Professionalism in the Workplace

The transition from student to professional is exciting, challenging, and full of surprises. Successfully navigating this transition requires preparation, and the information provided below is intended to help you get started.

  • Behaviors and Practices of Successful Employees

    If you have landed an internship or full time position, likely you were able to demonstrate self-confidence, motivation to learn, interpersonal skills, and any technical or other skills the employer looked for during your interview. Your next task is to use those skills to smoothly transition into your role as an intern or full time employee.

    Follow these recommendations to succeed in your new job and advance in your career. Make sure to learn how to deal with common workplace challenges. Don't forget to brush up on your employability skills.

    Stick to Your Work Schedule

    • Always be on time to work.
    • Try not to take time off in the first few weeks of a new job so that your supervisor knows you are dependable.
    • If you know that you will be late or not coming in, call your supervisor as soon as possible.
    • Leave and return from breaks on time. Let your supervisor know when you will be away from your assigned workstation.

    Follow the Rules at Work

    • Know the company rules and procedures. Read the employee manual and pay attention to any orientations and safety lessons. If you are unsure of a company policy, ask your supervisor or human resources.
    • Act maturely and professionally at work and related events. You are representing the company. Avoid questionable activities that could lead to misconduct issues.
    • If you have a problem at work, follow the proper chain of command. Approach your immediate supervisor first, unless you are told to do otherwise.

    Dress Appropriately

    • Find out what clothing is acceptable. Read the company dress policy.
    • Always come to work clean and well groomed. Do not wear heavy perfumes or colognes. Go easy on the makeup.
    • Present yourself as competent and professional.

    Act Professionally

    • Be self-disciplined and have a good work ethic. Prove that you need little supervision and are serious about getting things done and doing them well.
    • Improve your communication skills. Speak clearly. Be professional in all communication. Use language appropriate to a work environment. Never use curse words. Avoid using slang or speaking too casually to customers and supervisors. Write clearly, with no misspelled words or abbreviations.
    • Improve your listening skills. Make eye contact and pay attention when people speak with you. This will leave a positive impression on them. It will also show that you are attentive and engaged.
    • Be flexible. Deadlines and situations change all the time at work. Being able to accept change adds value to you as an employee.
    • Manage your time so you can meet deadlines, prioritize tasks, and work on several projects at once. Avoid standing around talking when there is work or a customer to help.
    • Take on new projects or learn new skills. This shows initiative and leadership potential.
    • Be assertive and express your opinions and ideas. It shows interest in your job, leadership qualities, and creativity.
    • Keep your personal life out of work, in phone calls, and use of company equipment. Avoid using your cell phone (talking, texting, surfing the Internet, etc.) for non-work related activities during work hours.
    • It is not okay to check Facebook, tweet, text your friend, or answer a personal call on your cell phone while at work.
    • Never use alcohol or illegal drugs while working. Getting caught will not only put your current job in jeopardy, but could keep you from getting hired for other jobs.

    Get Along with Others

    • Be a team player and help coworkers with projects. Volunteer to work on teams.
    • Bring urgent or questionable matters to the attention of your supervisor in a timely manner.
    • Get to know coworkers who have positive and productive attitudes. Avoid people who are negative, gossipy, or have poor work habits.
    • Learn how to network. It could help you down the road in your career.
    • Be aware of political, religious, or cultural issues that might offend others. Most workplaces have policies to support diversity.
    • If coworkers' behaviors interfere with your job, ask a supervisor how to handle the situation.

    Have a Good Attitude

    • Be positive and friendly. Respect your supervisors, coworkers, and customers. Don't gossip.
    • Ask questions to reduce potential misunderstandings and errors. Ask for help when you need it.
    • Be calm and focused under pressure. This shows that you can handle busy or stressful situations.
    • Learn how to take constructive criticism or be corrected by supervisors or coworkers.
    • If you make a mistake, admit it right away and find out how to fix it. Take responsibility for your decisions and actions.
    • Don't let your personal problems affect your job. Keep your emotions under control.
    • Learn all that you can in your current position before looking for opportunities to move into a new job.
    • Use performance reviews as a chance to learn how you can improve.
    Some information adapted from Minnesota State, CAREERwise Education
  • Managing Expectations (or, Handling Disappointment)

    Most organizations do a superb job of mentoring interns. They recognize interns as learners, novices in the field who are trying to soak up information. They expect a lot of questions, leave room for mistakes, and make time for continuous feedback on performance. Often times they also woo interns with organized social gatherings and make great efforts to incorporate fun into the internship experience. This is very strategic on the part of organizations; they are using the internship experience as an extended interview for potential full-time placement, and they want to ensure that high-performing interns develop a certain level of commitment to the organization in return.

    Interns who are hired on full-time after graduation may wonder what happened to the organized outings and social gatherings they experienced as interns. It is incredibly important for young graduates to recognize that treatment of full time employees will differ significantly from how interns are treated. However, full time employees will benefit from being treated as real professionals.  Managing expectations from the start will ensure satisfaction during those first months of a full time job.

  • Ongoing Reflection and Self-Assessment

    Managing your professional presence will be a career-long task.  Take time to reflect on the impression you make when you meet and work with others. Also, consider periodically whether the track you are on is the right one. Use the list of questions below to guide your reflection.

    • What impression do you want people to have of you?
    • What feeling do you want people to have when they are around you or when they see your materials?
    • What word or phrase do you want people to say if they are asked to describe you briefly?
    • What words describe how you carry yourself?
    • How do you introduce yourself? Consider your tone, handshake, word choice, when you do it, how you follow-up, etc.
    • What is your message in life (which, by the way, comes across loud and clear as you work with others)? Write just one, two, or three words.
    • What do you value?
    • What do you really want out of your career at this point in your life?
    • What interests and skills do you have that you could contribute to your office? other offices in your organization?
    • What does your appearance say about you?
    • How do you hold yourself when standing? Sitting? When in meetings?
    • Which situations do you approach with confidence? In what situations are you less sure of yourself?
    • How do you communicate? Consider both verbal and written communication.
    • When and how do you network?
    • How do you take credit for your work? What do you volunteer for?
    • Whom do you choose to connect with? How do you approach making connections?
    • How would you describe your ability to listen?
    • How comfortable are you in any given social situation? (e.g. the office holiday party)

Once you have learned your job and feel comfortable with your role in an organization, we recommend that you have a conversation with your supervisor and other professional mentors about your professional development. From your supervisor, try to learn what it will take to move ahead at the organization. From your professional mentors, learn what steps you should be taking now in order to achieve your future career goals.

Bowman, J. (2007). Don’t Take the Last Donut. The Career Press, Inc., New Jersey.
Demarais, A., & White, V. (2004). First Impressions: What you don’t know about how others see you. Bantam Dell, New York.
Some information adapted from St. Olaf College, The Piper Center for Vocation and Career