The concept of professionalism is relative, because the definition depends on the people you want to impress. In some professions, a suit and tie are de rigueur to appear professional, while in others, stylish, cutting-edge outfits are called for. Observing the habits of people you want to emulate will help you become more professional as you advance your career.
The first step in becoming more professional is to watch those around you and put them into three groups: very professional, neutral and unprofessional. Look at your list and ask yourself why you put each person in the category you did. Next, list the commonalities of each group. You might find that professional people have dress, punctuality, communications skills and uncluttered work areas in common. You might find that the unprofessional people on your list gossip, complain, submit work late or send mistake-laden emails.
The most professional people often arrive at work first and leave last. Many employers are taking advantage of 24/7 communication to try to get workers to put in hours late at night and on weekends. You may not get noticed for this work, but you will get noticed for showing up early and not having your coat on and laptop packed at 4:55 each evening. Plan on being at appointments five or more minutes early. When you have assignments, submit them as early as possible, rather than at the last minute.
You might be the smartest person in the office, but if you can’t send an email without a typo, don’t use paragraphs, type in all caps, use emoticons and abbreviations such as LOL or send half sentences because you think it saves times, you look unprofessional and disrespectful. Use a salutation with most emails, even if it’s as simple as “Bob,” to acknowledge the recipient. Finish with your name and consider including a complete auto-signature so peers can quickly call or check out your website if necessary. Use the spell check function if you’re not a good speller.
There’s a fine line between having a sense of humor and being the office clown. Avoid getting too personal at the office: stay away from gossip and political discussions, don't share your Facebook page and refrain from discussing relationships. Show interest in your peers’ professional achievements, congratulating them on well-received projects. Send congratulatory emails to clients, customers and people in your network when you read about them online or in trade publications. Set up and maintain a LinkedIn account and join industry groups.
Even if you can find everything you need under the stack of papers on your desk, others may not realize that. Take the time to keep your area neat, at the very least cleaning up your desk at the end of each day. Keep your clothes and shoes clean, repaired, tailored and presentable. You might not notice scuffed shoes, a thread hanging from a jacket or yellowed shirt collars, but others will.
Whether or not you feel you need to use a particular social media tool or smart phone app, if many others in your circle are using it, learn it. You might not want to tweet, but it’s a good idea to know what Twitter is about so you won’t sound out of touch in group discussions. Not having a Facebook page might make you seem unsociable or behind the times, and without a LinkedIn profile, you’ll likely be seen as disinterested in your career or profession. Embrace new technology to let others know you stay abreast of the rapidly changing business environment. Listen to what your peers are talking about and note what technology they are using to stay relevant and part of the conversation.
Take advantage of opportunities to write articles for professional publications and websites. Join a professional association or two and serve on a committee. Speak at conferences, workshops and seminars. Top professionals give back to their professions and brand themselves as experts.
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