Workplace Culture

The Rules of Professionalism: Getting Millennial Workers Onboard

By Lin Grensing-Pophal

Jan. 31, 2013

As millennials enter the workforce, some managers find themselves underwhelmed by the level of professionalism they’re seeing.

Whether a reflection of generational differences or work habits that need course correction, human resources professionals need to be on top of this issue and its implications.

Managers’ perspectives are backed up by research done by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania’s in its annual survey on the state of professionalism among entry-level employees—2013 Professionalism in the Workplace Study. The results of the most recent study indicate that levels of professionalism have declined during the past five years with about 45 percent of respondents indicating that the work ethic has gotten worse. The decline, they say is driven by a too-casual attitude toward work (86.6 percent), not being self-driven (71.5 percent) and a lack of ownership of one’s work (69.3 percent). The desired qualities that respondents believe reflect professionalism: working until a task is completed competently, interpersonal skills including civility, appropriate appearance, punctuality and regular attendance, communication skills, honesty and being focused and attentive.

Joel Gross, founder and CEO of Coalition Technologies, a Los Angeles- and Seattle-based marketing firm, says that most of his entry-level employees need to be trained about what is expected.

“It is partly their own fault, but more so the failure of their parents and the education system,” he says.

Others, such as Jason Henham, say the issue is partially related to changing expectations. Henham, managing director of Slate Consulting, a management consulting firm, says that many HR practitioners define professionalism through an outdated lens. Professionalism should no longer be defined by such measures as wearing specific attire, being at work at a specific time or leaving after a specific time.

Instead, he says, HR should focus more on communicating the results expected and allowing flexibility in achieving those results.

“It’s less about process and more about the outcome,” he says.

But, while that may be the case in certain business cultures, it may not be the case in all. In any setting, the onus is on organizations—and their HR functions—to clearly define and convey what professionalism means. They should not assume that their specific requirements are universally understood.

Aaron McDaniel, a millennial himself, and the author of The Young Professional’s Guide to the Working World and the Young Professional’s Edge blog says: “We haven’t necessarily been taught how to be successful in a working environment.” Organizations, managers and HR professionals, McDaniel says, need to lay the groundwork.

That’s what Nick Sarillo, the owner of Nick’s Pizza & Pub in Elgin, Illinois, and the author of A Slice of the Pie: How to Build a Big Little Business has done.

More than half of his employees are high school students, and he also employs many college students. He argues that the lack of professionalism among entry-level employees often has more to do with the organization than the individual.

To combat this, he recommends—and focuses on—four key areas: careful training, trust-and-track management, transparency and an emphasis on the organization’s values as they pertain to the individual employee.

“I run into a lot of executives in businesses where they have these misconceptions about the younger generation, and I disagree with them quite a bit, especially when I hear things like, ‘They don’t have a work ethic’ and ‘They don’t work hard’.”

At Nick’s Pizza & Pub, he says, they do.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a writer based near Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Comment below or email

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