Whether you work alongside the office gossip or a co-worker who acts unethically, dealing with unprofessional people at work can mean having to increase your own professionalism. In some cases, you can manage unprofessional behavior by simply ignoring it and monitoring it from a distance, but in other cases, you may need to step in to protect your own workplace reputation.
Decide Whether to Ignore or Confront
When you are dealing with unprofessional behavior, consider whether it is more practical to ignore the behavior in question or confront your co-worker. Specifically, you might consider whether there is a practical way you can disengage from the unprofessional behaviors without compromising your workplace productivity or personal comfort. For example, if your workplace allows you to wear headphones, blocking out a co-worker by listening to soft music may be a good technique to disengage and focus on your work. However, if you must collaborate with a colleague and she constantly talks about personal issues or gets off topic, you may need to confront her behavior directly.
Disengage From Unprofessional Colleagues
In some cases, simply keeping your distance from unprofessional people at work can help you avoid problems and disengage. For example, avoiding unnecessary social interactions unrelated to your job may help you maintain a healthy professional distance. Likewise, not responding to an off-color joke may be enough to show your colleague that his behavior is unwelcome.
Confront the Colleague Constructively
If you decide to confront your co-worker's lack of professionalism, talk about the problematic behaviors or words, not the person. Using "I statements" can be a particularly effective way to confront the behavior without criticizing the person. For example, you might say, "I find it distracting when you play practical jokes in the office, and that makes it hard for me to do my job." Likewise, you might simply say, "I felt uncomfortable when you made the comment about our boss's appearance yesterday." By focusing on your reaction instead of labeling your co-worker as unprofessional, you may increase the likelihood that he will be receptive to your concerns.
Recording and Reporting
Keeping records of the unprofessional behavior from its outset can be helpful should the situation reach the level where you cannot resolve it yourself. When you keep records, write down the time and place along with a detailed statement about the unprofessional behavior, including what steps you have taken to address it. This will make reporting the behavior easier if it continues. If do you find that other resolution efforts have failed and you need to report your co-worker, explain to your supervisor how this lack of professionalism is affecting your work. For example, you might explain that when your co-worker comes to your desk and continues to talk, it decreases your productivity. When you talk to your supervisor, bring your records regarding the situation.
Addressing Unethical Behavior
In some instances, it may be necessary to report unprofessional behavior to both your employer and state licensing board if the individual is working in a regulated profession, according to the American Psychological Association article "Psychologists Helping Psychologists." For example, most medical professionals have codes of ethics they must -- by law -- follow. If a co-worker observes breaches in these ethical guidelines, she may have an obligation to report such behavior, particularly if it puts another person at risk. In situations involving ethics breaches, disengaging or confronting may not be advisable. However, since each profession has different ethical reporting and resolution guidelines, address your state's licensing board or supervisor if you are unsure about how to handle the situation.
- Employee Assistance Program, County of Santa Clara: Coworker Woes - Dealing with an Unprofessional Colleague
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: DHHS Workplace Harassment Training
- National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Workforce Management Office: Business Etiquette
- American Psychological Association: Psychologists Helping Psychologists
Anna Green has been published in the "Journal of Counselor Education and Supervision" and has been featured regularly in "Counseling News and Notes," Keys Weekly newspapers, "Travel Host Magazine" and "Travel South." After earning degrees in political science and English, she attended law school, then earned her master's of science in mental health counseling. She is the founder of a nonprofit mental health group and personal coaching service.
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