Professionals Behaving Badly: Professionalism Is Dead

I have been in the business for quite a few years and I have noticed a dramatic change regarding how people communicate with one another today versus years ago. Communication is the bedrock of business. Building meaningful business relationships without communicating with others is impossible. Recently, I was lamenting this change to a respected business associate of mine who is a business consultant, an accomplished author and public speaker. When I stopped to catch my breath, he agreed with me and simply stated, "Professionalism is dead". He said not only have business people forgotten the basics of communication but also the way they conduct themselves is radically different (and not for the better) since he entered the business world years ago.

As I started writing this article, I realized there is a difference between common courtesy in life and professionalism in business. For instance, using turn indicators in your car is not only the law but also common courtesy to alert other drivers of your intentions. It seems the use of directional signals is out of fashion for a good percentage of drivers today. Also, the person who has 30 items in their basket and gets in the 10 and under line at the grocery store is not being courteous. On that same topic, how about the person who is on their cell phone at the head of the line while the cashier and the other ten people in line are waiting for them to pay for their purchase? Lately, these rather mundane experiences have been replaced at the top of my list with people who do not respond to voicemails or emails in business and that is where I cross the line from courtesy to professionalism. On that subject, I have heard all the excuses:

  • "I get 200 emails a day and can't keep up."
  • "I don't like email"
  • "I don't check voice mail more than once a day" (even though the light on their phone is flashing with a message)
    • Once, I witnessed a business person blindly delete at least 20 voicemails without listening to any of them! I asked her why she did that and she simply said "I do it all the time... I get too many voicemails." Without missing a beat, I said, "Now I know why you never return my calls!" Her job? She was my support person in our corporate headquarters!

Regarding email, I have also learned never ask more than one question at a time in an email. If you ask two or three, many people I have worked with never answer all of the questions, just one. So what could have been a simple exchange of information now becomes an email parade back and forth. Just as it takes "two to tango", it also takes more than one person to exchange emails which companies worldwide have adopted as an expedient way to communicate. Email 101 classes should be offered in all companies and the course should include a section on business etiquette and professional behavior.

Then there is the Internet. My favorite is the online job application process used by many companies to advertise and fill open positions. This process seems like an easy way to pursue a job for applicants and a great way for companies to attract qualified candidates to their company. Most companies, who have a website, have a career page that lists job openings and provides online applications. These systems are called Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). Unfortunately, I have had dismal experiences with ATSs, so I call them Hiring Prevention Systems (HPS). I read a very interesting article on this subject recently on the Business Insider website: 5 Reasons Why You Never Hear Back After Applying For A Job. I have applied for jobs online and for the same reasons listed in the article, I have found the process to be seriously flawed because applications and resumes go into a black hole and according to Business Insider, many are never reviewed by personnel at the hiring company since computer applications do it for them using keyword search engines. If the applications are actually received in the ATS, which in my experience has also been a challenge, these companies sometimes send an automatic email response acknowledging the receipt of the applicant's online submittal and often say they will be in touch... which generally never happens! Since this is quite often an applicant's first exposure to a company, the company's lack of response and follow-up is a real turnoff to the applicant. So why do companies expend resources on a process that does not work properly? Professionalism is dead.

As I opened this article, I said communication is the bedrock of business. Whether it be internal communications between employees or external messages exchanged with business partners, prospects, customers or independent, third parties through the Internet, communication is definitely essential for any company's success. I have a number of theories regarding this radical change in business communications and yes, a few suggestions on how to fix the problem.

  1. Technology now offers more communication options. Before you call me an old goat who is out of touch with technology, I am in the technology industry! The fact remains we do have so many ways to communicate now with the increasingly popular social media (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, chatrooms, etc.), Internet websites, texting, email, instant messaging and, oh I almost forgot, the telephone! In an introductory meeting I once had with a new manager in a new company, I asked him what mode of communication he preferred... email or telephone, since I had learned from previous experiences some people can't and won't do both. Before he could answer, one of his current employees who was in the room interrupted and said, "Texting - he never returns emails of voicemails! Again, this was my first exposure to a new manager in a new company and the red flags went up instantly in my mind warning me that our relationship would not be a good one. I was proven right since he rarely communicated with me... a new employee with a lot of questions.
  2. Downsizing has had a definite impact on professionalism. The demands on the average knowledge worker have skyrocketed in recent years. Experts claim productivity has either improved or remained the same even though employees are asked to do far more work. Due to the increased workload, it is easy to take shortcuts which have an impact on professionalism. Cutting back on communicating with others is a natural shortcut but very unprofessional.
  3. "What's in It for Me" Syndrome. Increasingly, I am seeing business people making daily communication decisions not based upon their job responsibilities but what good will come of a request for them personally. Ignoring emails, voicemails or other means of communication just because it will not benefit them screams, professionalism is dead. My response to these people is, "Just Do Your Job". You and I should not have to sing verses of the currently popular song, Call Me Maybe when sending emails or leaving voicemails! With that said, I have hummed it in my mind when leaving a voicemail for certain people and almost used it as a Subject line for an email to a very unprofessional, non-communicator!
  4. Lack of Ambition and Energy. In a meeting with my banker recently (who I have gotten to know quite well), I vented my frustrations about two companies I was dealing with who have adopted the new non-professionalism culture by not communicating with me. She fully agreed business people are getting failing grades for communication and offered a reason why... "people have become lazy" and she is right. It takes effort to communicate in our dynamic business world.

I believe I have made my point... professionalism in business is either dead or well on its way to dying. Here are some potential solutions.

· Company cultures often influence how employees behave. The "King of the Mountain" attitude plays well here where extremely successful companies don't feel an obligation to socialize (play well) with the outside world because they are, in spite of themselves, so successful. This attitude filters down to the individual desktop where the emails and voicemails arrive daily and go unanswered out of arrogance. It is up to corporate management to emphasize the importance of communication with their employees while they are still sitting on the top of the mountain. Instilling a teamwork spirit in new hire training is definitely a way to influence employee behavior.

· Personalities differ and there may be a mismatch between job responsibilities and a person's personality. I often think of the Peter Principle when I ask myself, "how did he or she get their job." I bet you have asked the same question when you have been frustrated by a person's unprofessional behavior. For example, surly people should not hold customer service jobs! Likewise, poor communicators should not be in support positions where they need to communicate with either fellow employees or outsiders on a daily basis. Introverted personalities probably will not work well in Sales. Human Resource departments supposedly screen applicants with behavioral interviewing techniques but unprofessionalism in business seems to be flourishing anyway because many screening processes are ineffective. Aligning people's personalities with job requirements in the hiring process is essential to an employee's success and effectiveness.

· Business DNA... some people have the business acumen to communicate effectively because it is built into their business DNA. Others don't and need to work on that aspect of their business life. Here are two, recent, real-life examples. I sent a Vice President of Worldwide Sales at a major software company an email. He and I used to work together 10 years ago and we haven't communicated with one another since. He replied to my email with an answer to my question within 2 hours. I emailed another person, who holds a far less demanding position in his software company, multiple times requesting a 15 minute phone call and it took a full week for him to respond to my request. Take a guess who is more successful in business and who has the busier schedule. Answer: the VP Sales was the professional and the other person really should look for a different day job since his position depends upon timely communications with outsiders which is most definitely one of his weaknesses. No, he was not on vacation or traveling!; he was sitting at his desk ignoring my emails.

· Companies should not invest in costly online business applications (i.e. customer service applications) if they do not intend to support them and communicate with outside parties who use them. Why spend the money for the software, invest in employees to manage unsupported systems and set false expectations in the mind of the user who expects a response? This unprofessional behavior will give your company a black eye.

· Individuals need to take responsibility for their actions or worse yet, inactions. Years ago, when I was in Toastmasters, one of our members gave an entire speech on this subject and it has resonated with me ever since. Her point was people are not taking responsibility for their actions and are not being held accountable. The lame excuse I have heard is "business has changed" which is truly a catchall statement for professionals behaving badly. It may be easier to ignore a request than follow-up on it but is that the responsible thing to do? How do you like it when others ignore your requests? Not to go Sunday School on you now, but doesn't the Golden Rule apply: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Just key in the words, "in business" at the end of the adage and you have the Golden Rule of Business Communications!

· Just Do It and Be Courteous in the Process. Earlier, I differentiated between common courtesy and professionalism. Actually, one can and does enhance the other in business just as in society at large. Is it really that hard to be professional, do your job and be courteous all at the same time in business? Not really... try it because it works and often makes your job much more satisfying and enjoyable.

Once you have finished reading this article, please sit back, and in your mind, fill out your personal communications report card.

  • Do you have a personal policy regarding timeframes for responding to emails and voicemails? Those who communicate with you will appreciate your prompt and accurate attention to their attempts to communicate with you.
  • By ignoring either your peers or outsiders, are you doing the job you were hired to do? Obviously not, so start today by trying to be more attentive to others who are depending upon you to respond to their requests.
  • Ask yourself, who in business do you want to work with? People who respond to your needs and requests or the ones you have to chase and nearly shame into responding to you? Remember the Golden Rule of Business Communications and start practicing it.
  • Again, in your mind, think of all the tools you use to communicate in business and come up with ways to improve your performance. An example might be to end your business day by creating your to-do list for the following day. Block out times on your calendar to make calls and review your email, in other words, make appointments with yourself and put them on your calendar. The next day, when you are rested and raring to go, return your calls and reply to those unanswered emails and check them off your list... checkmarks are good and reduce stress!

In one of my favorite jobs, I provided sales support to my company's worldwide sales team of nearly 500 sales professionals. Timely communications with our Sales Representatives was Job One for the position I held. Often times, my answering their questions or providing them with assistance was the difference between their winning and losing a $1,000,000 software sale. When I presented material at regional sales training meetings around the world, I always made it a point to tell my audience what my "personal response policy" was when they contacted me for assistance... 24 hours or more likely far less depending upon if I was traveling. Quite often I was interrupted with applause. One of the reasons this was one of my favorite jobs was because I built meaningful working relationships with so many of our reps around the world based upon my communications with them. When I visited their local offices anywhere from Chicago to London to Singapore, individuals would always come up after I made a presentation to personally introduce themselves and thank me for the level of professionalism I displayed in working with them and they shared their successes with me. Likewise, as I called it, my kudos folder on my laptop was filled with thank you emails they had sent to my manager regarding my performance because I cared enough to respond to their needs. My favorite was entitled, "Glenn Rocks" and so can you. Something as simple as timely and accurate communications with all of these people made them more successful and made my job more fun and extremely satisfying. I suppose, I could have ignored the thousands of emails and phone calls I received each quarter asking for assistance, but that was my job and I was able to do it and so can you.

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