Are We Witnessing the Death of Professionalism? and If So, Should We Care?

Dana Brownlee

October 18, 2016

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A couple of weeks ago, I had an experience that I'd not had in more than a decade as a corporate trainer. I was teaching a leadership class for a group of millennials thought to be potential future leaders of a well-known Fortune 500 company. I'd taught this specific group a different topic earlier and found them to be uncharacteristically unruly.

Over the years, I've noticed general changes in classroom decorum—attendees openly texting on Blackberries, surfing on iPhones, and even pounding away on a laptop. I've seen dress become more casual and groups become somewhat more informal, but I'd never had a group like this. It felt like a cross between the twilight zone and a trip to the zoo.

The class began at nine, and fewer than half of the attendees had arrived; others trickled in between nine and 10 with most offering no acknowledgment of tardiness. During group activities, some clearly opted to feverishly email or text instead of contributing to their groups. After lunch, one person tossed a stress toy across the room so hard that it spilled a tumbler of water on another participant.

I had to ask one participant to stop trying to draw on another's ear, and when I reviewed the evaluations, I noticed that one person completed the formal Scantron-like evaluation in a red, flip-chart marker. Although I'm glad to report that this particular experience is an extreme anomaly, the behavior is somewhat indicative of a trend that I've noticed in the workplace in the past few years—the death, in some ways, of professionalism as we once knew it.

If I'm honest, I've noticed this more with millennials (workers in their 20s), but I've also noticed these trends among the general population, likely exacerbated, if not precipitated by mind-blowing advances in technology and general cultural shifts away from formality.

I can tell that I'm aging as I find myself giving advice fairly often to young professionals and entrepreneurs trying to find the keys to success. I seem to be uttering the same mantra that led to the naming of my company a decade ago: "Don't forget that professionalism matters."

Although each of us has a particular area of expertise, and we should strive to hone those skills certainly, we should never underestimate the importance of pure, old-fashioned professionalism in the workplace. Ironically, the less pervasive professionalism becomes, the more important it can become as it distinguishes those who exude it in the most positive way.

In today's world of automated, belated birthday ecards riddled with typos, receiving a hand-signed birthday card by “snail mail" is nothing short of mind-blowing. That sender stands out for sure.

Unfortunately, what I've experienced with an uncomfortable regularity in recent months are glaring examples of what I call the death of professionalism as I once knew it. Here are a few real-life examples:

Flexible Grammar

I'm sure by now we've all received an email on our PDA with a disclaimer at the bottom stating something like "please disregard any typos in this email because it was sent from a Blackberry device."

When I first saw that, I thought "Huh? You can do that? I should have just put that at the bottom of all my term papers in college!" I vividly remember in my 20s having a grammar book on my desk so that I could periodically consult it when writing memos—yes, I'm dating myself.

Years later, the grammar book was replaced by online spellcheck and grammar check, but I still felt the need to send grammatically correct messages. When I first started seeing these disclaimers, I honestly thought, "Wow, that's lazy. We're not even attempting to correct spelling and grammar anymore?"

The honest truth is that seven out of 10 recipients may not care if they receive an email with typos, but those other three actually might. Is it worth diminishing credibility with the 30% who do care?

Develop two, distinct sets of standards for personal and professional communications—typos may be perfectly fine when emailing a significant other but not when communicating with a client or even a peer in the workplace.

Avoid sending work emails by PDA if possible. I know it’s tempting to send a quick email response via Blackberry, but reviewing and sending emails on PDAs can be an accident waiting to happen. Typos are more likely on such a small keyboard.

Relevant content in an email like tables or graphics, attachments, and distribution lists are harder to read, allowing for content mistakes. If emailing from a PDA can’t be avoided, type the response and save it as a draft so it can be reviewed later at a computer before being sent.


When I recently conducted interviews for an assistant, I was amazed at the number of candidates who arrived just a few minutes late. They all started their interview with a polite apology about horrible traffic or confused directions, but they didn't seem to consider the slight tardiness a significant error in the interview process.

In my mind, those candidates lost the job before they opened their mouths. Likewise, I worked recently with a temporary assistant who supported me in a variety of ways. I relied on her to follow up on a wide range of tasks including communicating on my behalf to clients and other important professional contacts.

During the first few weeks, I noticed that she was erratic and inconsistent in her follow-up, not just with them but with me. I couldn't help but wonder if I had to remind my assistant to follow up. I decided to document a list of ground rules that outlined basic expectations like responding to client emails within 24 hours, sending me a meeting agenda and status report at least 24 hours before our meetings, copying me on all client communications, and respecting deadlines but proactively renegotiating if needed.

I have seen firsthand in Corporate America, as well as in my own small business, that being responsive and timely is such an underrated, overlooked skill. Those who master this stand out and tend to be the ones that everyone desperately wants to work with, even if they don't know exactly why.

Strive to arrive 15-20 minutes early for all appointments. With the prevalence of unexpected hiccups like bad traffic, unexpected cell phone calls, incorrect directions, long elevator waits, and other last-minute interruptions, you will likely arrive just a few minutes early. Keep a folder of items to read or review on hand so that if arriving more than a few minutes early, the extra time can be utilized wisely.

For important meetings, strive to arrive at least 20-30 minutes early and ensure that you know where you're going. If the meeting requires travel, drive to the location the day prior if possible. If the location is unable to be driven to in advance, ask the contact for the best directions or ask if the online navigation site directions are reliable�"don't just rely on the car's GPS.

Don't try to remember anything; instead, write everything down. Develop whatever system works best (e.g., online task list, reminder app, small notebook), but have one place where a running list of tasks is kept, and use that system religiously.


I recently worked with someone whom I'd hired to help me with documentation on a new project. When she met me at the client location, I couldn't help but think that she'd mistaken our client meeting for a tennis match. She wore a spandex, strapless top with a tennis skort and athletic shoes. I couldn't believe that she would wear that to meet me, much less meet with my client. Needless to say, I took the meeting without her.

Professionalism Tips for Today's Lifestyle

Always dress half a step above the client. You don't want to be too formal, but you certainly don't want to be too informal. You want to scale your dress to fit the organization's culture, industry, and type of work.

If questioning the fit or style of an outfit when looking in a mirror, just change.

Make sure you have three to five go-to outfits that fit well, look great, and feel confident. Consider using a personal shopper at a respected retailer like Nordstrom if needing help.

Ask friends if your closet needs an update—they'll typically tell the truth.

Work Ethic

I can't believe how often new entrepreneurs can’t understand why they're not making $6–$10K per month working 20 hours a week after just starting their business.

When I tell them that I slaved for about two years teaching for anyone who would have me before my business was profitable enough to sustain itself consistently, and I didn't have thoughts of working part-time until years after that, it doesn't seem to compute. I'm floored by people who seem to expect the world while trying to figure out how they can do the least amount of work required.

I once heard that the world is made up of givers and takers—the takers seem to be taking over.

Professionalism Tips for Today's Lifestyle

Don't be afraid of hard work. Come early, stay late, and don't over-strategize early in your career. Yes, strategy is critical as part of the success formula, but early on, focus primarily on getting lots of great experience without worrying who gets the credit.

Over-prepare for presentations and important meetings. There is no substitute for preparation. I conducted dry runs for important training events, and they were invaluable.

Don't procrastinate. One of the keys to my academic success was that I always pretended my exams or major projects were due a couple of days earlier than they were so I completed my preparation early and had a day or two to review the material. I received degrees in math, engineering, and business, all with honors, and I'm proud to say that I only pulled an all-nighter once.

We live in a different world, but we can't toss out all the old rules. In many ways, we need to revisit the classics—like please and thank you—and amend them for our current lifestyle.

When I redecorated my house a few years ago, my decorator concentrated on rooms changing furniture, paint colors, etc.

For other rooms, she recommended a fluff, keeping most of the basics but simply rearranging furniture and adding a few accessories to make it work with the new look.

Some of us need to remodel our day-to-day work habits and professionalism standards, and the rest of us can probably use a fluff.

Either way, bumping up professionalism while standards are on the decline only make you stand out from the crowd in the best way.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is president of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA.

Reach Dana at [email protected]. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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