On the Ethics of Professionalism

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This article is a plea for human empathy, for connection, for community. For all the things that make us human. That may not come across as “professional” to some people. Which is why it’s necessary.

I recently wrote a post about the true story of a father stranded on the road with his little girl, unable to get cellphone service, and how she almost died because no one was willing to stop and help.

I ended the article by arguing that human beings need each other and have a moral obligation to be ‘the person who stops.’ Almost every religion and philosophy I know of would agree with that statement. And yet it seems oddly out of place in contemporary America – particularly in professional environments. Posts about topics of social justice on LinkedIn often garner comments about how such topics don’t belong here and aren’t “professional.

It makes me wonder what is the point of a version of professionalism that undermines human solidarity and strips away the moral framework by which ethical human beings live their lives? Yes, the goal of business is to make money, but the goal of being human is to live a good life. And it is entirely possible to deliver value for shareholders and stakeholders while also looking out for the people around us.

As I consider that moral framework and what ethical professionalism looks like, I think it comes down to two main things.

1. Be the person who stops to help

We all make choices every day about how to prioritize our time and resources and it’s very easy to get focused on our own destinations and not stop to help someone in need.

This is most evident after something like a round of layoffs where people are often thrown to the wind with little or no support. Taking the time to stop can be as simple as writing a great recommendation for a former colleague or forwarding them job listings they’d be qualified for. Over and over I’ve seen people recoil from former colleagues, as though they thought being let go was contagious, instead of leaning in to lend a hand. Everyone gets laid off sooner or later in this industry, it’s a fact of life. So why not treat former colleagues the way we would want to be treated? Besides, in a volatile startup world, professional relationships often span multiple companies. The person who you help today may well return the favor next time you’re looking for an opportunity. 

Even outside the extreme circumstances of a layoff, there are plentiful opportunities to stop and help. It might be as simple as telling a colleague that you appreciate them, that their work matters, that they did something well. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but a simple thank you can be powerful and lift someone’s spirits when things are harder than you know.

That goes double for anyone in a management position – your people will do their best work if they know they can trust you to have their backs.   I’ve built the culture of thank you into my team management strategy – every month my entire team spends an hour together going around in a circle and each person gets the opportunity to say thank you to colleagues who’ve made a difference and gone the extra mile, after which we set goals for the next month. It sounds cheesy, but it makes a real difference in team morale. People who feel seen and appreciated are more focused and more productive. What could be more ‘professional?’

2. Be the person who stops to speak up

Stopping for people inside our circles is hard enough, but what about people outside them? I’ve written here before about what I see as the moral obligation to pay privilege forward and use whatever power one possesses to lift up others.  As a white man in a society where my identity gives me certain advantages, I have a clear moral obligation to support my colleagues from other demographics in the unique challenges they face. 

Some people may mistake this for white guilt, which is generally useless and counter-productive, but that would be missing the point. Guilt about the actions my ancestors took or didn’t take is irrelevant, what matters is that here and now I have some small degree of power and influence and so I should use it to lift up and support everyone around me.

Is doing so part of professionalism? If the Harvard Business Review is correct and diverse teams make better products, the answer is clearly yes. In fact, it would be negligent of me as a product leader not to speak up for diversity in hiring and make sure that opportunities to advance are available to all! By the same logic, advocating for things like comprehensive parental leave, speaking out against age discrimination, and other forms of advocacy that make the workplace more accessible and equitable are essential components of ethical professionalism. 

Humans are social animals, we need each other. And if I have the means and the opportunity to help someone who genuinely needs my help, I have a moral obligation to deliver it.

Further, the obligation to use one’s voice increases alongside one’s influence. Power implies responsibility and at this stage in my career as a Head of Product I have plentiful opportunities to be an advocate.


In both cases above, my concern about morality and ethics here is focused on my own behavior. The only person in the world who I control is me. My responsibility to my fellow human beings is to be the best version of myself that I can and lift up the people I interact with – it is not my place to judge them for decisions about things that do not affect me. Your morality is between you and your conscience, just as mine is mine alone. I feel like this is a crucial distinction – far too often people performatively police others’ actions as a way to distract from their own shortcomings. Doing so seems both unethical and unprofessional.

There are also, obviously, ethical considerations about what sort of work a person does which are beyond the scope of this article and about which people have strong feelings.

What does ethical professionalism mean to you?