Skip to Content

What does unprofessionalism look like in the workplace?

Unprofessional behavior in the workplace can take many forms. It can range from minor annoyances to serious misconduct. Examples include being consistently late, dressing inappropriately, using offensive language, ignoring workplace policies, spreading rumors, and more. While a single incident may seem harmless, a pattern of unprofessional actions can damage morale, undermine trust, and hurt productivity and retention.

Why is professionalism important in the workplace?

Maintaining professionalism at work is critical for several reasons:

  • It promotes a positive work culture – Professional interactions make employees feel respected and valued. This boosts engagement, collaboration, and job satisfaction.
  • It protects the company’s reputation – Employees represent the organization. Behaving professionally preserves public trust and the company’s brand.
  • It improves productivity – Professional communication and conduct minimize conflicts so employees can focus on work. It enables efficient operations.
  • It demonstrates leadership – Managers set the tone for professional standards. Consistently modeling these behaviors leads by example.
  • It maintains workplace safety – Respectful, appropriate interactions help avoid hostile environments. This ensures all employees feel secure at work.

Fostering professionalism is vital for attracting top talent, retaining employees, and giving the organization a competitive edge. A lack of professionalism can quickly derail operations and tarnish credibility.

Signs of unprofessional workplace behavior

Unprofessional behaviors that employees exhibit can generally be categorized into issues with:

  • Attendance
  • Communication
  • Appearance
  • Attitude
  • Productivity
  • Workplace conduct

Let’s explore some specific examples of unprofessionalism across these areas:

Attendance issues

  • Arriving late regularly
  • Leaving early without permission
  • Taking excessively long or frequent breaks
  • Skipping meetings unexpectedly
  • Having poor time management and missing deadlines
  • Calling in sick frequently without medical documentation

Showing up late occasionally due to external circumstances may be understandable. But chronic tardiness or absences suggest poor discipline, disrespect for others’ time, and lack of dedication.

Inappropriate communication

  • Using vulgar, offensive, or abusive language
  • Spreading gossip, rumors, or confidential information
  • Being overly negative, critical, or argumentative
  • Making insensitive comments towards coworkers
  • Having emotional outbursts or yelling at colleagues
  • Refusing to collaborate or communicate professionally

Communication that’s aggressive, inappropriate, uncooperative, or unnecessarily critical poisons workplace culture. It erodes relationships and makes it difficult to work as a team.

Inappropriate appearance

  • Having a disheveled, unclean, or overly casual look
  • Violating organizational dress code standards
  • Wearing distracting, offensive, or unsafe attire
  • Having poor hygiene or grooming

When personal presentation is sloppy, provocative, or unhygienic, it signals disregard for workplace norms and professionalism standards.

Negative attitude

  • Complaining constantly or having a victim mentality
  • Acting arrogant, entitled, or insubordinate
  • Being resistant to change and improvement
  • Blaming others and shirking personal responsibility
  • Having low morale that affects the team dynamic

A pervasively negative mindset drags down individuals and teams. It also reduces accountability, innovation, and advancement.

Low productivity

  • Procrastinating on tasks and projects
  • Producing low quality, error-prone, or plagiarized work
  • Failing to achieve performance metrics or requirements
  • Coasting in role and showing no initiative
  • Wasting time on personal matters during work hours

Consistent inefficiency, negligence, and poor prioritization signal an uncommitted worker who adds little value.

Inappropriate conduct

  • Engaging in office politics like gossip, cliques, or favoritism
  • Stealing supplies or misusing organizational resources
  • Disregarding policies, procedures, or management directives
  • Mistreating, bullying, or sabotaging coworkers
  • Behaving unethically or compromising company values

Unethical, disruptive, or abusive behaviors degrade trust, safety, and team cohesion. They undermine standards and acceptable norms.

Why do some employees exhibit unprofessionalism?

There are various reasons why individuals demonstrate unprofessional conduct at work:

  • Personality conflicts – Some may have innate personality traits like aggression, entitlement, disorganization, or defiance.
  • Stress – Heavy workloads, imposed deadlines, or conflict can cause individuals to be terse or impatient.
  • Personal problems – Issues like illness, family demands, financial trouble, or depression may impair job performance.
  • Burnout – Exhaustion from overwork can make employees cynical, bitter, or disengaged.
  • Lack of awareness – Employees may not realize their behaviors come across as unprofessional.
  • No incentives – Insufficient reward or accountability systems can perpetuate bad habits.
  • Negative culture – Some organizational cultures tacitly allow unprofessionalism by not addressing it.

While explanations exist, employees are still responsible for exhibiting maturity, self-control, and sound judgment.

How to discourage unprofessionalism

Organizations can deter unprofessionalism through:

Clear policies

Create explicit personnel policies regarding:

  • Work schedules and attendance expectations
  • Standards for respectful communication and conduct
  • Dress code and personal appearance guidelines
  • Performance metrics and work quality indicators
  • Use of company resources, data, and intellectual property
  • Harassment, discrimination, violence, and substance abuse prohibitions

These provide everyone a shared baseline understanding of what constitutes professionalism.

Open communication

Promote open dialogue between management and staff. Encourage employees to ask clarifying questions, raise concerns, and give input into decision-making. This mitigates perceptions of secrecy, exclusion, and favoritism that breed negativity. Welcome critiques non-defensively to foster mutual learning and growth.


Incorporate professionalism into new hire orientation and ongoing training. Teach interpersonal skills like diplomacy, relationship-building, and conflict resolution. Help employees self-assess and recognize unprofessional patterns through coaching, simulations, and role play. Training establishes norms and builds self-awareness.

Modeling from leaders

Leadership must exemplify desired behaviors. When supervisors are regularly on time, communicative, collaborative, and cognizant of language and appearance, they set the tone for the group. Employees mirror the standards demonstrated by managers.


Offer constructive feedback to help individuals improve. Be specific about observed unprofessional communication or behaviors. Outline the business impact and provide recommendations. Feedback shows employees where they fall short of expectations and how to course correct.


Consistently document infractions and enforce policies through verbal warnings, written reprimands, suspended privileges, probation, or termination per severity. Applying consequences for unprofessionalism equitably makes it clear such conduct is unacceptable.


Reward professionalism with recognition, promotions, pay increases, training opportunities, and more desirable assignments. Linking positives to professional achievement motivates employees and reorients culture.

Anonymous reporting

Provide anonymous ethics hotlines or HR reporting mechanisms. This allows observation of unprofessional behaviors that might go unreported due to fear of retaliation or peer pressure. Anonymous tips can prompt investigation of systemic issues.

Values alignment

Prioritize professionalism in hiring through screening for organizational fit. Onboarding should emphasize company values. Reinforce these in regular culture shaping activities. Values congruence intrinsically motivates employees to act professionally.

Impacts of unaddressed unprofessionalism

Left unchecked, rampant unprofessionalism generates substantial costs:

Plummeting productivity

Workplace dysfunction sinks productivity. Employees lose focus coping with disruption. Infighting fuels distractions rather than priorities. Lack of collaboration impedes work quality. Missed deadlines lower customer satisfaction.

Spiking turnover

Top talent disengages and defects when colleagues are inconsiderate, insensitive, or hostile. According to Gallup, half of employees left jobs to get away from coworkers. Unprofessional environments feed resignation.

Damaged employer brand

Current employees share negative perceptions externally. Unprofessional conduct gets publicized through online reviews or social media. Public scandals create lasting bad press. This deters prospective employees and customers.

Higher absenteeism

Toxic atmospheres with infighting or harassment cause anxiety and dread. Employees take sick days to avoid the office. Others show up late or leave early. Absenteeism leaves teams understaffed and strains coworker relationships further.

Increased safety risks

Hostile, disrespectful, or careless acts heighten physical danger. Errors and cutting corners can cause workplace accidents. Intimidation, threats, or violence also become possible. Safety requires conscientiousness.

Greater legal exposure

Egregious unprofessionalism brings liability risks. Discrimination lawsuits, FMLA/ADA accommodation cases, wrongful terminations, OSHA violations, or sexual harassment scandals can arise. Legal fees, settlements, and fines apply.

Tarnished reputation

Unethical, negligent, or illegal acts get publicized, sullying organizational reputation. Customers associate brands with rogue employees. Investors become wary of poor management and controls. Once lost, trust is hard to rebuild.


While professionalism entails some subjectivity around etiquette and style, certain patterns of behavior clearly cross lines. Organizations must define and reinforce standards proactively. Accountability requires applying consequences consistently. Leaders set the tone.

With thoughtfulness, policies, training, and role modeling, unprofessionalism can be minimized. This enables a respectful climate where staff collaborate productively to deliver quality work. The payoff is immense: higher retention, innovation, pride, safety, trust, and profitability.