What is a professional work environment, and what can a manager do to create and maintain it?
A professional work environment is one that results in a workplace full of highly competent, respectful, mature, and accountable employees working towards a common goal. It’s the kind of workplace that any employee would feel proud to take their children.
Professional employees don’t swear, gossip, bully, lie, cheat, steal, lose their tempers – they leave the drama at home and dress appropriately. In other words, they look, act, and sound like professionals.
Employees thrive in professional working environments where they feel respected and treated fairly at all times. Few of us enjoy working in environments where every day feels like a day at the circus.
So what can a manager do to create and maintain a professional work environment? Plenty – in fact, it all starts and ends with the leader of a team or organization. Here are some actions to stimulate a professional work environment.
Include elements of professionalism in job profiles and job descriptions. Look beyond impressive resumes and technical skills and use effective selection and behavioral interviewing to dig deep for signs of professional or unprofessional behaviors.
Be a Role Model
A job description that includes professional behaviors is worthless if the manager of a team doesn’t set the right example. A manager that dresses poorly uses crude language or engages in gossip or badmouths the company will get more of the same from his/her team.
On the other hand, a manager that keeps commitments admits mistakes, never loses his/her temper, and always has a positive attitude sets a positive example, and earns the right to expect the same from his/her team.
Recognize and Reward Both Results and Behaviors
When a manager says, “all that matters is results, and I don’t care how you get there,” it’s an invitation for unprofessional behavior. Effective managers work hard to ensure that no one crosses an ethical line. If you are told that only results count, it is a sign of a potentially toxic work environment.
Be Willing to Discipline or Fire an Employee for Unprofessional Conduct
Nothing sends a stronger message than “coronations and executions.” That is, rewarding and celebrating the right behaviors, and punishing the wrong behaviors. That means not letting a top performer get away with unprofessional conduct, and rewarding the right behaviors even if the result wasn’t what you were seeking.
Provide Feedback and Coaching
New employees, especially employees new to the workforce, sometimes need someone to take them aside and provide feedback and coaching. An experienced, caring co-worker can also provide this kind of constructive advice.
I’m not a big fan of sensitivity, ethics, and anti-bullying training, but these kinds of training programs are often mandated by companies, so if they are, show your support and make sure all attend (starting with the managers).
Some employees may need individual training in interpersonal skills, grammar, how to handle conflict, and anger management. Just don’t use training if the employee already knows how – that’s a performance management issue, not a training issue. See “How to Deal With a Lazy Employee” to learn how to tell the difference.
Don’t Ignore Feedback From Others or Warning Signs
Managers are not always in a position to observe examples of unprofessional conduct, so when a complaint is brought to the manager, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Thank the person, and ensure them you will look into it.
Provide a Physical Environment That Encourages Professionalism
When an organization cuts corners on office space, furniture, office décor, cleaning services, and maintenance, it’s pretty hypocritical to have a discussion with an employee about their appearance. If you are expecting five-star behavior and conduct from your employees, start with giving them a five-star work environment.
Stand up for Your Employees
If one of your employees is the subject of harassment, abuse, a tantrum, or any other type of extreme unprofessional conduct coming from another department, supplier, or even a customer, then it’s up to the manager to let the employee know it’s unacceptable and they don’t have to tolerate it. The manager should support the employee when they do stand up for themselves, and when needed, confront the offender themselves.
A Professional Conduct Policy
Some would say yes, that if it’s an important expectation for all employees, that you should spell in out in an employee handbook. I guess in some organizations that may be needed, especially to defend against wrongful termination lawsuits. On the other hand, if a manager consistently follows items one to nine, there would be no need for a written policy.
The Bottom Line
Effective managers and leaders work hard to support the development of an effective working environment. It's too important for the firm, the team and for your career to leave to chance.
Updated by Art Petty