How to Be Professional at Work: 20 Essential Tips

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

Professional at Work

No matter where you work, it’s crucial that you always carry yourself with professionalism and grace in the workplace – especially considering how it can impact your chances of getting ahead in the company. Even if you work in a small startup with just two other employees professionalism is important - you don’t want a reputation of being the office slacker now, do you?

Luckily, we’ve put together a list of 20 essential tips that includes office etiquette advice on how to be professional at work.

1. Be respectful

Even if you think your supervisor is a complete idiot who doesn’t deserve their position, you should avoid ever voicing your opinion in a professional environment. Badmouthing them will only make you look immature, is bad office etiquette, unprofessional, and maybe even a little jealous – which is something you don’t want to be perceived as.

Remember to treat everyone equally, whether they’re the cleaner or the CEO. Likewise, respect all your company’s policies, even if you don’t agree with them – they’ve been put in place for a reason. So, even if you think that keeping your phone in your bag is completely ridiculous (especially in today’s digital age), you should still follow the rules.

2. Dress for success

Looking the part is half the battle when it comes to maintaining a professional image in the workplace. A good work outfit can make you feel more confident and ready for the day ahead – it’s kind of like putting on your suit of armour and riding into battle.

In other words, make sure you’re always on top of your game by dressing for success. This means closely following your company’s dress code to a T. You could even dress a little smarter if you want to – of course, that doesn’t mean going overboard and rocking up to the office in a three-piece suit if you work in a casual startup, for example. That will make you stand out – but for all the wrong reasons!

3. Be punctual

Arriving on time is perhaps one of the best ways to demonstrate your workplace professionalism and get noticed by upper management in the process.

So, if you have an important meeting at 9am, aim to arrive five minutes earlier. The same applies to arriving to work– you might think that strolling in a few minutes late for work isn’t going to damage your image, but your clock-watching boss will likely think otherwise.

4. Have a positive attitude

No matter how much you love your job, there will always be days when you simply want to give up and throw in the towel, whether that’s because you received negative feedback or a colleague said something to upset you. Whatever the case, it’s important to stay positive and behave as professionally as possible, so push any personal feelings aside and remind yourself of all the reasons why you love your job.

This also applies to when you’re given tasks to complete that fall outside your job description. Rather than complaining about how unfair it is and how it’s not your job, you’ll do good to shift your attitude and start accepting any additional duties with a positive outlook. This will help you progress your career in the long run.

 5. Be truthful and trustworthy

Having an open and honest line of communication with your manager is imperative, especially if you want to get anywhere during your time at the company or in your career in general. Your manager needs to know they can rely on you for anything, so make sure you deliver – whether that’s ensuring a last-minute booking is executed correctly or that you’re calling in sick when you are indeed sick.

So, next time you’re running late, don’t make up a ridiculous excuse; just be honest and tell your boss that you didn’t hear your alarm go off to show that you're trustorthy. They’ll appreciate the honesty and, in return, reciprocate it.

6. Keep your working area tidy

A tidy workspace denotes that you’re organised, that all your tasks are in order and that you’re on top of everything (even if you’re not). Not only will it make it easier to find important documents you need when you need them, but it also suggests that you respect company property and that you take care of it just as you do your personal belongings. A tidy working area will also help you declutter your mind and work professionally.

7. Mind your manners

If you tend to answer the phone with a half-hearted ‘Hello… this is John’ or reply to an email in text-speak, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You need to be following the correct telephone etiquette while at work.

Your phone greeting should always be professional and upbeat, something along the lines of: ‘Good morning/afternoon. Company ABC, John speaking’. Likewise, when sending emails, you should follow recommended email etiquette by adopting a professional tone, use correct grammar, include a signature (with your job title and contact information) and add an appropriate closing (such as ‘Best wishes’).

8. Be organised

Being organised goes hand in hand with professionalism, and the more organised you are, the more likely you’ll be recognised for it. It demonstrates an innate ability to prioritise and delegate, and that you’re a master of time management. That’s not to say less organised people don’t have a great work ethic (in fact, many geniuses out there are known for their lack of organisational skills), but until you make it to the top of the ladder, it’s a good idea to get all your ducks lined in a row.

9. Be tactful

No matter who you’re talking to, even if it’s your work bestie, it’s important to be tactful in the workplace. If you need to approach a tricky situation, for example, be sure to not act with emotion and instead take a few minutes to gather your thoughts to avoid saying something you may later regret.

Meanwhile, if you’re a manager, you need to be extremely careful when delivering both positive and constructive criticism. You don’t want your team to think you’re favouring or singling out another co-worker!

10. Go above and beyond

Your job requires you to perform a set list of duties, but if you want to demonstrate to upper management how capable you are and how you deserve that promotion, then you’ll have to go above and beyond in everything you do. For example, if you find yourself with nothing to do, take some initiative and find something to improve. Not only will this show you are keen to work, but it will also prove your willingness to take on new responsibilities.

11. Avoid gossip

Getting sucked into the drama of office politics is easy – it just takes a simple nod of agreement, and you’re instantly participating in workplace gossip or, worse, bullying. To stay professional, it’s best not to get involved in any theatrics – if you want to moan about Jane from accounting, for example, save it for your next get-together with a non-work friend.

12. Don’t slack off

It’s only natural that occasionally you will lack motivation and will want to slack off a little, scroll through Facebook or have a long chat with your work best friend – but just because everyone else seems to be doing just that, it doesn’t mean it’s right! Remember: your boss is likely keeping track of your performance and getting caught slacking off won’t bode well for your future in the company.

13. Set a good example

Following on from the previous point, your actions set an example for newer employees. So, if you’re talking on the phone all day (about personal issues) or shopping online, you’re silently telling your colleagues that it’s okay for them to follow the same unprofessional route.

14. Mind your body language

Have you ever noticed that all successful entrepreneurs have great body language? They sit up straight, stand tall and walk around with their heads held high. In other words, if you want to be taken seriously, you need to start acting the part, so watch out for how you carry yourself and how you’re presenting yourself to those around you: employers, colleagues and clients.

15. Don’t swear

Even if the rest of your colleagues are profound potty mouths, it’s best if you don’t join in. You never know who’s in earshot, and if your swearing reaches the wrong ears, rest assured their image of you will be affected. So, you better think twice before you start swearing in the workplace and avoid using inappropriate language.

16. Don’t be (too) competitive

While a little competition is great for boosting motivation and success in the workplace, too much competition can damage your professional image. It’s natural to feel insecure if a new employee has more qualifications than you, and your confidence may slump if you notice that your boss is showing more attention to another colleague. Feelings of competitiveness may lead you to overdo a task, become jealous and spiteful against fellow employees, or seek too much approval from seniors. Instead, focus on bettering yourself – become your own competition and avoid comparing yourself to others.

17. Work longer, if necessary

You may hate this one, but the truth is, working longer than required can reflect superbly on you. We’re not saying to add another three hours to your working day. Even an extra half hour will help you be perceived as more professional and passionate about your work. You might even arrive at the office a little earlier than expected. Instead of rushing to leave at 6 pm on the dot (or worse, earlier), try to stay a little longer to complete pending tasks.

18. Be supportive

Having good teamwork skills is yet another way to maintain professionalism. You must present yourself as someone who can easily be spoken to, relied upon, and trusted. When you see that a colleague is struggling, be proactive and help them. If someone is upset in the workplace, let them know that you are here to listen. Being interactive and supportive with fellow employees will not only put you in your bosses’ good books, but it will demonstrate your leadership skills, too.

19. Upgrade your skills

It’s easy to get bored of your job role. It’s even easier for your performance to start slacking because of this – something you don’t want your boss to notice. You can make your working life better and refresh your routine by learning new skills, or by simply staying up to date with new trends in your sector. Don’t let your skills and practices become outdated and add some sparkle to your tasks to impress management. This will make you appear professional and passionate.

20. Stay focused

Whether your pet is under the weather, or you’ve had a fallout with a friend, you must leave personal issues outside the workplace. Stressing about personal problems during work hours will affect your performance and work, so try to keep them separate from your professional life.

That said, if something is affecting you, the best thing to do is to speak to management and ask to take a personal day. This will make you look even more professional in the long run.

Being professional in the workplace can only do you good – it will set you apart from all your unprofessional colleagues and bring you one step closer to that promotion you’re after. And by following these tips, you’ll be able to accomplish just that, as well as make a good impression on your boss and those you work with.

Do you have any other tips on how to maintain professionalism in the workplace? Join in on the conversation below and let us know!

This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 14 June 2018 and was written in collaboration with Angela Stephanou.