HSC Office of Professionalism

MSC 09 5300
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001

Phone: (505) 272-8711
Fax: (505) 272-3486

What is Professionalism?

“Professionalism”means many things to many people. 

Perhaps the simplest way to think about it is as a social or communicative competence. In our daily lives we have to handle ourselves in lots of different situations with different types of people. 

The rules for our behavior and the language that we use differ depending on the situation and the person we are interacting with. The expectations others have of us, the obligations we feel and the opportunities we have all depend on the role we are playing. 

Part of our socialization involves learning what the expectations are for our various roles. We all differ in how well we live up to our various expectations. In our work settings we must be aware of, and be willing and able to fulfill the many expectations that come with our roles. 

Some of these expectations are explicit and some are learned implicitly. Some expectations will emerge from the individual’s training, while others will emerge from the institution’s administrative rules and codes of behavior.  

When we meet at least the minimal expectations that accompany these roles we are considered to be competent: we are considered to be acting professionally.

What is Unprofessionalism? 

“Unprofessionalism” is the failure to satisfy the minimal expectations of one’s role. Failures may result from failures of competence, failures of willingness and lapses. These circumstances can be summarized as the “Can’t, Won’t and Oops” model of unprofessional behavior. 

  • The individual cannot satisfy the minimal expectations of his or her role because he or she does not know the rules of the role  or he or she may not have the skills to enact them.
  • The individual may know the rules of the role and has the skills to enact them, but he or she chooses not to act according to those expectations. This behavior is often not associated with remorse.
  • The individual knows the rules, is capable of satisfying them and generally does follow them, but on a rare occasion he or she fails to live up to the role expectations. This is often associated with remorse. 

There can be a number of reasons or causes for each of these circumstances:  

  • People who can’t fulfill minimal expectations may have not learned the rules for certain types of work settings, perhaps because of where they grew up or where they trained, or they lack certain basic social skills. 
  • Those who can but Won’t fulfill minimal expectations may have personality styles that are not fitted for their actual work setting. The individual may be “acting-out” or “channeling” anger, aggression or other emotions.The individual might have an addiction that interferes with social judgment. Or, importantly, the individual might be asserting a challenge to the situation  and he or she might be justified.
  • People who inadvertently or unintentionally fail to satisfy expectations of their role might been emotionally or physically overwhelmed, or they might not have prepared adequately for a particular situation.  

Effective responses to unprofessional behavior should be appropriate for the circumstance.  

  • When an individual Can’t fulfill minimal expectations, he or she should receive special training or coaching. 
  • When an individual Won’t behave according to expectations, efforts should be made to determine whether the focus of administrative responses should be the  “Identified” problem worker or the larger work situation. Sometimes the appropriate response is a consultation from the Office of Professionalism, the Institute of Ethics, an outside management consultant or a group analyst.  Sometimes, the appropriate response is to recommend psychotherapy or psychiatric treatment. 
  • In “Oops” situations, people should be taught how to monitor their emotional and physical stamina and how to cope better with stressful work situations. Some will benefit from training in why, how and when to apologize, or in some other way to undo their behaviors.