professionalism: a round-up

A reader writes:

I was hoping you could come up with a list of your blog posts related to professionalism and job soft skills that I could use to train new employees. A lot of our staff members are new graduates or haven’t worked in offices before and making “soft skills” part of their onboarding training would help set them up for success and reduce my headaches.

Sure! Here’s a round-up of past posts about various aspects of professionalism.

general advice on professionalism

what does it mean to be professional?

do you have to control your emotions to be professional?

how do I learn what is and isn’t okay at professional jobs?

can I ask my manager to coach me on being more professional?

you won’t find these 7 skills on a job description — but you need them

getting your professional tone right

what your tone should sound like in tricky work conversations

my manager told me to be less sarcastic at work, but I don’t want to

how can I keep my temper at work?

what you say

is there a professional way to call BS?

how should you decide which battles to pick at work?

how to disagree with your boss

how to say no to your boss (it’s a podcast; here the transcript)

how to tell coworkers “you need to do that yourself”

taking criticism gracefully

how to talk so your boss will listen

how can I handle interruptions when I’m concentrating?

how can I say “I don’t know” without saying “I don’t know”?

what you do

will my taste in office supplies seem weird or unprofessional?

is sitting on a couch for video calls unprofessional?

is it unprofessional to put your feet up on your desk?

can I use dark humor at work?

is it unprofessional to write notes on my hands?

are emoticons unprofessional?

when is it okay to address someone I don’t know well by their first name in an email?

what you wear

are people judging me for looking scruffy at work?

is it unprofessional not to wear a bra to work?

do women have to wear makeup to look professional?

is it unprofessional to wear the same clothing item twice in a work week?

some amusement

you, being unprofessional

more reading

the entire “work habits” section of the archives

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. ursula*

    Thank you for pulling this together, oh my god. It’s getting used immediately! I’m sure a post like this is a lot of work – sifting through the archives and compiling – but boy is it ever helpful.

    1. NotRealAnonForThis*

      Oh man, the stories! (I’m in an industry where we joke the average age is “pre-teen boy”, so you can imagine….)

    2. Lab Lady*

      Or… things that other people claim are unprofessional….

      When I’m teaching undergrad, there is a type of student that typically claims I’m being ‘unprofessional’ when I refuse to change their grade on request.

      1. Bowserkitty*

        They keep using that word…I do not think it means what they think it means.

    3. Kyrielle*

      I’m not sure my better (read more interesting) examples of unprofessionalism will actually help anyone, though. Getting so frustrated you slam a rolling chair across a room at your trainer is certainly a…thing…but telling people not to do it isn’t very useful. No one gets to the point where they consider doing that without having lost all connection to listening to advice, one way or another, I don’t think.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        No, but the point is not “here’s a list of things you shouldn’t do”. The point is to have a bit of entertainment and levity.

        Just because this is an advice column doesn’t mean it has be all advice, all day, every day.

        It’s also helpful to know that we are not alone in some of the cringy things we have done. We’re human, we do human things. We are not alone.

        1. Vio*

          Definitely! A lot of the advice here, while excellent, isn’t relevant to me at present or the immediately foreseeable future. It’s still very interesting to learn a lot from reading, but it’s the humour as much as the insight that keeps me reading (letters, replies and comments all). Not everything has to be constructive or practical, although the ability to provide both while also being entertaining is probably a lot to do with this site being as successful as it is.

  2. Mia*

    This is awesome. I was thinking this morning I need to have my rising college sophomore start reading this site, and so this list is perfect in both content and timing. Thank you!

  3. Amber Rose*

    I needed to buy a hard hat for work and I so, so wanted the neon pink one and I was afraid of not being taken seriously so I ended up with black. Sigh. It’s just that I have vivid memories of the Very Serious meeting I once attended in a unicorn onesie because it was Halloween. D:

    1. Mid*

      Can you add stickers to your Serious Black Hard Hat to add some pizzazz? (If you want to!) I think showing your personality at work is awesome.

      1. Amber Rose*

        I technically could, but decorating hard hats is generally not advised as it may hide damage. I can’t risk not being allowed to access the site. I’m on an intense schedule for that site.

        I have a Sailor Moon lanyard though, so there’s that.

        1. Warrior Princess Xena*

          In fairness that sounds like a reasonable safety precaution!

          I’d second the lanyard though.

  4. Pogo*

    The comments from that makeup one…wow, have things changed so much in just 10 years? I’m squirming at many of the comments!

    1. EngineerResearcher*

      Yeah, that was wild to read! There was so much weird guilt tripping about “why wouldn’t you want to look your best (by wearing makeup, which is how I have decided women look best)?” Hopefully we have moved forward a lot since then!

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      Whenever I see a question about women needing to wear makeup, I’m just astounded. This is just the weirdest question! It’s right up there with “do I need to wear pantyhose?”.

      That said, I came of age when Duran Duran were climbing the charts and I always think of how much makeup Nick Rhodes used to wear. Even he has really pulled back on how much he wears.

      Do what is right for you.

    3. Lucky Meas*

      But interestingly, the more recent bra post had many many people coming down on the side of “yes you still have to wear a bra.” It’s still very arbitrary!

  5. t-vex*

    This post is timely – I just registered a new/young employee to attend a weeklong conference with me in another state. It will be a great learning opportunity for her and she is very excited about it. I believe this will be her first time traveling for work (certainly the first time doing it while working for me). I need to give her some guidelines before we leave about what to expect. Any suggestions about what I should cover?

    1. Yoli*

      I’m about to take some of my teammates on a work trip, and it’ll be the first time for a few folks. What I always do is send a “Know Before You Go” logistics memo that includes details on:
      -Flight and hotel: This helps folks know who they can look for in the airport/rideshare with to our destination hotel. I also include the address and any notes about similarly-named hotels nearby to avoid confusion (e.g., Renaissance Marriott).
      -Conference/meeting schedule and how to get there (e.g., “the first session starts at 8:30, it’s a 10-minute walk”).
      -Meals, expenses, reimbursements: I get really detailed about this because 1) I’m in CA and there are clear legal implications and 2) I work in a field that has historically been really bad about this, IME. I include which meals are provided, the per diem, and guidance about receipts (save them, itemized, alcohol on a separate tab whenever possible). I also include guidance about cc authorization–that’s often new for folks who haven’t travelled for work before.
      -Dress code (people appreciate a direct “jeans are/are not fine”) and what to bring, e.g., laptop, notebook, etc.

      I send this to the entire group with relevant calendar invites. Closer to the event I’ll remind folks to set their OOO (I provide a script), and I make sure everyone has my cell number. The thread usually stays moderately active with folks looking up after-hours hangs and gauging interest in participation.

      I hope this helps! For context my org (and this group) is predominantly Millennial and Gen Z women, so this fits the culture of my space–you know best what works for yours.

      1. Be Gneiss*

        Can I just second the idea of a direct “jeans are/are not fine,” because that is really nice to not have to think about. Especially with all the different levels of “business casual” and the way that seems to be more casual in the post-pandemic times – except for sometimes when it’s not – anything that takes the subjectivity out of it with a clear yes or no is so helpful.

        1. J*

          My first work conference, my coworker sent me a “we wear jeans to this but bring layers because that presentation room is cold at 7:30 am” and immediately I was so relieved to have clear directions.

    2. Daisy-dog*

      Yoli’s point on dress code is great. Suggestions on what to pack for all situations – bag to collect conference swag, your own water bottle, comfortable shoes, a cardigan, etc.

      Overall, if your employee is a conscientious type, I would give a highly detailed list of how everything will work. General expectations, what is the free time, how to get food, etc.

    3. Whoomp There It Is*

      Adding to the “Know Before You Go” list above, which is awesome — give some clear guidance around expectations for free time. Will you be attending networking receptions in the evening, or taking clients out to dinner? Or, after the conference wraps for the day, is she free to relax at the hotel/go see the sights/meet up with a local friend? You could also share what you’re planning to do with any down time, as a reference.

  6. New Senior Mgr*

    I’ve been in the work world for a very long time but still saving this link. Valuable info folks.

    1. loglady*

      ITA. I’ve been a manager for almost 10 years and and bookmarking this for reference.

  7. help!*

    In a career-oriented online discussion group I belong to, the idea of dressing professionally came up when someone was reminded to do so for an interview by an HR person. Some in the group pointed out that “professionalism” is sometimes used as code against non-white/non-straight.

    The group could not agree on how to balance out professionalism with acceptance of diversity. Ideas?

    1. Nonprofit321*

      I work in nonprofits and have heard significant pushback on the idea of professionalism in several venues. One in particular comes to mind where somebody was about 20 minutes late to a Zoom meeting, then said “Sorry I’m late I know it’s unprofessional but I don’t care because the idea of professionalism is based in white supremacy.” I don’t even know what to say.

      1. umami*

        That’s interesting. I’ve heard the same about etiquette. My take is that certain norms are established as ‘standard’ (rightly or wrongly) so that people know what to do/expect in a given situation. It sounds like there should be space to address these standards in a global context to see what still makes sense. Not wasting people’s time seems like it should be normalized, so I’m also taken aback by that particular example; was there any conversation around that comment to offer additional context on their perspective?

      2. Lorac*

        …that seems highly inaccurate. If someone were 20 minutes late to a meeting in Japan or Korea, that would still be extremely unprofessional. In fact, they have way stricter rules of what’s considered unprofessional than the US. Even not cleaning your desk regularly is considered unprofessional.

      3. Jack Straw from Wichita*

        I’m 25 years into several careers, and I’m aligned with the person you quoted. I use appropriate instead of professional. What’s appropriate for an entry level phone agent at my org is jeans with ripped gems and a tshirt with Crocs. What’s appropriate for me as a member of leadership is trouser jeans or linen pants, a blouse or dressy T, and a cardigan or denim jacket with flats.

        That phone agent isn’t unprofessional in Crocs, but I would be. (Even though I live in them the 3-4 days I WFH. lol)

      4. J*

        I know people are going to push back on the reality of this happening but I have had this happen multiple times in my nonprofit work. It’s uncomfortable usually too because 1) it was usually (but not exclusively) white women co-opting this language, 2) they would pop onto calls with Black women and say that to them, after making them wait, 3) I was acting in a role that required professional supervision from the late person so I couldn’t operate solo, and 4) we had billable time, thankfully to funders and not the individual left waiting but they would bill as if they hadn’t been late. So many people did this. It made me realize the organization was not a good (or ethical per my licensure) fit.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      I think we can talk about respectful and appropriate interview clothes without even evoking the “professional” label, not that there’s anything wrong with that term. It’s using it all alone that’s the problem. The appropriate outfit for a job in a law office vs a manufacturing plant vs a business in creative fields or in IT is very different.

      I think it’s more relevant to be given more specific instructions such as “when going to an interview, you’re making a first impression, so make sure that your clothes are appropriate to the setting – and lean to the more polished and put together than not, which means that they’re clean, not rumpled, fit well, and don’t call attention to themselves.” And if you don’t know the target dress code for a particular business or industry, it’s a good idea to check in and/or research. (Company websites or social media with pics of employees or even workspaces can give you plenty of clues about the culture.)

      As for the sidetrack about being 20 minutes late for a meeting, yeah, that’s just not respectful of other people’s work time.

      1. Jack Straw from Wichita*

        FWIW, we’ve redefined “professionalism training” (what was asked for) as “how to be a successful [insert position title here]” because of the reasons several commenters (and Alison in many posts) mention regarding patriarchal white supremacy.

        1. It’s message is way more positive: here’s how to be successful in your new job vs. you are unprofessional and need help. And 2. It was easier for the people who ARE successful in the role to identify what they do vs. how they do this abstract concept of professionalism.

  8. Jack Straw from Wichita*

    My team trains entry level folks in an office environment, and many of them have never held a job outside of a factory, food service, or retail even though they have extensive work history. THANK YOU. We have a new hire cohort starting on Monday, so it’s going into use immediately!

  9. BobTheTriscuit*

    I’m sure Allison’s commented on it before and I simply can’t find it, but I’d love to see some talk on how to deal with weaponized professionalism, by which I mean bosses and co-workers use critiques of professionalism to get things they want from you and get out of things you want from them. Don’t want to cancel your plans for Saturday and work 7 hours? You have to, professionalism requires it! You actually want to leave early on Wednesday because you came in on Saturday? That’s crazy, and it’s unprofessional of you to even ask! Point out this dynamic? What a shocking display of professionalism, or lack thereof!

  10. Cheeks*

    Thank you so much for this question, OP and for your response, Allison!! This couldn’t have come at a better time as I find myself at a new position, about to work with a junior employee who’s been here longer than me. I have many more years experience, but I recognize the work they’ve put in so far and want to be a kind and respectful leader, while also staying firm to the process that keeps us both held accountable for our work. We’ll see how it goes!

  11. FORMERHigherEdPerson*

    This is so helpful!! I use your blog as a coaching resource for clients all the time, so having a lot of these in one post is great!

  12. Leslie Hell Knope*

    Very useful question, LW, thank you!
    Alison, I think this is your next book right here. The rise in WFH means many people new to the work world will have fewer opportunities for the osmosis-like learning most of us went through, but will still be expected to know these things and behave a certain way. And regardless of that, this info can really benefit people who, for a multitude of reasons, have had limited exposure to these unspoken rules and codes of behavior.
    At the same time (perhaps with the aid of some of the wonderful experts you’ve invited on the website over the years) the book could also highlight that this “rule book” is very much socially constructed and question some of the rules a little bit, moving forward conversations about diversity in the workplace.
    I truly think there’s an opportunity here and, if anyone can do it in a light, honest, serious-but-relatable way, it’s you. In the meantime, saving and sharing this round-up A BUNCH. Thank you!

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