Professionalism, Etiquette, and Ethical Behavior
Professional etiquette is centered on others. Our attitudes and behaviors create an impression of who we are and what we represent. The author discusses some behavioral traits successful professionals share. Note the descriptions of social and emotional intelligence. What role does empathy play in interaction with others, and how can you avoid being tone-deaf in emotional situations?
Professional Behavior in the Workplace
We have said from the beginning that professional communication must always cater to the audience. This is true especially in face-to-face interactions where, unlike with written communication, you can assess audience reaction in real time and adjust your message accordingly. This places the responsibility of behaving professionally in the workplace solely on you. When we speak of professional behavior, we mean the following aspects that generally fall under the banner of soft skills:
- Social Intelligence
- Emotional Intelligence
- Social Graces
We will consider these aspects in more detail throughout this subsection, but first we will spend some time on the personality traits of successful professionals.
We must be careful with how we define success when we speak of personality, however. Those who lack the soft skills associated with the above aspects are difficult to work with and are usually demoted or fired. In rare instances, cruel, selfish, arrogant, narcissistic, or sociopathic people rise to positions of power through a combination of enablers tolerating or even rewarding their anti-social behavior and their own lying, cheating, and bullying.
This is an unfortunate reality that is difficult to watch, but it is important that the rest of us avoid being enablers. It is also important that we do not let their bad example lead us into thinking that such behavior is right. It is not, and the proof is the suffering it spreads among people in their sphere of influence. For every horrible person who moves up the corporate ladder, there will be a trail of broken, bitter, and vengeful people in their wake. The loathing most people feel towards such people proves the importance of conducting ourselves otherwise.
The Five Qualities of a Successful Professional
A persistent idea within the field of psychology is that there are five basic personality traits, often known as the "Big Five" or by the acronyms OCEAN or CANOE. Each trait contains within it a sliding scale that describes how we behave in certain situations. The five are as follows:
- Openness to experience: curious and innovative vs. cautious and consistent.
- Conscientiousness: goal-driven and detail-oriented vs. casual and careless.
- Extroversion: outgoing and enthusiastic vs. solitary and guarded.
- Agreeableness: cooperative and flexible vs. defiant and stubborn.
- Neuroticism: anxious and volatile vs. confident and stable.
Except for neuroticism, most of the traits as named correlate with professional success. Researchers have found that successful people are generally organized, innovative, outgoing, cooperative, and stable, although extroverts do not do as well as introverts on individual tasks and agreeableness does not necessarily lead to a high salary (Spurk & Abele, 2010; Neal et al., 2011).
Blending these with Guffey, Loewy, and Almonte's six dimensions of professional behavior in Essentials of Business Communication (2016) and putting our own spin on these ideas, Table 10.2.1.1 below presents a guide for how generally to be successful in your job, how to be well liked, and how to be happy. Consider it also a checklist for how to be a decent human being.
Table 1: The Five Qualities of a Successful Professional
Source: Guffey, Loewy, & Almonte (2016, p. 309: Figure 10.1)
Civility simply means behaving respectfully towards everyone you interact with. Being civilized means following the golden rule: treat others as you expect to be treated yourself. The opposite of civility is being rude and aggressive, which creates conflict and negatively affects productivity in the workplace because it creates a so-called chilly climate or a toxic work environment. Such a workplace makes people uncomfortable, miserable, or angry – not emotions normally conducive to people doing their best work.
In the decades you have been immersed in the various cultures you have passed through, you have come to understand the (often unspoken) rules of decent social interaction. Having social intelligence means following those rules to cooperate and get along with others, especially in conversation.
This includes reading nonverbal cues so that you know:
- How and when to initiate conversation.
- When it's your turn to speak and when to listen in order to keep a conversation going.
- What to say and what not say.
- How to say what you mean in a manner that will be understood by your audience.
- When and how to use humor effectively and when not to.
- How and when to end conversation gracefully.
People who lack social intelligence, perhaps because they missed opportunities to develop conversational skills in their formative school years, come off as awkward in face-to-face conversation. They typically fail to interpret correctly nonverbal cues that say "Now it is your turn to speak" or "Okay, I am done with this conversation; let's wrap it up".
It is difficult to interact with such people either because they make you do all the work keeping the conversation going or do not let you speak and keep going long after you wanted it to stop, forcing you to be slightly rude in ending it abruptly. Like any other type of intelligence, however, social intelligence can be developed through an understanding of the principles of good conversation (see above) and practice.
Like social intelligence, emotional intelligence (EI) involves being a good reader of people in social contexts, being able to distinguish different emotions, and knowing what to do about them with regard to others and yourself. Strong EI means knowing how a person is likely to react to what you are about to say and adjusting your message accordingly, and then adjusting again according to how they actually react.
Though we often hide our inner emotional state – smiling and looking happy when we are feeling down, or wearing a neutral "poker face" to mask our excitement – in professional situations, EI enables us to get a sense of what others are actually feeling despite how they appear. It involves reading subtle nonverbal signals such as eye movements, facial expressions and fleeting micro-expressions (Ekman, 2017), posture, hands, and body movements for how they betray inner feelings different from the outward show.
Beyond merely reading people, however, EI also requires knowing how to act, such as empathizing when someone is upset – even if they are trying to hide it and show strength – because you recognize that you would be upset yourself if you were in their position (see below for more on empathy).
Every interaction you have is colored by emotion – both yours and the person or people you interact with. Though most routine interactions in the workplace are on the neutral-to-positive end of the emotional spectrum, some dip into the red – anywhere from slightly upset and a little sad to downright furious or suicidal. Whether you keep those emotions below the surface or let them erupt like a volcano depends on your self-control and the situation. Expressing such emotions in the workplace requires the good judgment represented by the 3 T's:
- Tact: Recognizing that what you say has a meaningful impact, tact involves the careful choice of words to achieve intended effects. In a sensitive situation where your audience is likely to be upset, for instance, tact requires that
you use calming and positive words to reduce your message's harmful impact (see above on negative messages). When you are upset, tact likewise involves self-restraint so that you do not unleash the full fury of what you are feeling if
it would be inappropriate. When emotions are running high, it is important to recognize that they are just thoughts that come and go, and that you may need some additional time to process information when you are in a different emotional state
before communicating about it.
- Timing: There is a time and place for expressing your emotions. Expressing your anger when you are at the height of your fury might be a bad move if it moves you to say things you will later regret. Waiting to cool down so that
you can tactfully express your disappointment will get the best results if it's an important matter. If it is a trivial matter, however, waiting to realize that it is not worth the effort can save you the trouble of dealing with the fallout of
a strong and regrettable reaction.
- Trust: You must trust that the person you share your feelings with will respect your privacy and keep whatever you say confidential or at least not use it against you.
By considering these 3 T's, you can better manage the expression of your own emotions and those of the people you work with and for in the workplace (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 14.6).
Like those who lack social intelligence, those who lack emotional intelligence can often be difficult to work with and offensive, often without meaning to be. When someone fails to understand the emotional "vibe" of their audience (fails to "read the room"), we say that they are "tone deaf". This can be a sign of immaturity because it takes years to develop EI through extensive socialization in your school years and beyond, including learning how and why people take offense to what you say.
Someone who jokes openly about another's appearance in front of them and an audience, for instance, either fails to understand the hurt feelings of the person who is the butt of the joke or does not care. Either way, people like this are a liability in the workplace because their offense establishes an environment dominated by insecurity – where employees are afraid that they will be picked on as if this were the elementary school playground. They will not do their best work in such a "chilly climate" or toxic environment.
Social graces include all the subtle behavioral niceties that make you likable. They include manners such as being polite, etiquette (e.g., dining etiquette), and your style of dress and accessories. We will explore most of these in the following section, but for now we can list some of the behaviors associated with social graces:
- Saying please when asking someone to do something.
- Saying thank you when given something you accept.
- Saying no, thank you, but thanks for the offer when offered something you refuse.
- Complimenting someone for a something they have done well.
- Speaking positively about others and refraining from negative comments.
- Smiling often.
- Being a good listener.
Of course, there is much more to social graces, but let's focus now on specific situations in which social graces are expressed.
Etiquette is a code of behavior that extends to many aspects of how we present ourselves in social situations. We have examined this throughout this guide in specific written applications (e.g., using a well-mannered, courteous style of writing, such as saying please when asking someone to do something). Though we will examine specific applications of etiquette associated with various channels (e.g., telephone) throughout this chapter, we will focus on dining etiquette and dress.
If you are invited out for a lunch by a manager, it is probably not just a lunch. They will assess how refined you are in your manners so that they know whether they can put you in front of clients doing the same and not embarrass the company. Though it may not be obvious, they will observe whether you use your utensils correctly, chew with your mouth closed, wait till your mouth is empty before speaking or cover your mouth with your hand if you must speak while chewing, and how you position your cutlery when you are done. Why does any of this matter?
Though all of this seems like it has nothing to do with the quality of work, it shows the extent to which you developed fastidious habits and self-awareness. Someone who chews with their mouth open, for instance, either lacks the self-awareness to know that people tend to be disgusted by the sight of food being chewed, or does not care what people think. Either way, that lack of self-awareness can lead to behaviors that will ruin their reputation, as well as that of the company they represent.
Dressing Appropriately for the Workplace
When we hear the word uniform, we often think of a very specific style such as what a police officer or nurse wears. In a general sense, however, we all wear uniforms of various styles in whatever professional or institutional environment we participate in. Dressing appropriately in those situations and in the workplace specifically has everything to do with meeting expectations. In an office environment, clients, coworkers, and managers expect to see employees in either suits or a business-casual style of dress depending on the workplace. In such situations, conformity is the order of the day, and breaking the dress code can be a serious infraction.
Though some infractions are becoming less serious in many places because the general culture is becoming more accepting of tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair as more and more people use these to express themselves, you might need to be careful. Consider the following points:
- Tattoos: Though a significant proportion of the population has tattoos and therefore they are more acceptable across the board, overly conspicuous tattoos are still considered taboo. Tattoos on the face, neck, or hands, for instance,
are considered risky because of their association with prison and gang branding. Tattoos that can be covered by a long-sleeved shirt with a collar and slacks are a safe bet. However, if you have tattoos on your forearms depicting scenes of explicit
sex or violence, consider either getting them removed or never rolling up your sleeves if you want to get hired and keep your job.
- Piercings: Of course, earrings are de rigueur for women and acceptable on men as well. However, earlobe stretching and piercings on the nasal septum or lips are still generally frowned upon in professional settings. Any
serious body modification along these lines is acceptable in certain subcultures, but not in most workplaces.
- Dyed hair: As with tattoos and piercings, hair dye is becoming more acceptable generally, but extreme expression is inadvisable in any traditional workplace. Where customer expectations are rigid (e.g., in a medical office), seeing someone with bright pink hair will give the impression of an amateur operation rather than a legitimate health care facility.
Because conformity is the determining factor of acceptability in proper attire in any particular workplace, the best guide for how to dress when you are not given a specific uniform is what everyone else wears. Observe closely their style and build a wardrobe along those lines. If the fashion is slacks with a belt that matches the color of your shoes and a long-sleeve, button-up, collared shirt for men and a full-length skirt and blouse for women, do the same (Feloni, Lee, & Cain, 2018).
Respectful Workplaces in the #MeToo Era
Most of what we have been saying in this chapter and throughout this guide focuses on how we should behave to be effective, respected professionals in our respective workplaces. Unfortunately, this is not what we always see in actual workplaces. Misbehavior is rampant and is especially harmful when it's harassment of a sexual nature. The broader culture took a hopeful step forward toward more respectful workplaces in 2017–2018 with the rise of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements.
Though initially a response to high-profile sexual assault cases in the entertainment industry where perpetrators often went unpunished for decades, #MeToo activists successfully brought the movement to the broader culture via social media. After the outrage of the former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi's acquittal for sexual assault charges (Gollom, 2016), Canada was ripe for a cultural shift against its own issues with rape culture generally and toleration of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Encouraged by a series of public accusations, firings, and resignations of prominent men in the entertainment, media, and political arenas throughout North America, women everywhere were encouraged to challenge widespread toleration of common sexual harassment and assault by reporting incidents to their employers and speaking out to shame everyday offenders in social media. For those who were unaware, it revealed the troubling extent of sexual harassment even in supposedly "nice" Canadian workplaces.
The Prevalence of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
According to Doing Our Duty: Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA, 2018a), "sexual harassment in the workplace is an epidemic that has been allowed to persist" for too long (p. 5). In a survey of nearly a thousand HRPA members in Ontario, 43% of women said they have been sexually harassed in the workplace, and about four-fifths said they did not report it to their employers (p. 12). In a separate online survey of 2000 Canadians nationwide, 34% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace and 12% of men, and nearly 40% of those say it involved someone who had a direct influence over their career success (Navigator, 2018, p. 5).
These perceptions are completely out of step with what top executives believe, with 95% of 153 surveyed Canadian CEOs and CFOs confirming that sexual harassment is not a problem in their workplaces (Gandalf Group, 2017, p. 9). Clearly there are differences of opinion between those who experience sexual harassment on the floor and those in the executive suites who are responsible for the safety of their employees, and much of the confusion may have to do with how sexual harassment is defined.
What is Sexual Harassment?
The Canada Labour Code's definition of sexual harassment is quite broad, but oriented more toward the perception of the person offended than the intentions of the offender. Though there is nothing wrong with discrete flirtation between two consenting adults on break at work, a line is crossed as soon as one of them – or third-party observers – feels uncomfortable with actions or talk of sexual nature. According to Provision 241.1 of the Code, sexual harassment means any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offense or humiliation to any employee, or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion. (Government of Canada, 1985, p. 214)
The Code clarifies that all employees have a right to conduct their work without being harassed (241.2), but what does that look like in practice?
For help with understanding what specific behaviors constitute sexual harassment, the City of Toronto's Human Rights Office's 2017 "Sexual Harassment in the Workplace" guide lists the following 21 examples of offenses that have had their day in court:
- Making unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching (e.g., stroking hair, demanding hugs, or rubbing a person's back).
- Invading personal space.
- Using language that puts someone down because of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
- Using sex-specific derogatory names, homophobic or transphobic epithets, slurs, or jokes.
- Leering or inappropriate staring.
- Gender related comments about a person's physical characteristics or mannerisms, comments that police or reinforce traditional heterosexual gender norms.
- Targeting someone for not following sex-role stereotypes (e.g., comments made to a female for being in a position of authority).
- Showing or sending pornography, sexual images, etc. (e.g., pinning up an image of a naked man in the bathroom).
- Making sexual jokes, including forwarding sexual jokes by email.
- Rough or vulgar language related to gender (e.g., "locker-room talk").
- Spreading sexual rumors, "outing" or threatening to out someone who is LGBTQ2S (e.g., sending an email to colleagues about an affair between a supervisor and another employee).
- Making suggestive or offensive comments about members of a specific gender.
- Sexually propositioning a person.
- Bragging about sexual prowess.
- Asking questions about sexual preferences, fantasies, or activities.
- Demanding dates or sexual favors.
- Verbally abusing, threatening, or taunting someone based on gender.
- Threatening to penalize or punish a person who refuses to comply with sexual advances.
- Intrusive comments, questions or insults about a person's body, physical characteristics, gender-related medical procedures, clothing, mannerisms, or other forms of gender expression.
- Refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name or proper personal pronoun, or requiring a person to prove their gender.
- Circulating or posting of homophobic, transphobic, derogatory or offensive signs, caricatures, graffiti, pictures, or other materials.
The guide explains that any such behaviors involving professional colleagues in the physical or online workspace, as well as offsite outside of normal hours (e.g., work parties or community events), should be reported without fear of reprisal (City of Toronto, 2017, pp. 2-3).
How to Make the Workplace More Respectful
Though the Canada Labour Code places the responsibility of ensuring a harassment-free workplace squarely on the employer (Provision 247.3), all employees must do their part to uphold one another's right to work free of harassment. At the very least, everyone should avoid any of the 21 specific examples of sexual harassment listed above, even in the context of lighthearted banter. Employees everywhere should be held to a higher standard, however, which the HRPA advocates in the following recommendations:
- All companies must have a stand-alone sexual harassment and assault policy, as required by the Labour Code.
- All employees must familiarize themselves with their company's sexual harassment policy, which should include guidance on how to report instances of harassment.
- All companies must conduct training sessions on their sexual harassment policy, including instruction on what to do when harassed or witnessing harassment, and all employees must participate.
Of course, experiencing harassment places the victim in a difficult position with regard to their job security, as does witnessing it and the duty to report. The situation is even more complicated if the perpetrator has the power to promote, demote, or terminate the victim's or witness's employment. If you find yourself in such a situation, seeking the confidential advice of an ombudsperson or person in a similar counseling role should be your first recourse. Absent these internal protections, consider seeking legal counsel.
If you witness sexual or other types of harassment, what should you do? The following guide may help:
- If it is safe for you to do so, try recording video the incident on your smartphone. The mere presence of the phone may act as a deterrent to further harassment. If not, however, a record of the incident will be valuable in the post-incident pursuit of justice.
- If you can play any additional role in stopping the harassment before it continues, try to get the attention of the person being harassed and ask them if they want support and what exactly you can do.
- If it is welcome from the victim and safe for both you and them, try to place yourself between them and the attacker. If the victim is handling the attack in their own way, respect their choice.
- If the harassment continues, try to de-escalate the situation non-violently by explaining to the offender that the one being harassed has a right to work in peace. Only resort to violence if it's defensive.
- After a safe resolution, follow up with the person being harassed about what you can do for them (American Friends Service Committee, 2016).
Of course, every harassment situation is different and requires quick-thinking action that maintains the safety of all involved. The important thing, however, is to be act as an ally to the person being harassed. The biggest takeaway from the development of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements is that a workplace culture that permits sexual harassment will only end if we all do our part to ensure that offenses no longer go unreported and unpunished.
Speaking Ethically and Avoiding Fallacies
When we discussed persuasive messages earlier, we focused on best practices without veering much into what's considered offside in the art of persuasion. When we consider ethical behavior in the workplace, it's worth revisiting the topic of persuasion so that we can address how not to persuade. In other words, how can we avoid manipulating someone in professional situations so that they don't later feel like they were taken advantage of.
In the context of communication, manipulation is the management of facts, ideas or points of view to play upon people's insecurities or to use emotional appeals to one's own advantage. Though emotional appeals were part of the rhetorical triangle discussed earlier, they cross the line into manipulation when motivated by an attempt to do something against the best interests of the audience, which expects that you treat them with respect. Deliberately manipulating them by inciting fear or guilt is unethical. Likewise, deception is unethical because it uses lies, partial truths, or the omission of relevant information to deceive. No one likes to be lied to or led to believe something that isn't true. Deception can involve intentional bias or the selection of information to support your position while negatively framing any information that might challenge your audience's belief.
Other unethical behaviors with respect to an audience such as a workplace team include coercion and bribery.
Coercion is the use of power to make someone do something they would not choose to do freely. It usually involves threats of punishment, which get results at least while the "stick" is present, but results in hatred towards the coercing person or group and hence a toxic work environment.
Bribery, which is offering something in return for an expected favor, is similarly unethical because it sidesteps normal, fair protocol for personal gain at the audience's expense. When the rest of the team finds out that they lost out on opportunities because someone received favors for favors, an atmosphere of mistrust and animosity – hallmarks of a toxic work environment – hangs over the workplace.
Eleven Unethical Persuasive Techniques
Though you may be tempted to do anything to achieve the result of convincing someone to act in a way that benefits you and your company or organization, certain techniques are inherently unethical. The danger in using them is that they will be seen for what they are – dishonest manipulation – and you will lose all credibility rather than achieve your goal. Just as we have a set of DOs for how to convince someone effectively in a decent way, we also have a set of DON'Ts for what not to do.
In Ethics in Human Communication, Richard Johannesen (1996) offers eleven points to consider when speaking persuasively.
- Use false, fabricated, misrepresented, distorted or irrelevant evidence to support arguments or claims.
- Intentionally use unsupported, misleading, or illogical reasoning.
- Represent yourself as an "expert" (or even informed) on a subject when you are not, as in the case of "mansplaining" (McClintock, 2016).
- Use irrelevant appeals to divert attention from the issue at hand.
- Ask your audience to link your idea or proposal to emotion-driven values, motives, or goals to which it is unrelated.
- Deceive your audience by concealing your real purpose, your self-interest, the group you represent, or your position as an advocate of a viewpoint.
- Distort, hide, or misrepresent the number, scope, intensity, or undesirable features of consequences or effects.
- Use "emotional appeals" that lack a supporting basis of evidence or reasoning.
- Oversimplify complex, multi-layered, nuanced situations into simplistic, two-valued, either/or, polar views or choices.
- Pretend certainty where tentativeness and degrees of probability would be more accurate.
- Advocate for something that you yourself do not believe in.
If you tried any of the above tricks and were found out by a critical-thinking audience, you risk irreparable damage to your reputation personally and that of your company.
Though you might think that the above guidelines wipe out most of a marketer's available techniques, in fact they leave plenty of room for creative argument following the model for persuasive argument outlined above. After all, the goal of any such argument in a professional situation is to achieve a mutually beneficial result, one where both you and your audience benefit by getting something you both want or need in a free and honest exchange. Your audience will appreciate your fair dealing as you build your credibility (or ethos in the rhetorical triangle terminology).
Logicians (experts on logic) have long pointed out a set of rhetorical tricks, called fallacies, that charlatans use to convince others of an argument that has no merit on its own. Though these fallacies are typically deceptive in nature, they still manage to convince many people in ways that undermine their own interests. Whenever you see anyone resorting to these tricks, you should probably be suspicious of what they're selling or getting you to support. To be ethical in the way you present arguments in professional situations and steer clear of being held under suspicion by a critical audience yourself, avoid the eight fallacies explored below in Table 2.
Table 2: Logical Fallacies to Avoid
|1. Red Herring||Any diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue, particularly by relating the issue to a common fear.||So-called "safe" injection sites in our neighborhood will mean that more dealers will set up shop, too, leading to more crime.|
|2. Straw Man||A weak argument set up to be easily refuted, distracting attention from stronger arguments||Safe injection sites will increase illegal drug use because it'll make those drugs easier to access, defeating the purpose of "harm reduction".|
|3. Begging the Question||Claiming the truth of the very matter in question, as if it were already an obvious conclusion.||Safe injection sites will not save anybody because addicts will continue to overdose with or without them.|
|4. Circular Argument||A proposition is used to prove itself, assuming the very thing it aims to prove (related to begging the question).||Once a junkie, always a junkie. No "harm reduction" approach will solve the opioid crisis.|
|5. Bandwagon (a.k.a. Ad Populum)||Appeals to a common belief of some people, often prejudicial, and states everyone holds this belief.||No one wants a safe injection site in their neighborhood because they do not care that much about the welfare of junkie criminals.|
|6. Ad Hominem||Stating that someone's argument is wrong solely because of something about them rather than about the argument itself.||The safe injection site advocate is a junkie himself. How can we trust him on issues of safety when every junkie lies as a matter of habit?|
|7. Non Sequitur||The conclusion does not follow from the premises.||Since this whole obsession with being politically correct began 30 years ago, people now think that even addicts are worthy of respect.|
|8. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc||Establish a cause-and-effect relationship where only a correlation exists.||The rise of liberal attitudes since the 1960s has led to higher rates of incarceration across the country.|
Source: Business Communication for Success, 2015, 14.6
Avoiding such false logic helps strengthen your own argument by compelling you to stay within the bounds of sound argumentative strategies such as those covered above.
The quality of any workplace culture depends on the ethical conduct of its leadership and employees, with everyone treating one another with respect and speaking responsibly.
Source: Jordan Smith, https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/communicationatwork/chapter/10-2-professionalism-etiquette-and-ethical-behaviour/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.