Professionalism: the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person (Merriam-Webster.com). The definition is straightforward enough, or so one would think. However, there seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding of this basic concept in the modern world. We ask for professionalism in our employees, managers, and public service workers. We expect our doctors, nurses, police officers, and politicians to “act professionally,” but do we really know what that means?
When we interact with a supposed “professional,” we expect a certain demeanor. We want them to treat us with courtesy and respect. We listen for those important little words such as please and thank you. We also expect a certain degree of knowledge and empathy. Why then, do so many of these so-called professionals seem to lack these basic traits? When I worked as a nurse, I expected my nurse management to be knowledgeable in the specialty for which they managed as well as empathetic and trustworthy toward their subordinates. However, I frequently found the opposite to be true. Have you ever worked for someone and wondered “how in the world did this person qualify for management?” More often than not, my nurse managers were rude, overbearing, incompetent, and overall unapproachable.
I find this becoming more prevalent in other professions as well. Police officers are a prime example. Over the past decade or so, law enforcement officers have been publicized for acting anything but professional. Has professional police conduct become defined as over-reacting to situations, jumping to conclusions, intimidating and overall bullying the general populace?
What about retail and hospitality management? As a nurse working in the emergency room, I have encountered many retail and other public service employees misusing the healthcare system in order to obtain a “doctor’s note” excusing them from work due to fevers, sore throats, and otherwise general malaise. Working in the retail field, I have also seen many of my co-workers coerced into performing unsafe tasks due to management’s insistence. Isn’t it more professional for a manager to ensure their underlings’ health and safety over “just getting the job done?”
Doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, etc. also act in a more than questionable manner. So many of the nurses, social workers, and doctors I have worked with would gossip at length about their weekend barhopping exploits and overwhelming needs for wine, beer, etc. due to increased amounts of workplace stress directly in front of patients and their families as well as lower level employees such as nurse aides and unit secretaries. I don’t know about you, but I for one would not feel too comfortable listening to my nurse explain how she drank a little too much the night prior as she is attempting to initiate my IV line. I’ve had run ins with lawyers and teachers who seem to believe that intimidation is a respectable asset. Is it really that respectable to demean and coerce others into compliance?
Even simple acts of courtesy seem to be lost these days. How many times have you interviewed for a job and then never heard anything back for weeks or even months? What about the rude, assumptive attitudes of secretaries answering phones or cashiers ringing out your purchases? How many sales representatives and cleaners have knocked on your door or shown up to your business or home without even a uniform?
Our ancestors lived in eras where people of authority were expected to conduct themselves with a certain level of competence and respectability and for the most part, they did. In 1952 for example, if a police officer pulled you over, you could be fairly certain that you had been performing some sort of unsafe or illegal activity. You could also be certain that said officer would treat you with common courtesy and maybe even instruct you on how to avoid a similar infraction in the future. Teachers were employed to teach. The job required a certain level of ingenuity, empathy, and patience toward all manners of learning styles. Nurses and doctors were expected to care for their patients without bias or oversharing snippets of their personal lives as if sex and alcoholism were normal occurrences in everyone’s lives. You knew that your neighbor was a lawncare specialist because he wore a uniform.
I am by no means saying that those who hold professional titles cannot be stoic and authoritative or that these individuals cannot indulge in after-hours vices. It takes a great deal of personal strength to be able to handle most of these jobs. However, we should strive toward a society where managers are empathetic experts in their field of management and police officers are respectable authorities with the sole purpose of ensuring safety without passing judgement or bullying others into submission. We need a society where doctors and nurses “practice what they preach” and remain conscious of how they are conducting themselves in front of their patients. Teachers need to learn to accept children for their differing learning styles and be able to assist those students to excel in their studies rather than bully them into a cookie cutter mold of the perfect student. We need to stop being afraid of the consequences of offending others. We need to re-think our current definition of professionalism and understand that if you are deemed a professional, it is for good reason and you should always conduct yourself accordingly because you are an authority in your field. You are a figure who is looked up to and should strive for a level of respect that no one can cast doubt upon.