Leadership Blog Series: Unmasking and Addressing Unprofessional Behavior

Written by Sharri Margraves, HR Associate Director for Organization and Professional Development

Unprofessionalism often masquerades as interpersonal conflict. Left unchecked, this disruptive behavior can destroy relationships, create a toxic environment, reduce productivity and increase errors. On a personal level, unprofessionalism can be career-limiting for the individual and demoralizing to the whole team if not handled well or left unresolved.

As a leader, when you have a challenge with an individual regarding unprofessional behavior, you must address it. The behavior you tolerate becomes the culture. Many times, the person is unaware of the effect of their behavior, and the issue can be resolved with a conversation. Often, though, the thought of confronting the person can induce fear. It can be hard to summon the courage to take the first step, and we often excuse the behavior or hope it will go away on its own — even when we know it likely will not.

People are counting on you. If you don’t address unprofessional behavior, you simply promote more of it. So, take a deep breath and lean into it. Use the following ideas to successfully navigate these conversations.

  • Envision success. Think about the benefits of resolving the issue.
  • Check your conflict style using the Conflict Management Styles Quiz.
  • Choose the right time.
  • Be calm. Keep your voice even.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Write them down. Practice what you want to say.
  • Stick to the facts.
  • State your intended outcomes.
  • Be compassionate. What might be happening you don’t know about?

It can also be helpful to analyze the patterns of unprofessional behavior to determine your response. Consider the following scenarios.

Was it a single incidence?

Have an informal conversation as close to the situation as possible, in private. Ask open-ended questions and invite the individual to offer their version. Acknowledge it as an isolated incident and that you trust they are aware that unprofessionalism is detrimental to the team and their own career.

Is this a pattern?

Use data to help illustrate to the person what is happening. Your goal is to raise awareness and invite them to help solve the problem based on facts. State the pattern. When does the behavior arise? Are there discernible triggers? All of these can invite the employee to be reflective and cognizant of the issue. State the impact on the team, colleagues and you as the leader. Ask the employee for their solutions. Follow-up with a letter acknowledging the conversation. This is not a disciplinary process or even a hint of further action — it is simply a way to capture what you talked about and the agreements going forward.

Does the behavior continue to persist?

Despite our best efforts, additional support and intervention are sometimes necessary. At this stage, you will be documenting the conversations and likely engaging with your dean, HR professional or Employee Relations for further guidance. Remember, the goal is to correct the behavior so that your organization can create an environment to achieve great things and not be distracted by the few.

It’s important to remember that if the individual also intimidates others by shouting, being disruptive, blocking their path, or touching another person, this heightens the seriousness of corrective action and must be dealt with immediately.

Channeling the positive energy of conflict that focuses on problem-solving can foster innovation, creativity and greater engagement. Utilize the ideas above to help build a culture of trust where issues can be raised and resolved and in which all members of a team are valuable to achieving success.


Adkins, R., 2006.  Elemental Truths blogspot. https://facultyombuds.ncsu.edu/files/2015/11/Conflict-management-styles-quiz.pdf

Hickson, Gerald, B., Pichert, James, W., Webb, L. E., Gabbe, S. (2007). A complementary approach to promoting professionalism: Identifying, measuring, and addressing unprofessional behaviors. Academic Medicine. November 2007. Volume 82. Issue 11. Ppg 1040-1048. https://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/FullText/2007/11000/A_Complementary_Approach_to_Promoting.7.aspx

Tremper, K. K., How to manage disruptive colleagues. RCL Papers. Department of Anesthesiology,   University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. http://iars.org/wp-content/uploads/15_RCL_Papers_F.pdf#page=46