It is important to always do your best to maintain your level of professionalism within the working environment and when with colleagues. That is not to say you shouldn’t relax when going for a few drinks after work or on a team-building day, etc., but be mindful that these people are your colleagues first and friends second (if at all).
It’s all well and good to get on really well with your colleagues and superiors — in fact, it is very conducive to creating a pleasant work environment — but it is more important that they respect your abilities as a professional. After all, would you rather have a colleague who you could have a great time with but was unreliable, or one that was competent and could be trusted to get things done?
Unfortunately, dealing with unprofessional people at work is just a fact of life, which is why I have created this guide to offer some helpful tips on how to survive.
How to Deal with Unprofessional Colleagues
In all cases of unprofessional conduct, there are some steps that will be helpful whatever the nature of that conduct.
Lead by Example
Sometimes people just don’t know how to behave in a professional manner, which is why you should try to subtly point them in the right direction. The first step in this plan is to ensure your own behavior is up to a high standard — punctual, appropriately dressed, polite, good work ethic, etc.
Follow that up by:
If they are still not getting it, then a more direct approach might be required — quietly drawing them aside and raising your concerns.
If the consequences could be serious and your colleague refuses to change, what next? Your only recourse is to involve your supervisor. Even then, you should do this in a way that seeks a workable solution rather than punitive action against your colleague.
This, of course, is no solution when the unprofessional colleague is your boss. Making others outside your work team aware of the problem is usually described as whistleblowing. This is too big a topic to cover here, but it would appear that this is less and less frowned on given some recent major corporate disasters.
One less hazardous approach in such a situation is to talk with other workmates who might be sympathetic to discussing whatever is concerning you. If two or three of you feel the same concern, then you may find a way of bringing this up with higher management.
Dealing with some Common Unprofessional Practices
Taking a professional approach to your work is appropriate in almost every field. The consequences of flouting the rules can have varying impacts and may occur over various timescales. Even though in some cases you personally may gain little from achieving better professional practices, the effort may be worthwhile if it will have a beneficial effect for others.
Quite different principles apply if the unprofessional conduct is exhibited by a colleague at the same level in the organization or by your supervisor. We will discuss the differences in the next two sections.
Problems with your Peers
These unprofessional conduct cases are much more easily handled when you are dealing with someone at the same level of the organization as you are. All that may be needed is a conversation where you indicate your concern in a non-judgmental way. Between reasonable people this may be all that it takes.
A Colleague You Don't Like or Who Doesn't Like You
Sometimes the chemistry between yourself and a colleague is not good. By being cheery and civil on every occasion, you may find you can establish a more neutral atmosphere in your contacts. Even if you hold different opinions, with a degree of mutual respect, you may both be able to agree to differ.
If a colleague does not have the skills to do the job, this can be an extremely difficult situation. If, with a little help from you, they can improve their capabilities, then this is an ideal path. If their performance falls seriously short of what the job demands, then your only recourse is to talk with your joint supervisor. It is never easy to “rat” on a colleague, but if the unprofessional conduct could have serious consequences, then there are few other options.
Colleagues Who are Frequently Late or Rude or Who Dress Inappropriately
Sometimes an individual may be unaware of how their behavior or appearance affects other people. If a one-on-one private chat can diplomatically pass an appropriate message, this is the ideal solution.
Colleagues who Take Credit for Your Work
If it is possible that a colleague could attempt to take credit for your work, then the best defense is to publicize progress on your project as it proceeds. In this way, everyone will be aware of who is really achieving results.
If, despite this, your colleague continues to claim credit, then you should have a private meeting with him or her to set the record straight. If the matter is particularly important, then you should insist on a public retraction and take more public actions if this is not forthcoming.
Problems with Your Boss
As discussed in the previous section, it is never easy to appear to be criticizing some other individual as you attempt to give them what you hope is helpful advice. When it is your boss who needs to hear the message, the problems are an order of magnitude more difficult. You may encounter any of the problems mentioned above just as easily with a boss as with a peer. Two particular problems are worthy of note.
Some superiors are quite blatant in showing favoritism to particular workers. This is particularly difficult to counter. However, by making sure that you are well-liked by your team and that your successes are well known, then you maximize the chance that this will not be a problem for you.
An Incompetent Boss
An incompetent boss could be a problem, but may also represent an opportunity. If you can offer assistance that will help them be seen in a better light, then this will improve your standing in the organization.
If their incompetence could affect your own reputation, then more serious action is needed. Have full documentation to support your position and request a private meeting to discuss the best way of finding a satisfactory solution.
If All Else Fails
Sometimes these problems can be almost unsolvable. You should always be realistic about the possible energy and time needed for a solution and also what might be the best outcome you could achieve. This review may well convince you that you should quietly look elsewhere for a job that will give you greater satisfaction. In doing this, you should do everything possible to make a graceful exit.
This article could not have been written without the help of Jenny and Lorraine at Workfish.
Josh Hansen writes on a wide range of employment topics, mainly focusing on the impact digital has had on careers.
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