Professional Demeanor

Responding to U.S. executives concerned about the quality of America's workforce, U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Cho recently stated:

"American employees must be punctual, dress appropriately and have good personal hygiene. . . . They need anger-management and conflict-resolution skills, and they have to be able to accept direction. Too many young people bristle when a supervisor asks them to do something."

Whether you're a technical contractor or a project manager, one of the most important components of your career planning should be learning how to project professional competence and credibility. It's not enough to be an expert in your field. Other people must also perceive you as an expert for your career to flourish.

We've gathered a few tips to help you develop and project that professional image.

Become known as a professional who can get the job done right, and on time
  • Keep your promises
  • Don't make promises you can't keep
  • Meet your schedules and deadlines
  • If you're not going to be able to do this:
    • Don't wait until the last minute to discuss the problem with your supervisor
    • Ask questions or ask for help when you need it. No one knows everything.
    • Find a solution

Growing your professional reputation and credibility takes years, but it can become one of the most valuable assets in your career

Dress like a professional
  • You're being hired as a skilled professional resource. Your attire and grooming go a long way toward communicating that image
  • As a contractor or consultant, consider holding yourself to somewhat higher standards of dress and behavior than those of the client's employees around you
  • You don't have to make a point to stand out. Just keep in mind that you're a professional, and let that awareness be reflected in how you dress and act
  • For more specific tips, read the tips on our What to Wear page
Groom yourself like a professional
  • You might think that some of these tips would be self-evident, and that anyone would know enough to follow them. That's not always the case.
  • While cultures and expectations vary, in the US business world there's a standard expectation for personal hygiene. That includes:
    • Shower, shave and shampoo your hair daily before going to work
    • Groom and dress yourself every day as if you were going to an important interview
  • Do you have facial hair? Make sure that it's always carefully trimmed
  • Keep your fingernails clean, short, and unchewed
  • Think about how often you closely stand face-to-face with a colleague, discussing important details of a project
    • Wouldn't it be better if your breath smelled clean and sweet?
    • Keep a toothbrush, mouthwash, mints, etc. always at hand
    • And skip the garlic and onions for lunch
  • Love your tattoos?
    • Your supervisor - or prospective employer - doesn't
    • The statistics are overwhelming: Tattoos are generally considered unprofessional, particularly for managers
  • How about piercings?
    • Surveys again indicate that most employers do not appreciate these expressions of individuality, especially for managers
    • Other than subtle earrings for women, you'll look more professional with no visible pieces of metal attached to you
  • Haircuts:
    • If you want to fit in and look like a professional, keep your hair relatively short and neat
    • Stay away from unusual colors or trendy styles
Speak like a professional
  • This is particularly important for management consultants
  • You can't project a professional demeanor if you speak or write ungrammatically
  • Speech and writing patterns can reflect professional competence - or undermine all of your other efforts
  • What kind of language do you normally use?
    • Do you use slang?
    • Do you slur words?
    • Do you habitually use coarse or graphic language?
  • We know a consultant who's working in an office where people call out to each other, shout jokes across the room, and gossip loudly about other staff and customers
    • Would you want to become known as someone like that?
    • What does this kind of behavior say about work ethic and commitment to the project at hand?
  • Discuss these issues with your friends and colleagues, and with your recruiter
    • If you get feedback that's a bit negative, don't take offense; learn from it
    • Practice to develop more professional communication skills
Write like a professional
  • Careless language and omitted courtesies in emails may obscure your intended message, or communicate something other than what you intended
  • You don't have to become an expert on all the subtleties of grammar and syntax - but take the time to check your spelling and proofread your documents
  • Provide enough detail in your message so the recipient doesn't have to take time to write back to you and request clarification. This happens far too often
  • Read what you've written out loud, slowly, and see if it makes sense
  • Remember that what you write won't disappear. It will become part of the dreaded Permanent Record
  • Use Spell Check!
  • Enhance your professional image by learning how to write clearly and correctly
Use a professional email address
  • Which sounds more professional: Or
  • No matter what address you use for personal mail, use a professional address for all business and professional correspondence
Answer your phone like a professional
  • Here's one you probably never thought of
  • Everything you say or do communicates something about you
  • That includes the ring tone on your cell phone
  • We know of a consultant who has the theme from "Green Acres" on her phone. What kind of message does that send about her?
  • Select a ringtone that reinforces the professional image you want to present
  • Think about a piece of classical music, even if you're not a big fan of classical
  • Whatever you choose: Stop and think about how it will sound in a professional setting
Rely on your strengths, and communicate them to the client
  • Be who you are
  • Be honest about what you can do, what you believe that you can do, and what you can't do
  • You don't have to be perfect - just be truthful about your strengths and limitations
Make sure that you can do the job
  • If you're stretching your skill sets, that may be fine
    • But don't fake it
    • Be sure that your recruiter and the client know how well your experience matches with the job
  • When you come across something you're not familiar with, or don't know how to do, don't worry
    • Again, just be honest
    • Talk to your supervisor and find ways to address the issue
    • No one expects you to know every single thing about a new position
    • Don't be afraid to ask for help. That's better than wasting the client's time and money while you try to figure something out alone
Solve problems
  • Even if you're not an expert (yet) on the client's way of doing things, you still bring fresh experience and a new way of looking at the situation
  • You can gain credibility by developing a reputation as someone who doesn't give up when faced with an obstacle
    • Become known as someone who will tackle any problem, and usually find a solution
    • Build the image of a doer - of someone who's worth the client's investment in you
Learn to develop and maintain an open mind
  • This simple-sounding advice is almost impossible for many people to follow, but it can vastly improve your productivity and professional image
  • A view of your work that is too restricted or narrow-minded will impair your ability to contribute fully to the client's efforts
  • A parochial or narrow-minded attitude is clearly at odds with the professional image that you want to project in your career
  • Keep an open mind to new ways of learning or doing things and to new opportunities to learn or gain experience
  • Developing that outlook will help you become more flexible and adaptable
  • Instead of rejecting someone's idea because it's new (or not yours):
    • Listen closely to what they're saying
    • Decide to love their idea for 15 minutes
    • Then see how it looks to you
  • Look beyond your own assignment or project. See how your work fits in with that of other people
  • Seek to understand how work is interconnected
    • Study the relationship between your work and that of other people
    • This will actually help you to do your work
    • You will become more valuable to the employer
Pay attention
  • Listen carefully to directions and expectations
  • Take detailed notes and gather any documentation available that will help you understand the scope and requirements of your project
  • Maintain your concentration when receiving instructions and assignments
  • Don't be careless in your work, record-keeping or reporting
  • Develop the habit of repeating or "feeding back" what you've been told, to verify that you heard and understood everything correctly
  • Remember:
    • Write down directions and instructions
    • Keep your notes at least until the project or contract is completed
Maintain a full record of communications
  • In addition to notes based on verbal instructions, keep any memos or other written requests pertaining to your assignments
  • Save all emails with instructions, memos, modifications, additional requests, etc
  • Be sure to copy yourself (or Save mails you've sent) for anything related to your assignments
  • Retain this material at least through the successful completion of the project
Set specific goals - and do your best to meet them
  • This applies both to the work you're doing for the client, as well as for your own professional development
  • Establishing goals for yourself can give you a sense of purpose
  • Goals tell people that you're someone who is going somewhere - that you're a professional with credibility
  • The more people you know within your work site, the more resources you'll have available when you need them
  • The more people who become aware of your work, the more your professional reputation will become known
  • Search in your area for local chapters of professional organizations, and for social activities that will attract other professionals with similar interests
  • Everything you do will contribute in one way or another to your professional reputation
  • You can enhance your image by dressing and behaving as a professional, and by excelling at your work
  • You can undermine your reputation by unprofessional speech and behavior, and by carelessness in your assignments
  • Everything you do presents you with an opportunity to become known as a professional.
  • What you make of these opportunities is, in the end, all up to you