I always scour the local Austin newspaper carefully during and after the annual Midwinter Conference. Frequently I will find a small item that reports something like this: “John Doe, assistant superintendent in the Wayabovenormal ISD, was arrested in Austin on Thursday night. Charges for disorderly conduct and public intoxication are pending. Representatives of the school district were unavailable for comment.”

I saw no such item this year, so KUDOS to all of you who attended Midwinter without getting arrested!

But this brings to mind the term “unprofessional.” You can bet that someone in the Wayabovenormal ISD is going to accuse Mr. Doe of “unprofessional” conduct. But what exactly does that mean?

In workshops I have conducted about employee documentation I have recommended that supervisors think twice before slinging this loaded word around. There are two reasons for that. First, it is very vague. What you think is “unprofessional” may look quite different to someone else. Secondly, the term reflects on character, which means you are likely to get a strong, defensive response. It is not unusual for the recipient of a memo, charged with “unprofessional” conduct, to throw the term right back at the supervisor. “Unprofessional, you say! Hrmph!! Let’s talk about your behavior at last years’ coaches’ conference!”

On the other hand, there are times when “unprofessional” just seems like exactly the right descriptor. So we would not say that this word should never show up in a corrective memo—only that we should think carefully about its use. If you think the employee’s conduct was “unprofessional” can you point to the specific standard that was violated? Did the employee disparage students? Was the employee rude to a parent or colleague? Usually you can cite some local policy or ethical standard that establishes what “professional” means. Falling short of that standard would be “unprofessional.” So we think it is a good idea to tie this term to a standard.

Remember: there is GOOD DOCUMENTATION and there is BAD DOCUMENTATION. Make sure yours is of the GOOD variety. It’s more…..professional.