Help me be the consummate professional at work.
October 17, 2015 10:38 PM   Subscribe

I've gotten out of a ten-year plus job that was essentially (if not in reality) a protected workplace and not too difficult and now am going to tackle (have been hired for) a new, higher-up and better paying one (before the first job I was very sick for quite a while and therefore couldn't work at all so missed out on the opportunity to learn about much about the Big Girl/Big Boy details of life in the workplace). Because of this, I feel like I really don't know what I should be doing (besides the work I mean). What is your very best advice for being/appearing professional on the job? I know about not gossiping and being on time.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
It's mostly the same as being a decent person. Do what you say you'll do when you say you'll do it. Take responsibility for your actions. Pitch in to help your teammates when needed. Be honest. Be dependable. Be flexible. Know exactly what is expected of you and do that and more where you can.
posted by cecic at 10:56 PM on October 17, 2015 [4 favorites]

There are quite a few books out there about corporate presence. I would recommend Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. The advice in the book is not always good, and much of it is often very bad (plastic surgery!) but it does give you an idea of what people expect as "presence" in executive functions in a corporate environment. I find it useful to understand the expectations, even if (especially if) I don't intend to meet them.

Hewlett's book is more geared towards women, so if you are a man you may need to find a similar equivalent title.
posted by frumiousb at 11:01 PM on October 17, 2015

I think it's important to respond to e-mails, especially if time-sensitive. I'm the type that borders on procrastination-induced ADD and I either do something incredibly early, or terribly late. So, if I skim over something and don't respond, I forget and it's like it never even happened. Respond timely, if possible. Also, I'm glad you posted this as I have been wondering much of the same.
posted by lunastellasol at 11:01 PM on October 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

For the first while, don't take sides and don't weigh in too much; listen and absorb information so that when you do eventually weigh in or even take sides, you'll actually know what you're talking about.

Don't complain about work to coworkers. Don't complain much about your private life, either.

Check in with your boss every so often as to how you're doing. Don't be defensive if you hear there is room for improvement but do adjust accordingly. Be trustworthy.

Different places have different norms for "free time" - make sure you know what your culture is regarding browsing the internet, taking a full lunch hour vs. eating at your desk, receiving/making personal calls, and so on. Be more strict with yourself than your colleagues are for the first three months. Ditto with other culture issues like wearing headphones while working or attending a monthly office bowling night.

Do not ask for personal favors from colleagues until you're certain they're friends, and even then tread carefully.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:03 PM on October 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't ask a subordinate to do something you would not do yourself.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:06 PM on October 17, 2015

If I think about my colleagues that appear Professional they share the trait of positivity and bring a can-do attitude to getting a job done. Also seconding the listening and absorbing brought up by vegartanipla. There are work cultures that don't make space for this but I'd guess that if you focus on bringing a positive, collaborative, and active listening approach to the job you'll be a top notch colleague in any environment.
posted by gillianr at 12:29 AM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ask a Manager is really helpful for advice. I'm in my first full-time job and read it every day.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:42 AM on October 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've actually been thinking about this a fair bit lately, so sorry if this sounds sound-bitey. I'm not a manager-type, but I organize and guide the work of 20-odd people and do a lot of outreach to other groups, so that's where these are coming from.
  • Critique in private, praise in public.
  • Give credit, take responsibiity.
  • Manage up when you need to - your managers can't have the ground-level view you have. Help them help you.
  • Always provide top-cover for your people. Sometimes that means the shit rolls downhill onto you.
  • Never pull the ladder up behind you. It's only a path to success if others can follow you.
  • Insist on input, and insist people are ready to put their ideas to the test.
The big one for me is to give (and work to ensure your superiors give) people the tools to succeed and the space to fail.

Professionalism is often about being a locus of sanity, steadiness, and generativity in a mire of everything-is-urgent handwaving-while-running-in-circles-blaming-everyone-else drama.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 1:52 AM on October 18, 2015 [30 favorites]

Be willing to admit a mistake. No excuses, no explanation (unless asked). I made a mistake, I'm sorry, this is how I'm going to fix it/how can I fix it? Especially important if you can't fix it. And especially don't present it in a way that asks others to assure you it's okay. If you have difficulty with this, try taking an improv class -- seriously, this made such a difference to me in how I listened to other people and how I responded to them. (Never never say "Yes, but....")

Agreeing with Emperor SnooKloze: the best piece of advice I was given when I was first a supervisor was from a crusty old guy who pulled me aside and said, "In the Navy, the rule is criticize in private, praise in public." Really good advice.

Also seconding the avoidance of everything-is-urgent. There are few workplaces with actual emergencies: an ER, a nuclear power plant, a fire station. Most places it's useless drama. and staying calm makes you the automatic grown-up.
posted by kestralwing at 4:55 AM on October 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

Check out the Career Tools podcast
posted by pyro979 at 5:24 AM on October 18, 2015

Here's a nugget of wisdom from Ask a Manager that I think is really smart. It sounds simple, but hardly anyone does it.

Another piece of advice that I like (also from Ask a Manager) is that you should own your mistakes. Don't try to cover them up or deflect blame, but admit that you messed up. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this actually makes you look stronger and more confident.
posted by RubyScarlet at 5:51 AM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Over the years I've hired and supervised a lot of new staff. Things that are particularly helpful to new people:

* learn to actively listen. That means nodding, sometimes smiling, saying, "Uh huh," and "Okay," to the people speaking;

* listen more than you speak

* you're new and no doubt fired up and filled with great ideas. Take the time to discover if those ideas have been tried before. Chances are, some variation may have been done previously and you will drive everyone nuts if you keep bringing up ways to fix problems

* every workplace has problems and nobody likes a whiner, even if that whining is 100% justified. From filthy staff microwaves to no follow-through to incompetent management; everyone there already knows the problems. It does nothing to go on about the train wreck that all of these people have been able to cope with

* Definitely ask about the culture of lunch, breaks, headphones, wardrobe, fish for lunch, personal days, etc. It's really easy to start out on the wrong foot.

* After you've been there for a bit and you can see where your awesome ideas would help out, don't say anything yet. Just wait. You will piss off more people than you can imagine. Sit tight and maybe at the end of your first 9 months, you can make suggestions. Until then, be quiet.

*If you have to work on a team, ask for feedback. Maybe people respond to emails within 24 hours and you've been going 48. Have a point person tell you. Thank them for the feedback.

* If you have support staff, remember that it's likely they know a lot more about the organization than you. Be nice to them and treat them like valuable team players because they are. If you only go to them because you can't fix a paper jam and you don't take the time to ask how they're doing and offer to grab them a coffee, they can spread some unpleasant gossip about you throughout the organization.

*There will be office gossip. Stay out of it. Smile simply and don't get involved. It's hard but it can be done.

* Make small talk. Ask how people's weekends were. Be sure to have maybe one fun and quick anecdote about something you did to indicate you're an interesting person.

* Don't complain.

* Depending on the work area, find the most professional-looking office space and have your own space emulate that. Many dirty coffee cups, sticky notes everywhere, 3 dozen pix of your cats are all to be avoided. Over time you can personalize your space. But I've been shocked at how many new employees set up little camps in their spaces.

* If you're in a position to do so, try to bring other employees up with you. Give underlings more responsibility after asking about their aspirations. Don't micromanage. You will get a TON of goodwill if you believe in the abilities of those around you and help them succeed.

* And I can't highlight this enough: DON'T COMPLAIN AND DON'T HAVE A MILLION IDEAS TO FIX EVERYTHING. Your coworkers have been working within this system longer than you and when you imply they're idiots for living with _____ and never fixing _____, even if you're right, you will garner so much bad will. Don't do it.

* Lastly, don't run around looking harried and crazed. Smile at people.
posted by kinetic at 6:01 AM on October 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

I'd say in general be emotionally detached while still taking the job seriously. When things get hectic, the calm guy who is slightly bemused but effective is going to earn a lot more trust than an equally effective person who is obviously panicking and letting their self doubt show. People follow whoever is mostly calm and confident.
posted by deathpanels at 6:14 AM on October 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Such great advice above! I have recently heard a peer of mine, who is a great manager, described as "always striving to the most reasonable person in the room"-a goal in going to unashamedly steal from her. I have always tried to be calmer than anyone on my team-I think folks in crisis need their boss to be a solid, calm center. It keeps things from escalating and helps bring people back to their problem-solving brain rather than their reactive brain. I manage in a very high stress field-this isn't probably as much of an issue in other careers. I also try to figure out how to motivate and communicate with rah employee as an individual. One might need lots of gentle lead up and praise before any critical feedback, while another cant pick up anything subtle and needs me to just say it as bluntly as possible.
posted by purenitrous at 8:38 AM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't complain much about your private life, either.

QFT. It's crazy to me how many employees overshare. From problems with their kid's schools, tons of traffic and the route they take sucks, their car needs fixing, their mother-in-law is moving in and she's crazy, their kid is failing school, their cousin has a terrible medical diagnosis, their SO does nothing around the home, whatever.

People are conditioned to be polite and smile. And I've been guilty of carrying on about some annoying shit in my life because I made the mistake of taking basic politeness as co-workers really caring when they didn't.

We do spend a lot of time with our co-workers, and it's really easy to vent to them. Don't do it. People will remember your negativity and even if that doesn't affect your work performance, they remember that you're a whiner. They'll approach you hesitantly and with trepidation because they never know when you're going to launch into another "woe is me" problem.
posted by kinetic at 10:25 AM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Seconding what kinetic said. I made the mistake of mentioning to my supervisor that a co-worker sometimes drained my happy with negativity. That although I wanted to help by offering concrete solutions, they were simply venting and it frustrated me. I became the one in the office that got vented to and I was over it. Try not to become that person by being too nice or polite to shut it down and walk away because it can escalate.

The supervisor ended up notifying the manager who then addressed it with co-worker. Needless to say there was tension and friction. Awkward, so so awkward. Please try to avoid being in that situation or being that person. I did not foresee that it would happen the way it did, and if I had I would not have said anything. Although, taking everyone else's work complaints to supervisor got them to finally call a meeting and regroup with the team. So, a plus in the end, especially because I am no longer in the department and am hopefully going to be a part of a group that recognizes problems and then solves them. Resolution is key, but also knowing your audience and when that feedback will be accepted.
posted by lunastellasol at 12:08 PM on October 18, 2015

MAke the pronouns gender neutral, and generalize the experience

The Unwritten Laws of Business
posted by ohshenandoah at 12:09 PM on October 18, 2015

There's a lot of good advice here, especially never complain, never explain.

One thing I've learned is that no matter what my job title or description is, my number-one priority is to make my boss look good.
posted by lyssabee at 7:44 AM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

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