The Complete Guide to Dealing with Unprofessional Employees

There’s no place for unprofessional behavior in the workplace.

Electra Michaelidou
Electra Michaelidou

Career and Lifestyle Writer

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

A manager dealing with an unprofessional employee

When leaders don’t trust their employees, they become likelier to want to micromanage their team members. A survey of 6,000 workers, however, has shown that 73% of employees consider micromanagement the biggest red flag in the workplace, and 46% consider it a valid reason to quit their jobs.

So, what can you do instead about those people on your team who have given you a reason to mistrust them? In this article, we’ll talk about identifying unprofessional behavior and dealing with it effectively, without sacrificing the bond between yourself and your employees.

Signs of unprofessional behavior

Unprofessional behavior can present itself in many ways. Here are 10 signs you should be keeping an eye out for, bearing in mind that unprofessional employees will consistently exhibit these signs, and often in combination. (In other words, don’t panic at the first sign you see from an employee you value; we all have bad days! Instead, raise the alarm if it keeps happening.)

Unprofessional behavior in the workplace can look like:

  • Being rude or disrespectful
  • Lying to colleagues and/or management
  • Paying little attention to one’s appearance at work
  • Behaving impulsively/being reactive
  • Lacking reliability
  • Lacking a sense of responsibility/self-awareness
  • Being unresponsive
  • Lacking punctuality
  • Taking shortcuts, sacrificing the quality of the work produced
  • Having poor work performance

Examples of unprofessional behavior

Let’s talk about 10 specific examples of unprofessional behavior in the workplace, and how each can impact productivity and morale on a team-wide level.

You’ll often catch unprofessional employees:

1. Blaming others for their mistakes

We mentioned that one of the signs of unprofessional behavior is lacking a sense of self-awareness and responsibility. When an employee has a hard time holding themselves accountable and instead attempts to throw innocent bystanders under the bus, it can start to create tension and negatively impact teamwork between colleagues.

As a leader, make sure that you develop your own emotional regulation skills and a growth mindset so that your employees can (hopefully) follow suit and feel more comfortable owning up to mistakes. This can minimize the likelihood of people looking for scapegoats!

2. Turning up to work and/or meetings late

This one is self-explanatory. When an employee consistently turns up late to meetings, they’re showing (even if it’s unintentional) a lack of respect for everyone else’s time.

The same can be said of clocking in late repeatedly and for no good reason. It can frustrate everyone else on the team and cause delays, as no employee works in isolation.

3. Failing to adhere to the dress code

Although not every company has a strict dress code, employees must still exercise a bit of self-restraint as well as common sense when picking out their work outfits. You wouldn’t turn up in your bathing suit in a corporate setting, for example, even if it’s 100°F outside, and even if the company dress code doesn’t specifically mention bathing suits.

An inappropriately dressed employee can not only make their colleagues uncomfortable, but also paint an unprofessional image for the company as a whole in front of clients or customers.

4. Making racist, sexist or other discriminatory remarks

People who lack sensitivity will often make offensive remarks and then try to justify doing so by calling them “mere personal opinions” or “just a joke”.

As a boss or manager, you not only have the responsibility of not making such remarks yourself, but also showing no tolerance to any form of expression that can cause harm to other team members.

5. Working on personal projects during work hours

When we think about wasting time in the workplace, we often think about phone usage and social media. But it’s possible to waste time while being productive… on the wrong things.

Working on personal projects during work hours is yet another example of unprofessional (and, frankly, selfish) behavior.

6. Failing to meet deadlines

Employees who take their work seriously tend to work methodically, managing their time and prioritizing tasks effectively to submit their deliverables on time.

On the other hand, unprofessional employees tend to continuously miss deadlines, which often has a detrimental effect on the progress of projects.

7. Plagiarizing work

It’s not just students who rely on ChatGPT to write their essays. In the workplace, it’s become increasingly more common for employees to turn to generative AI to get stuff done, with many omitting to go over the final piece to make edits and revisions before they call it “theirs”.

In addition, unprofessional employees will often lie about their achievements, stealing other people’s work or ideas and presenting them as their own.

8. Failing to apologize and/or make changes

A professional employee will apologize when making a mistake while taking steps to ensure that they don’t repeat the same error again.

Another example of poor workplace etiquette, then, is when employees fail to own their mistakes and do little to change their ways, even after receiving a written warning.

9. Being unresponsive on email and/or IM

In 2023, more than 347 billion emails were sent per day worldwide. With our inboxes being flooded, missing a message can happen to anyone; yet unprofessional employees are likelier to stay unusually quiet time after time.

In some cases, they may even be deliberately ignoring messages, either because they are feeling overwhelmed or disengaged and have little interest in trying to find a solution.

10. Having poor emotional regulation skills

We all become overwhelmed at work. In fact, daily work-related stress affects 83% of all US workers. Although it’s only logical that we may sometimes let out our frustration in unhealthy ways, employees who lack emotional regulation skills are likelier to become reactive.

This can cause them to swear, become aggressive or behave in other disruptive ways, which can harm collaboration and output across teams.

How to deal with unprofessional behavior

When an employee behaves unprofessionally, it can have a ripple effect on the rest of your team, turning a once-healthy work environment into a bit of a nightmare for everyone involved. That’s why it’s imperative that you deal with it quickly and effectively.

To do this, you must:

1. Set clear expectations

When you notice that an employee behaves in an unprofessional manner, it’s important to have a conversation with them as early as possible to communicate your expectations.

Let them know what the problem is, why it’s a problem, and how you expect them to behave instead. Make sure you’re both on the same page before parting ways!

2. Give clear feedback

Giving your employees clear feedback is essential, especially when you need them to make changes.

The more frequently you check in with everyone on your team, recognizing their best efforts and giving clear indicators on what could be done differently (and how), is a great way to keep them developing professionally.

3. Try to find the root of the problem

A lot of the time, employees might start behaving unprofessionally when dealing with something difficult in their personal life. If, as a leader, you’re approachable and empathetic, they’ll be likelier to confide in you, which will make reaching a resolution possible.

For example, a recently divorced employee may be having trouble arriving on time in the morning if they suddenly find themselves entirely responsible for caring for their children. Offering them flexible hours or childcare benefits could help them start to thrive at work again.

4. Explain the consequences

Though it’s important to show patience and empathy, you still have to strike a balance between being understanding and reinforcing some boundaries as an employer.

Decide how much time and support you are willing to give to someone who is failing to show up as expected, and let them know what the next steps will be should they still find themselves unable to perform as needed.

5. Treat all employees the same

The first step to being impartial as a leader is to accept that we all have biases we’re not aware of; it’s just how the brain works!

No one is perfect, so you will want to take extra care to treat all your employees the same. Avoid turning a blind eye to unprofessional behaviors coming from one person on the team only to punish another for the same thing.

6. Create a plan of action

Chatting with an employee about inappropriate workplace behaviors and trying to understand what’s behind them is the first step. The second step is to come up with a plan to implement changes.

Let your employee know how much time you’re willing to give, and what support you can provide to help them meet your expectations.

7. Monitor progress

Once you have decided on an action plan with your employee, it’s important to keep an eye on their progress. While it’s good to give them space and show them that you trust them to make changes, don’t remove yourself completely from the issue that was raised between you.

8. Listen to employee feedback

A manager that’s caring and easy to talk to will inspire their team members to open up. The more dialogues you can maintain, the more you can understand your employees’ needs and worries; and the more you do that, the more you can provide the necessary support to preserve their engagement and productivity.

9. Be proactive

According to the Employee Engagement report by Gallup, only 44% of employees strongly feel like they know what’s expected of them at work.

Even though as a leader you may think that your expectations around workplace duties and behaviors are clear as day, not everyone on your team will agree. And the sooner you identify the ones that are uncertain, the better you can prevent unprofessional behaviors from occurring.

10. Be prepared to take action

Even your most enthusiastic employees can start to lose faith in you if they notice you repeatedly turning a blind eye to unprofessional behavior from their colleagues. In a way, you would be showing them that there are no repercussions to poor behavior and performance, which can cause them to feel wronged and unappreciated.

Instead, be prepared to give written warnings and even dismiss employees who continuously fail to stick to policies and take their work seriously.

Key takeaways

As the saying goes: “It only takes a few rotten apples to spoil the barrel.” It’s true: even a few employees behaving unprofessionally can cause frustration to radiate throughout a team, affecting everyone’s wellbeing and performance.

As a leader, you need to remember the following when looking for ways to deal with undesirable workplace behaviors:

  • There are different kinds of unprofessional behavior, including a lack of reliability, accountability and respect.
  • Unprofessional behavior can be a “symptom” of another problem, sometimes unrelated to the workplace.
  • Failing to address and reprimand unprofessional behavior can cause motivated, punctual employees to lose faith in you.
  • Listening and demonstrating empathy is vital in establishing trust between yourself and your employees, and finding solutions.

Can you think of any other examples of unprofessional behavior or ways to deal with it? Share your thoughts with fellow HR professionals and leaders in the comments section below!

This article is a complete update of an earlier version originally published on July 12, 2013.