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Professionalism in New Nurses

Declining professionalism among young staffers - and how to address it.

The Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania's annual survey on the state of professionalism among entry-level employees - 2012 Professionalism in the Workplace Study - suggests some startling trends. Chief among them:

  • Managers indicate that younger employees most lack professionalism.
  • Levels of professionalism have declined over the past five years, according to HR respondents (33.1 percent) and managers (21.2 percent).

The worst problems noted by managers: a lack of urgency in getting a job done (32.6 percent), a sense of entitlement (27.2 percent), poor performance coupled with a mediocre work ethic (23 percent) and poor attendance (22.2 percent).

This data backs up what many HR professionals and nurse managers know from personal experience. A common complaint among HR professionals and managers is that younger employees lack the requisite professionalism to contribute properly in the work environment. To make matters worse, these problems are certainly not limited to younger employees. Workers of all ages, in all lines of work suffer from the same professionalism problems, and the nursing profession is no different.

"Nursing schools have so many technical skills to cover that there is relatively little attention to communication skills. Young nurses who lack the communication skills to bond with patients and families are understandably disengaged," said Wendy Leebov, CEO, Leebov Golde Group. This is unfortunate, she noted, as a large part of the practice of nursing involves direct and frequent interaction with patients and family members as well as doctors and other medical staff. Fortunately, there are some strategies and tactics healthcare professionals can use to combat the growing lack of professionalism among their nurses.

Before They Even Walk in the Door

Josh Tolan, CEO of Spark Hire, a network that connects job seekers and employers through video résumés and online interviews suggests some important steps to take before making hiring decisions:

  • Look at a candidate's social media usage to gauge their level of professionalism. Are they cursing, posting inappropriate pictures or engaging in other bad communication strategies? If so, they're obviously not overly concerned about their level of professionalism online, and this will translate into the offline world as well.
  • How a candidate dresses for an interview, whether it's in person or through online video, can tell you a lot about their level of professionalism. If they dress to impress, you know they're taking the interview process seriously.
  • Good communication skills are essential in the workplace, especially when it comes to professionalism. If a candidate lacks communication skills, all you'll have to look forward to is years of misunderstandings.

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The Patient Connection Demands Professionalism in Nursing

Nursing is unlike other professions in many ways, but chief among them is the critical interactions between nurses, patients and their families that take place daily. Professionalism is a must!

  • Nurses are often entrusted with a great deal of personal medical information and those who entrust that information to them must be confident their trust is not misplaced, or they may be reluctant to reveal crucial information.
  • Illnesses and injuries can be extremely painful and traumatic for patients and their families, and this can often lead to unpleasant behavior. Nurses have to be able to maintain an unemotional and competent demeanor in the face of even the most offensive situations.
  • A nurse is a part of a team and works with many other nurses, doctors and other medical staff to ensure the best possible care for patients. Being a team player is essential in making the entire process run smoothly.

Studies continue to show nurses top the list of the most trusted professionals in the United States. A recent Gallup survey, for instance, showed 85 percent of survey respondents ranked nurses highest for honesty and ethics (followed by pharmacist at 75 percent and physicians at 70 percent). That's an enviable position to hold and one that should not be taken lightly.

Start From the Beginning

Many young nurses coming out of nursing school, or coming from other organizations, may not have been immersed in the standards, values and expectations that your organization requires. Take nothing for granted. At the outset, make sure expectations are clearly communicated and, whenever possible, documented.

A great way to help hammer home the value your organization places on professionalism is to incorporate a professionalism segment to your on-boarding process for all new employees. Make expectations clear!

Aaron McDaniel, a millennial himself, is the author of The Your Professional's Guide to the Working World (Career Press, 2012) and the Young Professional's Edge. As a corporate manager, entrepreneur, public speaker and community leader, he said he has experienced first-hand a lack of professionalism among some of his peers. "We haven't necessarily been taught how to be successful in a working environment," he said. And, truthfully, that same gap has existed for all generations coming into the workplace - it's not just a symptom of the millennial generation.

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Role of the Manager

So much of professionalism is cultural, meaning that employees are, in many ways, simply a reflection of the overall behavior and expectations of the organization. Therefore, a top-down approach to instilling professionalism is crucial in creating the kind of work environment appropriate for healthcare professionals. The role of the manager is key. It is important that managers:

  • Set a good example. Just as children often mimic their parents, employees will often mimic the behavior of their superiors. If her boss frequently shows up late to work, uses foul language in the workplace or cuts corners when carrying out assignments, a nurse is likely to begin doing the same.
  • Establish clear benchmarks for appropriate - and inappropriate - behaviors and communicate these expectations clearly and frequently. Take nothing for granted.
  • Don't tolerate a lack of professionalism. Just setting a good example is often not enough in the workplace, because not everyone will choose to follow that good example. When a nurse displays a lack of professionalism, therefore, it is important that the nurse's supervisor addresses that behavior - quickly, clearly and consistently. We learn more from what we observe than what we hear. Back up your expectations with consequences, both positive and constructive.
  • Take action to root out the "bad players" when necessary, as difficult as that may be. At some point, the effort expended attempting to instill professionalism is simply not worth the mediocre or nonexistent results. In these situations, it is often best to simply part ways with the employee.

The bottom line, said McDaniel, is "equipping the young professionals to be able to be successful. Look at them as individuals - not just collectively as a group."

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer.


At Work Archives
  Last Post: April 13, 2013 | View Comments(5)

I am seeing young, new nurses do not understand how to be a team player. They want to change everything when they have little to no experience.

carol ,  rnApril 13, 2013

I hope that you would someday talk about dealing with awful managers. My previous manager micromanaged the team and then didn't know how to practice nursing anymore. She cared more about appearing to care for patients than the actual work. It was clearly all about appearances. She said she had a latex allergy and that was why she didn't draw blood. It turned out she just didn't know how. I think there are many managers who have no managment skills and just get absorbed into the position- it's a major problem. I was a young nurse on the team and then got picked on because when something wasn't right- health/safety/ patient care I spoke up about it. When you care more than your manager and when you know more- clinically speaking- it's not always a good thing. When we didn't have water to wash our hands and there was raw sewage in the hallway due to a plumbing problem we were told to continue working- I said I wouldn't work under those conditions and that it was a threat to patient saftey and I called in our union. She didn't see it that way. From that point on I was labeled a trouble maker. What do you do when your manager has all the power and clearly no standards? What do you do when your manager is the weakest link? Sometimes to be a good nurse you have to be brave because it is not only about you- but also the people you took an oath to protect. When I told the medical director that all staff were increasingly concerned with the managers inability to do her job and "persistent forgetfulness" and its affect on patient care/ saftey- she said she "had noticed and would monitor it." Turns out the medical director was just as equally incompetent. Needless to say my contract wasn't renewed. Sometimes being professional means doing the right thing and sticking your neck out even when you know the axe is never far off. I believe in Karma and I believe that whatever go around comes around. I'm on unemployment now and looking for better work- but at least I can sleep well at night knowing that I did my best for myself, my co-workers and most importantly my patients. To all the young nurses out there- "Courage is not the absense of fear but rather the judgment that something else is more important"- Ambrose Redman.

Karen M,  RNApril 12, 2013

Amem to the corrective comments above. Especially, # 4. Cut your loses. One can tell right away, usually during the probationary period, who is going to be a good fit and amenable to corrective criticism. Else, thank them and let them go with a bit of advice.

Levi  Samuels,  Registered Nurse,  HealthCareApril 12, 2013
Indianapolisq, IN

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