Understanding professionalism as it pertains to the workplace can be a new, unfamiliar, and overwhelming subject. Professional etiquette is about presenting yourself with polish and professionalism that demonstrates you can be trusted and taken seriously. Professional etiquette means being comfortable around people and making them comfortable around you.
Below are some basic tips to keep your professionalism on point.
In a professional setting, it is not appropriate to discuss sensitive topics like politics or religion. Use caution when asking questions that might be perceived as too personal, such as “Do you have kids?”. Need more help with small talk? Visit our networking page.
A handshake is the formal cultural-norm in the United States for professional business engagements, and a handshake is often done when greeting someone and when closing out a meeting or departing. Most professional situations are appropriate for a handshake including an interview, networking event and business meeting.
- Make strong eye contact and offer a greeting before and during the handshake. “Hi, my name is…”
- Your handshake should be firm, but not crushing. Don’t offer up a sweaty floppy hand. No one wants to shake a fish hand!
- When you shake hands you want them to align, web-to-web and shake firmly for one or two shakes. Check this video out, if you like Austrailian accents, oh, and if you want to see the Top 10 Handshakes to Avoid!
Don’t ruin your professional image by posting something online that can be misinterpreted. In the digital age of growing social media platforms, you need to consider how your comments, posts, and information could be perceived. A professional contact doesn’t need to see a photo of what you had for lunch or know what political candidate you despise.
Set your social network privacy settings to private. However, assume everything you put online could be viewed (or hacked) by your grandmother, least favorite person, and future employer. We don’t know too many computer hacking-grannies, but you get the point. Remove anything you wouldn't want that audience to see.
Don't try to make professional connections on the wrong social network. In the workplace, LinkedIn is a solid professional social platform to connect with clients, colleagues, supervisors, and contacts. Trust us, your boss doesn’t want to be tweeted or receive snaps. When in doubt, don’t tweet it out!
Google yourself. Look through the search results for your name (and location) and see what comes up. You can bet potential employers are doing this too.
Sometimes meetings or interviews will take place over a meal, and there are a few things you can do to ensure it goes well. When in doubt, follow the lead of the host.
- Once seated, immediately put your napkin on your lap.
- If there are multiple forks and spoon options at your place setting, just start from the outside working in towards your plate for each course.
- Drinkware is on the right, bread and salad plates to your left.
- Order a manageable food item – avoid items that are messy, difficult to eat, or could leave you with food in your teeth such as salad or spaghetti.
- Don’t order the most expensive item on the menu.
- Do not order alcohol on an interview. Don’t order seconds on anything, including drinks.
- Wait to eat until everyone at the table has been served.
- Be gracious to everyone you encounter and treat the waitstaff with respect.
Alcohol may be served at a company function or perhaps a dinner interview. Use caution when consuming alcohol with colleagues, clients, and supervisors. You don’t want to be that person who has too much to drink at the office holiday party or summer barbecue.
- Do not order alcohol on an interview.
- Once hired, when representing your company or your manager, it is preferable to order something other than alcohol. It is acceptable to decline alcohol. If you do order alcohol, stick to beer or wine and only one drink.
- When ordering alcohol, stick to what you know. A business meeting is no place to try red wine for the first time…yeah, I’m talking to you, Sour Face.
- If you are asked to choose wine for the table and aren’t sure what to pick, ask the waitperson or wine steward for assistance.
- If you are in an industry where you are using company funds for alcohol purchases, be sure you are clear about the company policies for charging booze on the company’s dime.
- Be aware of federal and state laws as they pertain to your employer and industry. Just because marijuana is legal in Washington State does not mean that your employer will be accepting of you using it. In some instances, like federal jobs and law enforcement, for example, use of marijuana is prohibited.
- Workers should avoid any substance that can impact their judgment or fine motor skills.
- Substance use and abuse can be grounds for termination with most organizations and many employers will require you to pass a drug screening prior to being hired. They may also administer random drug tests over the course of your employment.
If substance use is not covered in your new employee orientation you should ask your supervisor or Human Resources department to refer to the company’s policies.
Email is vital to maintaining professional communication. Note that email provides an easy opportunity for information to be misinterpreted so choose your words carefully. It is also important to return emails in a reasonable timeframe, sitting on an email for weeks is unprofessional.
- Always use a subject line and make sure it reflects the purpose of your email.
- Don’t use text-message abbreviations such as LOL, BTW, OMG, or emojis.
- Start your email with a salutation (Dear John, Good morning Mrs. Smith, Hi Kevin) and end it with a closing such as "Sincerely", "Respectfully", "Thank You", "Best", etc.
- Avoid using the word “love” in any professional communication
- Spelling and grammar matter, check what you type before hitting send.
- Respond in a professional timeframe, usually 24-48 business hours. Note your employer or industry may have different expectations. If an email requires a longer response time, then let the person know that as a professional courtesy, “Thanks for your message, I’ll have that report to you by close of business next Thursday.”
- Stick with standard fonts and colors. Work emails are not the place to express your creative side.
- Use the “reply all” feature with caution. Not everyone needs to see your response to an email.
- Check the tone of your email to make sure it sounds polite and respectful.
- Don't use all caps. It signifies yelling and looks unprofessional.
- Check attachments to make sure they are correct and not too large of a file size.
- Doublecheck that you are sending to the correct email address.
RSVP is a French term commonly used to solicit a response to note if you will attend a function or not; it means “please respond”. When you are asked to RSVP for something it is expected that you will reply. If you accept an invitation it is your professional responsibility to see that commitment through. Should something urgent arise that prohibits your participation it is your responsibility to be accountable and communicate your absence to the host or meeting organizer.
Please read our policies on the subject if you plan on registering for a professional event with EWU Career Services.
How you dress for a professional situation like an interview, networking event, or a day in the office varies by organization, situation, industry, and culture. When in doubt, it's better to opt for a more professional look.
See examples of business formal/professional and business casual attire on our Pinterest page.