Thursday, March 8, 2012

Handling Unprofessional Professionals

People often stop me to explain some event in their lives that has really riled them. Lately I have listened to complaints about doctors, wait staff, bankers, shopkeepers and hotel managers, not to mention the myriad of call center telephone operators. Incompetence is part of the professional landscape these days. There are many people who hang out their shingle claiming to be authorities on something they have no business in so doing. Diplomas and certificates may cover their office walls, but this is mere window dressing and little to do with true professionalism.

We are often caught off guard when met with unprofessional behaviour from people who we hope are trusted authorities, not Peter Principle statistics. The question is, “How do we respond to these surprises in an appropriate way?” With practice and a levelheaded approach, we can navigate these unpleasant waters and move forward.

One friend recently described a visit to a gerontologist’s office trying to understand when early stages of dementia might be present with a loved one. He was justifiably puzzled when told, “unless the person could no longer make French toast or control their bodily functions, there is nothing to worry about.” When trying to glean information of a very important and personal nature, diligence is so necessary. Even though unprofessional answers are often insensitive and confusing, we still need to carry on. Pleading the case that family members know when behaviors change in a loved one more accurately than a physician who has never met them, common sense does not always prevail. If this happens, I recommend thanking them for their time and going back to the referring doctor for another suggestion.

Nothing is more frustrating than interacting with uncaring professionals in professions calling for sensitive human contact. Take for example, a waiter who has little or no knowledge of how food on the menu is prepared, or what some suggestions for wine might be. Taking into account that not all waiters are trained properly, and that customer service is not always a strong suit in many restaurants, I still see no reason for unprofessionalism. Many waiters have no idea how to even address a customer, let alone an entire table. One of my pet peeves, which may be generational and on the rise but nonetheless annoying, is addressing a mixed group of men and women as ‘you guys’, or even worse, ‘yous’. This may well be due to a case of nerves, especially with newer employees. My experience has shown that if I maintain a pleasant demeanor, resisting showing a look of horror on my face, waiters will lose their nervousness and do much better.

Shopkeepers who may no attention to you when you enter their store are also a source of irritation. I fully understand if they are busy with other customers; however, chatting on a cell phone, texting, or perhaps even reading a book or filing their nails, is totally unacceptable. In such instances, if I really need to buy something, I find it and pay for it, leaving the store with few if any words other than thank you. Otherwise, I just walk out, likely unnoticed. Learning to greet customers in a civil way is not a new concept, but it seems to have been lost in today’s time-precious world.

Banks can be equally frustrating. We all know that banks are a wonderful place to stash cash, or even borrow some, especially if you have plenty. In today’s stressful economic environment, banks can be a great, added source of frustration. One must be ever vigilant for newly created or increased fees charged for the privilege of using said bank. The number of people, who are astonished by a 30-day hold on foreign checks, in this age of electronics, is staggering. When queried, the answer from the bank employee may well be that this is new policy and their hands are tied.

In all of these cases, the common sense bottom line is that responsibility for one’s health, enjoyment, and state of mind rests solely in one’s own lap. How we choose to react to surprises, whether they manifest as unprofessionalism or otherwise, dictates how grounded, centered, and civil we will be. In every case, there is always a solution, which does not require raising one’s voice, stomping about like a small child, or bullying someone out of frustration. Taking a moment, and following Granny’s advice of counting to ten, can and does work wonders. Throw in a smile for good measure.


  1. As always, some excellent advice! Expertise is only one part of being a professional; civitity, respect, patience and understanding are all part of that skill set too. Thanks for continuing to point these important matters out Jay.

  2. I went to a mall a few weeks ago and was shocked at how many stores I went into and was simply ignored by the staff. I think companies would benefit from someone like you teaching a course on how to value paying customers!

  3. Thanks for your comments. A bit of staff training can improve self-confidence in employees; improve your company's image and bottom line!