Is “unprofessional” a good word to use?

“Unprofessional” is a word we hear pretty often in the world of education.  It often shows up in written form.  But I want to suggest three reasons why it might be wise to pause before describing an employee’s conduct as “unprofessional.”

First, the term is vague.  It’s subjective.  There are, no doubt, certain kinds of employee conduct that are so far across the line that we could get close to universal agreement that the employee has behaved “unprofessionally.” But there is a vast middle ground of questionable employee behavior.  Public schools employ a widely diverse group of people. We differ in age, ethnicity, background, culture, religion, values.  What is “unprofessional” to one person is not to another. So the inherent subjectivity of this vague term makes it a bit dangerous.

Second, accusations of “unprofessional” conduct go directly to character.  All employees will admit to having room for improvement, for making the occasional mistake or error in judgment. But nobody likes to be accused of behaving unprofessionally because it speaks to character, or lack thereof. Thus the person accused of being unprofessional is likely to be defensive, and we know that defensive people often go on the attack.

My third reason to suggest caution in the use of this term is tied into the first two. Because it is subjective, vague and goes to character, “unprofessional” is a term that often boomerangs right back on the person who used it.  It can go kinda like this:

Principal to teacher: Your behavior was unprofessional.

Teacher to principal: Unprofessional?!?!  UNPROFESSIONAL?!?!  You wanna talk UNPROFESSIONIAL???? Can we talk about you at last year’s Christmas party!?

When documenting employee performance you find your fingers poised over the keys that spell out “unprofessional,” pause and think about it. Is there another way to get your point across?  You might be able to simply say “you failed to comply with district policy.” Or: “you failed to comply with my directive.”  Or: “your conduct in this instance falls short of our district’s standards for teachers.”  Sometimes you can cite a specific provision in the Educator’s Code of Ethics, or in district policy.

There usually is another way to say it, and the other way is usually better.


 Tomorrow: a lame prayer.