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The Dos and Don’ts of Professionalism in the Workplace

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The workplace can be an enthusiastic, exciting, and—let’s be honest—confusing place. It’s filled with new terms, a new schedule, and a new set of unspoken rules about what flies and what doesn’t. You know you want to be on point and come off as professional as possible, so we’re giving you the ultimate tips on what to do and not do when it comes to professionalism in the workplace.

1. Do speak up.

You’ve got the job, now it’s time to prove why. Take a seat at the table (you deserve it!), and speak up when you have something meaningful to contribute. Trust me, I know it can be scary to put your ideas forward, especially when you’re a new employee or an intern. But that’s why you’re there. At first it may feel inappropriate to speak up, but it’s probably the opposite. Showing initiative and giving constructive, creative ideas shows that you’re a professional who’s there to work.

[Related: Public Speaking Changed My Life and It Can Change Yours Too]

2. Don’t talk just to talk.

While you definitely want to be heard, you also don’t want to go over the top. Ashley Stahl, career coach and TEDx speaker, said new hires can often speak just for the sake of hearing themselves, but she notes that if you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s actually more professional to say, “I don’t know about that, but I would love to learn more.” “Executives appreciate honesty,” says Stahl. “It makes sense that new hires don’t know it all. Be real—don’t fake an answer if you don’t have a real one.”

[Related: How to Take a Professional Selfie]

3. Do be a real person.

During my first internship in New York, I knew one person in the city: my boyfriend. Whenever I would tell a story about my personal life in the office I would refer to him as “my friend” so it wouldn’t seem like I was talking about my boyfriend all the time. But eventually as the summer progressed, my co-workers caught on and asked why I didn’t just say that earlier. I realized that while I shouldn’t necessarily be talking about my BF every single day, I’m a real person with a real life and sharing that (in doses) is OK.

4. Don’t gossip.

Like, ever. You know it’s not good to speak poorly of anyone in the office, but sometimes this kind of conversation can slip in so easily you may not even realize you’re doing it. However, Stahl said that this is by far her number one “don’t” when it comes to being professional in the workplace. Not only does it look bad for you, she said, but it’s unfair to make your colleagues have to listen to it or seem like they are involved.

[Related: 11 Movies Every Professional Woman Must Watch]

5. Do dress to impress.

When I first started to work, this was something I thought about every single day. The way you present yourself can say a lot about your professionalism before you even open your mouth — Career Services at California Polytechnic State University says that 93 percent of execs believe someone’s style at work influences his or her chance for promotion. I work in a more creative environment, so I found one easy way to check if my outfit was acceptable was to ask myself if I would be willing to wear it to my grandparents’ house. Obviously, I’m not going to wear a full-on suit to go visit my grandma, but I’m definitely going to make sure my bra straps aren’t showing and that my skirt isn’t too short.

6. Don’t dress like someone else.

On the other hand, you don’t want to show up in something you secretly hate or that makes you feel uncomfortable. Being professional is about being a polished version of yourself, not someone else entirely. People can tell if you’re being fake, so make sure to let your own style shine through.

7. Do pay attention to your communication.

Once you build relationships with colleagues or a boss, it can be easy to let your communication (whether that’s emails or texts) get pretty casual. But if you’re still trying to establish rapport in the office, make sure that whatever you’re writing is coming off as polished and clean. Watch your punctuation, your spelling, and take cues from your bosses on things like exclamation points or smiley faces.

[Related: #TellUsTuesday: Do You Use Emojis in Work Emails?]

8. Don’t stay quiet if there’s a problem.

While it’s great to be able to solve a problem on your own, being professional means being the one to tell your boss when things aren’t going to plan, according to U.S. News and World Report. Speaking up when you can’t solve a particular issue shows that you know how to take ownership of your work.

9. Do take initiative.

If you want to stand out as someone who takes a job seriously, always be looking for new projects to tackle, even when your boss doesn’t explicitly tell you about them. Whenever I’ve been able to tell a supervisor that I went above and beyond my typical tasks (whether that was doing research early or even streamlining a tedious process), she’s been impressed and appreciative. You want to think of your standard job description as a jumping off point, Stahl says.

10. Don’t be late.

Showing up on time is a quiet, simple way to show people you’re responsible and dedicated. And since about 17 percent of people are chronically late (according to study at San Francisco State University), you’re doing your due diligence to not be part of that group. Bottom line: Don’t be that person. Account for traffic, hair malfunctions, and general sleepiness—you don’t want any of these things to be the reason that you’re arriving 20 minutes after everyone else.

Photo: Caiaimage / Tom Merton / Getty Images

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