The transition from student to “worker” can be a clunky and confusing one, even for the most prepared among us. During those years of preparation in high school and college, you might have received all sorts of good and bad advice for what it means to be a responsible adult. Give a firm handshake. Look people in the eye. Be on time. No religion or politics at the workplace. “Be professional.”
Providing advice on professionalism and decorum has always been a bit of a challenge for me. At best, prescriptive instructions on “how to act” provided minimal assistance to me as I gained work experiences. Sometimes, the advice of others has even had a counterproductive effect, increasing my anxiety as I’ve wondered which unwritten rules I was breaking.
Each experience brings an array of unknown variables regarding workplace expectations. There are many situations in life that cannot be prepared for, and an understanding about your new environment and culture is seldom achieved without experiencing how things are for yourself. No matter how many job descriptions you read, informational interviews you go on, and personality tests you take (although they can be helpful! Try Journey here), nothing can completely prepare you like your first day on a job.
And that’s terrifying! Well, it was for me (and still can be). Without getting into a prescription of my own, I’ve often kept the following in mind when in a professional environment:
1. Be yourself, but know the boundaries: How much more cliché can I get? But there is a lot of value to this. Oftentimes when people give advice for professional decorum, I got the sense that I was being told I had to play a role and repress my personality. I would never advise someone to do that! However, it only takes a few job experiences for most to realize that it is important to pay attention to interpersonal dynamics, which will then give you a sense of what is and isn’t cool to talk about. At the very least, it’s wait until you’re going for drinks on a Friday before you start letting it all out! Environment plays a key role for what’s ok to divulge.
2. It is easy to feel like we’re constantly under the spotlight, but people are often far more concerned about their own issues, pressures, and insecurities than whatever is going on with you. After a period of getting acclimated to what your workplace culture is like, you’ll find yourself worrying less and less about whether or not you’re doing things the “right way”.
3. Being genuine and caring about your work, those you work with, and yourself is a quality that’s important for any professional. How you communicate this can vary! Don’t believe that if you don’t constantly speak in an authoritative voice or give a bone-crushing handshake that you don’t care about your work. Being present and staying invested in your responsibilities will shine through if you mean it.
4. A bit of kindness and sensitivity goes a long way: If I ever WERE to have a “rule”, it would be to be gentle and considerate to everyone you come in contact with. Everyone has a life outside of work, and it can be stressful to manage those responsibilities and stressors while trying to stay on top of things on the job. Patience is a key virtue and everyone will be impressed if you can master it!
General tips are great, but they can sometimes only take you so far! If you have a particular situation or circumstance and you’re struggling in how to handle it as a professional, be on the lookout for our new advice column starting soon on our Tumblr page.
All the best,