out that in item 1, people seem to be complaining about women displaying their sexuality.  For heterosexual males and gay women, sexual cues seem to be largely about things like the shape of the nape of the neck and the curve of the waist toward the hips as well as the more obvious secondary sexual characteristics.  These things are best displayed by uncovering them, which is what the complaints are about.  For heterosexual women and homosexual men, the main sexual cues seem to be about things like broad shoulders, tapered waist, muscular buttocks etc. which – it strikes me – are quite well displayed by wearing business attire.  Jackets enhance shoulder width and hide fat, ties create a visual cue to the waist, which is delineated by a belt, tailored trousers can hide a multitude of flaws.  So here’s my bonus hypothesis on this particularly unprofessional Thursday: the convention has somehow become skewed so that men are encouraged to enhance their sexuality even by default, whereas if women do exactly the same thing, it’s regarded as unprofessional.  Which seems, to my mind, unprofessional. 

Update 2: While I’m at it, fuck, shit, bastard, arse.

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