How do you learn professionalism?
June 24, 2009 2:05 PM   Subscribe

How do you learn professionalism? Someone close to me just lost her second job in a year and it sounds to me like the bottom line is her skills are very good but her conduct is less than professional.

She doesn't seem to have a sense of herself as anything but professional. She is not able to assess work situations and adjust her conduct to fit in. It isn't that she is wild or outrageous...just a little over the line too often.

She does have dyslexia and I understand that there are social aspects to dyslexia as well. Could this be part of it? For the record she's 21, so age and immaturity are also play a part.

She loved both these jobs and this is a big blow. She wants to learn all she can about herself and professionalism so it never happens again. So.....where do you go to learn about professionalism? Is there any truth to the dyslexic lacking social skills? Which direction do I point her?
posted by Jandasmo to Work & Money (25 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
First off: dyslexia has absolutely nothing to do with social skills.

Professionalism is common sense for the most part. Just follow the golden rule of treat others how you would like to be treated and your friend should be all set.
posted by pwally at 2:17 PM on June 24, 2009

"It isn't that she is wild or outrageous...just a little over the line too often."

Can you be a lot more specific? Why was she fired? Were her actions part of a repeating pattern? It's hard to assess the situation without these details.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:22 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

This article suggests there is a link between some types of learning disabilities and social skills deficits. It also warns not to overgeneralize and assume that all LD people have poor social skills or that the poor social skills of an LD individual is caused BY the disability. I just skimmed but it looks like there are resources at the end that your friend might want to check out.
posted by Nickel at 2:24 PM on June 24, 2009

One rule of thumb for behavior is "Would I want my mother to see this on the nightly news?" Depending on the office, that may be more or less appropriate, but the key is considering your audience for everything - and assuming your audience is more conservative than you are.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:24 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've never heard of dyslexia being tied to a lack of social skills.

What kinds of professionalism stuff was she having trouble with? Did she not show up on time, or did she tell inappropriate jokes to co-workers or clients/customers? Did she swear loudly in the hallway? Dress inappropriately?

Different workplaces have different cultures. The best - only - way to learn about these is to keep your mouth shut and your ears and eyes open when you start a new job. Follow the herd, at first. Most people break rules at work, but they break them after they've learned them, and know what lines are okay to cross and what aren't.

Basic rules include: no sex jokes, no race jokes, no political talk, no religion talk, no over-sharing about your life outside work.

There aren't many workplaces where you can be your wild self and have it be okay. If that's what she needs, she's going to have to find a place to accommodate that.
posted by rtha at 2:25 PM on June 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

This is embarrassing and weird, but true.

I learned how to not only fit into an office job, but to love an office job, by watching The West Wing.

The whole show deals with how these people communicate with each other, how they work as a team, how sometimes the slightest nuance of language can be the difference between a job well done and a problematic scandal.

Whatever your opinions on the politics of the show, it boils down to a team of intelligent people doing a difficult job, and doing it well. It's like a very entertaining tutorial on how to function in a professional environment, with an added bonus of how to get along in a political environment, which every office is by nature.

Grab Season 1 on sale and sit down to watch it with your friend. Use it as a basis from which to discuss professional behavior. It's a great way to learn.
posted by MrVisible at 2:26 PM on June 24, 2009 [9 favorites]

If she's sending really horrendous, unprofessional emails, her dyslexia could be a factor. She may need professional help to be trained in adaptive skills for professional written communication.

In my experience with the brand of unprofessionalism that goes with being young and immature, shutting one's mouth is the number one way to be more professional. Shut up and listen, shut up if you're not talking about work, shut up and let other people work. Use grown up words and be respectful when talking, which should only be done about work. That's why it's called "professional", because it's not about you, it's about work.

But if she's really incapable of reading a situation and choosing an appropriate behavior, I would say the best place to start is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for some assessments. If she has an inability to read or recognize facial expressions or differentiate between different tones of voice, she needs specialized help and training. But I know a number of people who do actually have problems like that, and for the most part they get by okay just by working hard and focusing only on work when at work. They may be considered a little standoffish on cake day or at happy hour, but if you do good work that's what matters.

So, in a nutshell: therapy.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:33 PM on June 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I suggest she read Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.

At 21, she's barely out of college or still there. Being surrounded by your peers for 4 years can insulate you from some of the difficult realities and requirements of mature life and work. This book could make a huge difference for her, if she's willing to see herself as she is, and not as she thinks she is.

Frankly, the way to overcoming many (if not most) life's hurdles IMO can be summed up by the following statements:

1. The truth will set you free.
2. Are you willing to see the truth if it's not what you *want* to see? if it's different, and harder to deal with, than what you thought was true?
posted by mdiskin at 2:33 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I did the PDP (Professional Development Program) when I was in VICA (now called Skills-USA). Check to see if her local Career Tech offers the program. It's more than just how to be on your best behavior. It teaches interview skills, how to talk to your boss, networking, negotiating contracts, and so on. Plus, it looks great on a resume.
posted by idiotfactory at 2:34 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Manager Tools. She may not be a manager, but these podcasts give _ACTIONABLE_ behaviors that a person can engage in to be more effective and more well received in a variety of workplace situations. There's also the companion career tools podcasts which are invaluable for anyone seeking career advice.

I'd also recommend reading all of Struggling Manager. Rob Redmond is a friend of manager tools, and has a ton of great advice for interacting with your boss. And interacting with your boss is the problem if you're getting fired.

Finally, remember that as a new employee, your goal is always to fit in. And as an employee, your goal is to have your boss's back and make your boss look good.
posted by bfranklin at 2:43 PM on June 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

I had the same experience as Mr. Visible -- The West Wing taught me a lot about how a professional behaves.
posted by crickets at 2:46 PM on June 24, 2009

Shut up and listen, shut up if you're not talking about work, shut up and let other people work.

Emphasized for truth and importance. These are the things that I struggled with when I was newly out of school, and they're the things that interns and brand new employees struggle with the most. People come out of college expecting everyone to be their friend and share their lives and they end up sharing inappropriately. Or they think it's like their dorm room where they can drop by and chat for a while, distracting others and not getting their own work done. Or they think they know how to do it better than someone who's been there even a year, they keep trying to suggest things that have been suggested and dismissed, or simply don't listen to the instructions that they're given. Following these three "shut up and" rules would go a long way towards making anyone's behavior more professional.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:51 PM on June 24, 2009 [11 favorites]

Repeated for emphasis, again:
Shut up and listen, shut up if you're not talking about work, shut up and let other people work.

If she can't find someone at work to watch and emulate, I suppose the West Wing will work (I've never seen it), but she should also practice pausing before reacting, pausing before speaking, pausing before firing up Facebook, pausing before picking up her cellphone. In that pause, she should ask herself if this is how Her Example Person would behave and answer the question honestly and behave accordingly.

If that fails, she should shut up and listen, shut up if she's not talking about work, shut up and let other people work, and ask questions without trying to explain why she isn't doing it wrong, or why she doesn't already know the answer, and without trying to pretend she does know the answer.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:15 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

One suggestion I haven't seen yet -- get a mentor -- either inside the company or outside. Someone that she trusts that can give her candid feedback about what is and isn't appropriate. Inside the company is best, IMHO, but perhaps riskier. Good mangers will provide mentoring and even the most ham-fisted manager will tell you what they want you to do. The most impactful mentoring I ever received was when my manager came into my cube, slammed his fist on the desk, and said "Goddammit! I am trying to make this a really cool team and I wish you would just stop leading people in the wrong direction!" Until that point I had never thought of myself as a leader.

If she doesn't understand what she's being told to do (or told to change), she should ask in a polite way. For instance, I was told to "be more strategic" by a couple of managers. I kept trying to "be more strategic" and I kept getting the same feedback. It wasn't until I told my manager what I was doing that I thought was being more strategic, that he was able to tell me what he wanted to see me doing differently.
posted by elmay at 3:53 PM on June 24, 2009

This may not apply to your friend because you didn't provide many specifics, so bear with me. I've noticed that a lot of college age people these days have the attitude of, "I'm gonna be who I am, I'm gonna be honest about it, and I'm not gonna hide it or apologize for it!" Which is a great sign of self esteem, but sometimes people like that don't realize the unfortunate truth that you can't always be yourself. The different tasks we have to perform in life sometimes require different roles and yes, different faces. You don't talk to your grandma the way you talk to your girl friends (usually), you don't talk to your brother the way you talk to your boyfriend (I hope), and for the most part you don't talk to your boss and co-workers the way you talk to people you meet at the bar.
posted by paralith at 3:55 PM on June 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

I don't think dyslexia is at the root of this. It's possible that she has auditory and or language processing disorder (often caused by dyslexia), and that would hinder her social skills somewhat. However, you say she has the tendency to be "a little over the line," and while I'm not sure what that means exactly, it doesn't sound consistent with the social skills that would be a result of APD/LPD. Again, I really don't know what her specific problem is, so perhaps you're talking about her being defensive?

There are tons of " a little over the line" social issues that people can exhibit in the workplace, and without knowing hers, it's difficult to figure out the best way for you to help her.

For instance, I have a relative who is good at her job, has been in her industry for 15 years, but she's constantly held back at every company because of social issues. She is incredibly competitive, beyond what is healthy. She's spiteful and doesn't really approach competition at work as being her best, she approaches it from a perspective of having to beat [insert coworker]. This clouds her behavior in meetings and all sorts of things. Bad situation. This "trait" has been the cause of several "mutual" partings and one termination. While she can identify the root of the problem (jealousy, competitiveness), she can't seem to identify a solution to how to deal with this in a productive way, and how to communicate with coworkers who she does see as competition, or managers who don't always see her input as gold-star, pat-on-the-head worthy. Oddly, she's in the communications industry, and she's good at it.

I have another relative who is incredibly insecure, but instead of being meek or shy, she's unbelievably aggressive. She's also passive aggressive. She's not the best at her job, prone to making careless mistakes and that sort of thing. When she makes mistakes, instead of accepting it and moving on, she'll either try to defend herself like crazy, or she'll walk away like a wounded dog and be passive aggressive, giving coworkers, or even her boss (eek!) the silent treatment or shooting them dirty looks. This has cost her a lot of jobs, she's an admin/executive assistant and that sort of behavior is especially bad in that position. She's aware of what she's doing, but she's not quite convinced that she's in the wrong or behaving unprofessionally.

These are just two of MANY examples. At the end of the day, generic professionalism training is not going to help your friend. Neither is watching the west wing is she has questionable professionalism, some of the characters can be a bit raw and ranty, and some of their bad behaviors might be processed as justification for her own bad behavior, rather than her zoning in on the good behavior she should emulate. So, my advice is to figure out a pattern in her "over the line" behavior, help her identify when she's doing it and the right way to behave in that situation. Or help her figure these things out and then hand her over to an employment psychologist (not the exact term, might be labor psychologist? the exact term escapes me). This really helped the relative in the first example figure out where she was going wrong, unfortunately, she lost her job (and ability to afford therapy) before they got to the solution part of the therapy.

Maybe I'm reading more into this than what's actually there. If it's just a matter of your friend being loud, course, providing TMI and generally treating work like it's a club she gets paid to go to, that sort of behavior is really easy to identify and help sort out.
posted by necessitas at 4:41 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is she giving off any questionable visual or audio cues? I constantly get slammed for appearing tired/sad/bored/angry when I am not, or even when I am exactly the opposite. It's an affect issue. It's also a physical issue - my mouth turns down at the corners. Rosacea and other derm issues contribute to the problem. I also sigh when I am not conscious of it.

Adding my signature sarcasm and eye-rolls (which are certainly conscious decisions) to the above (unchosen-but-there issues) really piles on.

Does she have impulse-control problems? You can far too easily ruin your professional life this way -- again and again.

Advice I was given long ago: be nice to everyone, keep your mouth shut, do your work, and mind your own business.

I recommend checking out Your Own Worst Enemy. Also, there are a number of titles of that sort on Amazon; perhaps one will be helpful.

It's rough when you are clueless about what the problem is, especially if it is an affect issue.
And, Thirty Days to a Good Job helped me a lot. It was really the only job-seeking book that had anything new to say to me.

Best of luck to her, and kudos to you for trying to be helpful!
posted by jgirl at 5:11 PM on June 24, 2009

Another West Wing lesson: different communication modes for different situations. He might have been Jed in private, but he was always Mr. President in public. That's something that I see all the time as probably one of the biggest unprofessional screwups- not knowing the difference, and plain old just getting too personal and familiar with people.
posted by gjc at 5:52 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

As several other posters have mentioned it is difficult to give advice due to lack of specifics, but a few things that might be helpful are: do not overshare (particularly regarding one's personal life), learn how to read co-workers' tone/affect, and only offer your opinion when directly asked (and even then, temper it as a suggestion).

Something to keep in mind regarding affect is that even though a co-worker's tone may seem abrupt, the issue may not even be about you. Unless there is a recurring coldness towards me, I have learned to assume that the person is probably just in a temporarily bad mindset, so I don't take offense.

Another piece of advice that I have offered people is that when your boss makes a decision, do not view it as an attempt to debate or offer your opinion. I'm not saying that you should agree with every decision made by your supervisor, but at the end of the day they are in charge and may have information of which you are not aware, so it's better to keep quiet than to voice an uninformed or naive opinion, which can make one appear unprofessional.
posted by macska at 6:27 PM on June 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing the "dyslexia isn't the real problem" bit.

Learning office tact requires observational abilities as well. The inability to decipher social cues can be completely deal-breaking in the workplace, as your friend is discovering. But...

Thing is, smart and normal people usually pick up nonverbal cues and behavioral patterns from coworkers fairly quickly. If she's had a can't-figure-out-this-social-situation problem for a very long time... It kinda makes me think of Asperger's syndrome.

It's one thing to take a business seminar oriented to learning manners, but sometimes the root might be deeper, especially if it's a long-standing pattern of behaviors. Something to consider, anyway.
posted by Ky at 6:55 PM on June 24, 2009

We used to have interns in the large IT shop where I worked. These are a few of the things that drove everyone nuts, made sure some of them never got asked for another work term and they apply everywhere:
- rudeness: I know your job better than you even though I've only finished n courses and have never worked in the field before and don't know your installation, but I'm going to tell you how you're doing things all wrong. Just wait til you need this person to help you.

- it's not my job: doing half a job and walking away from it, eg., leaving machines down and going for lunch or replacing hardware and walking away without testing or making sure that the software was properly installed. Adding insult by telling the person without service to figure it out himself. This is making a crisis where there was none.

- when all else fails lie or blame someone else: I've caught people lying about testing things that they didn't test at the risk of having a large production system come down, about who did what change, about changing things that shouldn't have been touched, about whether a network was working or not. There's no reason to lie, esp when everyone is trying to fix a problem and just makes you look untrustworthy.

- gossiping and denigrating other people in the office: no one wants to work with someone like this.

Your friend may not be doing any of these things, but, to me, they are all symptoms of the me first and last attitude that a lot of newbies have (and some oldies, too.) Nthing the several recommendations to shut up and to see about the PDP (wonderful idea!)
posted by x46 at 8:33 PM on June 24, 2009

The very best way to destroy your friend's confidence and self-esteem, and possibly your friendship, is to say, "Hey, it's not like you were stigmatized enough in school, so I want to point out: Dyslexics have problems with social skills."

The problem is not dyslexia. The problem is being 21.
posted by Houstonian at 3:03 AM on June 25, 2009

Houstonian: At the same time, as a person in a professional setting over ten years younger than the next youngest employees, ageist attitudes are pretty pervasive (it's incredibly frustrating to be unable to connect with employees or face giggles from older folks regarding every topic from family and friends to pop culture around the water cooler). It's not necessarily age that is the problem. Those who are older are not by default without reproach, and those who are younger are not by default at a disadvantage. It's partly a communication issue between the generations.

There are a number of great articles on age diversity in the workplace (do a bit of searching using age diversity and millenials/boomers as key search terms). My HR Web site has a wealth of information on this topic and I've found it very helpful. This may be part of the issue.
posted by theraflu at 5:12 AM on June 25, 2009

Datapoint: The people who are less professional and get held back from further opportunities at my workplace are usually older than the average employee, not younger.
One thing is that as a 21-year-old, no matter how good her ideas are, or how good she is at her job, in many workplaces, people will treat her as a 21-year-old. Her ideas won't be respected as much, and she'll be thought to be out of turn if she speaks up above someone older, even if she's right. She may need to learn to keep a lid on it, even if she knows what she's doing/saying is correct, in order to appease her older superiors and coworkers.
posted by ishotjr at 6:55 AM on June 25, 2009

One rule of thumb for behavior is "Would I want my mother to see this on the nightly news?" Depending on the office, that may be more or less appropriate, but the key is considering your audience for everything - and assuming your audience is more conservative than you are.


Being rather inexperienced and fairly new in my job, I told a story at lunch the other day which I realised far too late was massively inappropriate. I don't think I will be eating lunch with those colleagues for a while. I really, really wish I had known this rule of thumb before I opened my mouth.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 6:44 AM on June 26, 2009

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