What professionalism looks like has undergone a massive redefinition since the age of technology. According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), professionalism for older generations means “wearing a uniform of some kind, talking in a certain language, carrying a briefcase, and perhaps, most important, keeping one’s private life private.” On the other hand, those of us in our late teens to early thirties “have a vastly different notion of what it means to present oneself to the world wearing [our] business hat.”
This chasm can make navigating a professional image tricky. But it’s not impossible, especially if you follow and respect a few basic principles of professionalism that, regardless of generation and time, will generally mean the difference between getting that job or promotion, and not.
How you look matters.
While dress codes at work have gone lax in the age of Silicon Valley sneaker-wearing geniuses, it’s still important to hold yourself to a certain standard of physical appearance in the workplace.
But that also doesn’t mean you need to wear a suit every day. For example, if your company permits jeans and hoodies every day, try pairing your jeans instead with a sleek blazer, or a nice crisp collared button-up.
Sprucing up doesn’t mean you need to lose your sense of individuality, either. If you’re a woman who loves to play with daring makeup looks, strike a balance by choosing a bold color for one area, like your lips, and stick to a neutral color palette for your eyes and cheeks. Here are some ideas from Glamour. If you’re a man with facial hair, keep it well-groomed and invest in quality beard and shaving products that won’t aggravate your skin. Harry’s, for example, has a shaving line that I personally use made with gentle ingredients and high-quality blades that reduce tugging.
An air of confidence.
When it comes to projecting the characteristics of a professional, the Monster Coach says, “Acting like a professional really means doing what it takes to make others think of you as reliable, respectful, and competent.”
You may feel like there’s little you can do to affect how confident you seem, but your body language plays a major role in both how confident others perceive you to be and how confident you actually feel.
And bonus: it’s something you can work on and cultivate like any other skill. According to one study, merely assuming a “power pose” for a few minutes can cause psychological, physiological, and behavioral changes for both men and women.
Your work ethic.
Physical appearance aside, your work is arguably even more important in terms of representing not only the value you offer, but your level of professionalism. This, I believe, is the point that the wave of casual workwear was trying to prove — a "don’t judge a book by its cover" kind of thing. Professional work is polished, comprehensive, creative, and includes thanks to anyone who helped you accomplish something.
Your ‘work’ isn’t limited to what you’re expected to deliver, either. It’s also how you communicate in a work setting. Any form of work communication defines your work style, whether that’s an IM, email, or face-to-face conversation. The level of care you take on smaller details like these clue others in on the level of care you take on your more measurable work.
To help you catch unpolished mistakes in your written communication, consider using a tool like Grammarly. To catch potentially harmful or unprofessional comments from slipping out when in conversation, before you speak, ask yourself three questions: 1) Is it kind? 2) Is it important? and 3) Is it helpful?
Again, this doesn’t mean you need to become what some may call “stuffy.” It’s a matter of being yourself, but recognizing that the office is a boundary to mind.
Social media is seen by many as a threat to professional behavior, but keeping our private lives private is less and less of a golden rule as we lead increasingly digital lives. In fact, as HBR points out, “your organization, reputation, and staff are living, breathing entities that need to be out in the world to be effective.”
Being out in the world today means being on social media, which can be a great opportunity to show off your best self. However, with that opportunity comes the great risk that you will share something that causes offense, or that ends up misrepresenting you, or simply can be considered an overshare.
If you don’t want to have to overthink everything you share, keep your profiles private. Otherwise, be mindful of how your feed defines you and the first impression it gives, because it’s more common than ever for people to look for or see your social profile before ever meeting you in person.