Is professionalism a thing of the past?

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Every generation likes to complain about the youngest cohort – Socrates famously said of young people of his day “They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” But are young workers dropping the ball when it comes to looking and acting like professionals?

“Every company that employs teens and young adults wrestles with the boundaries of professionalism. A professional puts the job ahead of the personal,” work ethic author and consultant Eric Chester said. However,  younger workers put significant focus on individual expression, he said, which sometimes lined  up with an organization’s needs – and sometimes did  not.

Chester said  the biggest complaint areas he hears about are:

  • Appearance
    Don’t think this is just a problem for those who employ low-wage, frontline workers. In 2010, Swiss banking giant UBS gave employees at five of its offices a 43-page dress code that detailed what its staff could and couldn’t wear.
  • Language
    Profanity, vulgarity, and obscenity are commonplace in the vocabulary of many members of the emerging workforce, and all too often they don’t turn it off, or even dial it down, when they get to work.
  • Manners
    This big umbrella topic really covers common courtesies. Are your workers opening doors for others? Allowing others to speak without interruption? Calling their supervisors Mr. or Ms until given permission to go with a first name?
  • Overtness
    Anyone that has an opinion now has a platform to share it, thanks to the advent of social media. They’ve been raised to believe that if they have something to say or an interesting take on a popular topic, they’d be depriving the world if they “didn’t put it out there.”

Key HR takeaway:

“When addressing something as controversial as a dress code, don’t simply mention it or expect them to read it in the company handbook,” Chester said. “Instead, show photographs of employees wearing what is deemed both appropriate and what is unacceptable. Leave nothing to chance. Don’t surprise them with the specifics of your dress code after they’ve been hired and are making their way through your orientation.”

He suggested  doing the same when describing the language and etiquette that  was acceptable and appropriate in your culture. “ Don’t wait for a major infraction to bring this to their attention. Clarity is key when it comes to establishing high standards right from the start.”



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