Bring Back Professionalism

Ipcress File-Enlarged

“Culture is difficult to define… But for me the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching.”

What an astute observation. But a bit of a let-down when I remember it was made (a couple of years ago in a BBC speech) by Bob Diamond (yes, that one).

Nevertheless, regardless who said it and whether or not he was the first with this insight, the quote has got me thinking because it’s also an excellent definition of acting professionally when in front of customers. Now, unless you are in a profession such as accountancy, teaching or law, ‘being professional’ isn’t a term you hear very often.

Betraying my age, I increasingly find some school and college leavers seem to lack the tone and manner which many of us would describe as professional or even respectful. Witness, for example, the casual service we often experience in shops, even allowing for inexperience and the natural shyness of youth.

In wondering whether this really is a generational thing, it brought to my mind The Ipcress File which was recently on TV again. I always enjoy the way it captures 1960s London (where’s the traffic?) – as much for John Barry’s soundtrack (oh the twang of that cimbalom!) – as the espionage drama. Seeing it again this time, however, I noticed that, coupled with that typical British reserve in a range of characters less than one generation on after the second world war, everyone is possessed of a civility we now seem to have lost. The film’s protagonist, Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), is a secret agent and it’s a fair bet to say Harry is no Old Etonian – by which I mean he evidently was not raised to be mannered within an inch of his life – and yet he has a courtesy in his dealings with others, a professionalism which is displayed as he methodically carries out instructions from his (rather creepy) intelligence officer boss. Could it be because those were the days when adult men of all ages were never seen outdoors without a tie, or ladies their gloves? Fans of Mad Men enjoy the series for its indulgent nostalgia and yet I have a client barely past retirement age who remembers his first sales job when, as a mere 17 year old, he would never, ever, leave the office to see a customer without his hat.

So, how do your employees behave when ‘no one is watching’? If you have customer-facing staff, it might be instructive for you to spot-check how they conduct themselves when away from your glare, because the job can be hard enough without giving valued clients – and prospects – an easy reason to go and buy elsewhere.