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College Grads Get Failing Grade in Professionalism

Written by Featured Organization on 23 October 2009.

greater diversity news career resourcesA nationwide survey of human resources professionals and business leaders—those who make final hiring decisions—shows that personal professionalism matters most when deciding whether to extend a job offer. The survey also found that a lot of college grads are failing that test. Nearly 60 percent of the hiring decision for new college graduates is based on an assessment of the applicant’s professionalism, according to a poll of 520 human resources professionals and business leaders conducted for the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania.


“HR pros and business leaders identified five primary characteristics of the professional they are looking to hire,” says David Polk, professor of behavioral science at York College and president of the Polk-Lepson Research Group in York, PA, which conducted the survey. “The research also found that a lot of college graduates nationally are not measuring up well in these areas.”

The characteristics are:
• Personal interaction skills, including courtesy and respect.
• The skills to communicate, and listen.
• A great work ethic; being motivated and staying on task until the job is completed.
• Professional appearance.
• Self-confidence and awareness.

Nearly 90 percent of respondents said that professionalism is related to the person and not the position.

Unfortunately, when human resources professionals and business leaders were asked to rate the presence of professionalism qualities in freshly minted college graduates, they gave out low marks, notes Polk. On a five-point scale where one was “very rare” and five was “very common,” none of the top five traits reached a mean rating of four.

One trait that did get a “four” rating was a concern by applicants about opportunities for advancement. That trait, however, is the least important to the respondents when they are considering a recent graduate for a position requiring professionalism.

One in every three respondents believed that less than half of all new graduates’ exhibit professionalism in the workplace.

When asked if professionalism has increased, decreased or stayed the same among entry-level college graduates during the past five years, 53 percent believed levels of professionalism were the same while 33 percent believed professionalism had decreased. Those who cited a decrease pointed to a young worker’s sense of entitlement for the job, changes in culture and values and lack of work ethic among new workers.

Entitlement, defined as a worker expecting rewards without putting forth the effort to achieve them, was seen as on the rise among first-year college graduates. Sixty-one percent reported the sense of entitlement among first-year college graduates has increased over the past five years.

Business leaders complained that many recent college graduates have a hard time accepting personal responsibility for their decisions or acting independently. Managers also said graduates seem to not have a clear sense of direction or purpose in the office.

Survey respondents found a role for higher education in addressing problems of professionalism in the workplace. Twenty percent of business leaders and hiring managers suggest that colleges help students work on their attitude or demeanor. Other suggestions include colleges doing more to help students locate internships or gain hands-on experience, develop an understanding of professionalism, and work on communication and interpersonal skills.

York College of Pennsylvania authorized the survey, in part, to inform its co-curricular programming. A comprehensive college with professional programs, York’s alumni reported they were prepared by the College to succeed in a professional environment. The College plans to use the results of the poll to inform future professional development seminars.

“The first step was to assess the state of professionalism among new college graduates as seen by the people nationally and regionally who make the hiring decisions,” says Todd McCarty, senior vice president of global human resources at Readers Digest and a member of the Advisory Board for York College’s Center for Professional Excellence. “Now that we have this information it will help us make decisions on campus speakers, workshops, and other initiatives. This information should also be useful to colleges and universities throughout the nation.”

The survey respondents were a nationwide random sample of human resources professionals as well as samples of regional and Pennsylvania HR pros and regional and state business leaders. A total of 418 respondents were human resources executives. The business leaders sample numbered 102. Researchers found no significant differences in answers among the groups. The survey has a 4.3 percent margin of error at the 95 percent level of confidence.