Thursday, 13 May 2010

Professionalism? Don't make me laugh

I’m sure everyone who has reached around 14-15 years of age has probably had the concept of professionalism shoved down their throats at some point. Apparently, to get by in this world, you need to be professional and respectable in everything you do. But why? Where did these concepts of professionalism come from in the first place? Who first decided that if someone turned up to a meeting in jeans and a T-Shirt instead of a shirt and tie they would be considered as not being professional and giving a bad impression?

Personally I hate the very idea of professionalism. It’s so stifling. I mean seriously why is it needed? It’s not a necessary thing in life. People just tend to not challenge established concepts, like having a shave for instance. If no one shaved, it would be regarded as completely normal for people to be hairy and have wild tangled beards and the like. The same goes for professionalism. If people didn’t expect other people to treat them in a formal way and behave like robots, no one would have to act like that and in my opinion everyone would be much happier for it. Let me give you an example: I used to work in a cafe in Debenhams. We were allowed to get a drink of water from the tap, but we had to go into the back, out of view of the customers, to drink it. This was apparently to protect the company image and keep us looking professional. So let’s get this straight. People, human beings, drinking water in plain sight was apparently bad for the company image and unprofessional. So it seems Debenhams wants to give the impression that it employs robots, because who ever heard of a human being drinking water? This is the sort of thing I mean. Customers know that the people employed there are humans, and so it follows that they do other things that humans do, such as drinking to stay alive. Why the hell would it be considered unprofessional to be seen doing something that you need to do to stay alive, especially considering you’re on your feet for at least four hours at a time, constantly talking and moving around.

While I’m on the subject of customers at Debenhams, what is it with the way employees at these places are meant to treat awkward customers? During the approximately two years I worked there, hardly a week went by when I didn’t witness some customer or another complaining about the state of a table, or the service they received, or the fact that a member of staff spoke to another about something not strictly work related. Let’s tackle these issues in order shall we? A table being messy; well during busy periods it’s hardly possible to keep all the tables in the cafe clean. There were around 40-50 tables in the cafe, and at the very most there were only ever 5 people on tables at any one time. Usually there were only 2 or 3. So during busy periods, when there’s someone leaving a table almost constantly, it’s quite impossible to keep them all clean. The service they received; this could range from anything from the amount of time it took to get them a hot drink, the amount of time spent in the queue, or the fact that someone didn’t smile and look happy while serving. During busy periods, when there were around 4 people moving around each other in a small space all trying to make drinks on 2 drinks machines, it was pretty impossible to get every order done straight away, especially when the machines took around a minute to make the drink, and then there was another 30 seconds after that finishing the drink off by hand. As for the queue, it’s unfortunate but sometimes queues take a while, there’s nothing the staff can do about that when they’re already working as fast as they can, this just requires patience on the part of the customer, something which most customers seem to lack in my opinion. It’s also unfortunate, but after an hour or two of serving awkward customers, not all staff have the capacity to remain happy and cheerful when being treated like a piece of dirt in a lot of cases. Also, this complaint mainly came about people who were new at doing the job in question (I got it from the manager once when I first started serving hot drinks, after a 10 minute crash course from another member of staff), so they aren’t always capable of looking cheerful while concentrating on doing their job properly. A member of staff spoke to another; for this, I refer you to my earlier comments about members of staff being human beings. Admittedly, you can go too far on this one, ignoring a customer while having a detailed conversation about the state of electoral system in this country with another member of staff for instance, but just mentioning something of interest to a co-worker while there aren’t any customers around should be fine, since the members of staff aren’t robots and are unfortunately quite incapable of keeping their minds permanently on their jobs. I myself got it in the neck from customers several times for this, when I was cleaning a tray and talking as I worked, but apparently the ability to multitask is lost on most people. I suppose you could argue that there are some jobs where absolute concentration would be required, but a part time Food Services Advisor (my official job title) for £5/hr isn’t one of them.

The worst thing about it was, if a customer chose to be awkward to us, and even insult us in some cases, we had to be polite, stay calm, and treat them with respect. I’m sorry, but he just lost my respect the moment he called me a ‘long haired idiot’ (I don’t remember the exact wording here, but something similar to this happened to me once). My usual policy when a customer approached me with a complaint was to ever so politely say “I’m sorry, let me get my supervisor for you to speak to”, at which point I’d go into the back, tell the nearest supervisor that “we’ve got another one”, at which she’d roll her eyes and go out to deal with them. Hey, they got paid more than me so they can deal with these situations. This is a prime example of professionalism gone wrong if you ask me. Staff members in a cafe are not subservient to the customers they deal with. Customers are not worth more than staff members. They are all human beings, just the same. However, if you were a visitor from an alien world you could quite easily get the impression that we are divided by a strict class system where people are forced to serve those superior to them.

Another problem I have with professionalism is the way it’s shoved down your throat in the education system. From the time you start career sessions in around Year 10 at the age of 14 or 15, you constantly hear about this concept that you must act a certain way in society. It happened in school, at college, and again in university. In our first year of university we had a module called ‘Professionalism and Communication Skills’. In the second year, we had a module called ‘Asset Management’ in which we apparently got prepared for our placement year. In our final year (or right now in some cases, since those on placement year get a fast-track option) we have another professionalism module, where we have to write a 1500 word essay on professionalism. I wonder if I could hand this post in instead? I wonder how that would fly? In every educational establishment and university course you find something like this. A module tacked on that ‘prepares you for the world of work’. I’ve had two part time jobs in the past 4 years, and with that experience, as well as the experience some of my friends have had in the world of work, I can pretty much say that everything they tell you in these modules a huge pile of crap. They make you think that employers actually care about their employees. In my experience this is by no means the case. Employers care about their employees in the same way they care about a piece of machinery: a tool to do a job. They don’t care how you feel, or what your goals are in life, and they only give you the care required by law. All they care about is that you keep making them money. It would be much better in my opinion if these modules in education were replaced by something actually specific to what you want to do, like on our course for instance, Games Software Development, a module on game theory or the games industry would be much more useful than all this professionalism crap.

In summary, going back to what I said earlier, professionalism doesn’t need to exist. If people didn’t expect other people to behave like this, people wouldn’t need to, removing the entire need for professionalism. All it does is stifle individuality, and without individuality what would society become?

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