Professional is a word you’ve probably heard constantly— in many ways, shapes and forms—throughout your college career. Your professors preach the importance of professionalism. Your parents insist you’ll get nowhere in life if you don’t start acting more professionally. Even your great grandma thinks you’d be better off if you swapped your bunny slippers for a blazer.
Professionalism is, without a doubt, one of the most sought-after keys to success. Wondering how you should go about unlocking this important practice? The first step toward figuring out what to do is knowing what not to do, so we conversed with collegiettes and consulted a collection of experts to determine the things that’ll send you straight to the bottom of the professional pool.
1. Showing up late
Many collegiettes think that arriving a little late is no big deal. Maybe the mile-long line at Starbucks held you up. Maybe you snoozed your alarm one too many times. Regardless, even if you still made it to class with enough time to add your signature to the sign-in sheet, late is late.
Tamara Peters, the Associate Director of Career Development at Rutgers University Career Services, stresses the consequences of failing to abide by the clock. “You’ll hear this again and again—please show up on time, or earlier,” she says. Sure, running late lessens the length of time you’ll get to spend learning. But, according to Peters, “It’s disruptive to enter a classroom or lecture hall after class has started” because you’re also taking time away from those who did make it to class with minutes to spare.
Peters says “punctuality shows that you respect your professor and the time they’re committing to educating you.” Possessing the ability to arrive promptly is proof of professionalism, so putting it into practice now will make you more likely to follow your future work schedule.
2. Completing assignments late
Every paper or project you turn in reflects on your work ethic. Therefore, falling behind on assignments is just as bad as being late.
Barry Drexler is the President of ExpertInterviewCoach.com, a source of programs and services that provide aspiring professionals with the skills needed to nail job interviews. He thinks “consistently missing deadlines on important projects” leads professors and employers to believe that you’re an unreliable person. Because professionalism corresponds to your reliability, missing the cut just won’t cut it.
Related: 7 Things Your Boss Wishes You Knew
3. Complaining and gossiping
While wine may be pretty popular, whining is not. Isn’t it crazy how much of a difference an h can make?
Drexler says “being negative in any way” is a sure sign of unprofessionalism. That’s because listening to you whine and complain will lead others to feel as though you’re hard to please and, ultimately, not worth having on a team.
Peters agrees with this, adding that participating in gossip could also land you in some seriously hot water with your classmates and coworkers. You may not be the only one with plenty of sour things to say about your supervisor. However, it’s always better to bring them up with him or her than behind his or her back.
All right, so it would be a lie to say that professionals don’t text. Even the most prestigious pros pass along a few digital words here and there. But professionals don’t text their ways through meetings.
“In today’s technological world, college students like to be constantly connected,” says Val Matta, Vice President of Business Development at CareerShift. She points out that “checking smartphones during lectures” is unprofessional because texting while we’re supposed to be taking notes tells our professors that we don’t care enough about what they’re teaching to tune in entirely. Professors aren’t oblivious. They can see when you text, and, believe us, it looks bad.
Flip your phone, put it in your pocket or do whatever you need to do to make it less of a distraction. Otherwise, Matta says your texting habit could rear its auto-corrected head in the presence of an employer and lead to trouble.
5. Disengaging from discussions
Matta also indicates that the negative connotations of texting have to do with the relationship between distraction and disengagement. “Interrupting a speaker or disengaging from the lecture fosters poor professional communication skills,” she says. This is because undivided attention is a two-way street. You can’t expect another person to consider you a professional if you are, as Matta states, “Making phone calls, texting, hanging out on social media or even running errands” instead of awarding him or her 100 percent of your attention.
Drexler adds that it’s your responsibility to know what’s going on in class or at work. If you find yourself asking questions about content that’s already been covered, then there’s a strong chance the individual on the receiving end of your inquiries is questioning your professionalism.
6. Forgetting who your friends are (and aren’t)
There’s a fine line between companion and colleague—so fine, in fact, that you may find yourself forgetting it exists.
“Friends are friends, and work is work,” says University of Puerto Rico - Río Piedras senior Ashley Ortiz. Peters agrees with this distinction. “Just like in the professional world, there’s a level of formality, structure and respect that should be given to a professor,” she says. “Don’t assume you can call him or her by his or her first name, and don’t communicate in-person or through e-mail the way you would with a friend.” No matter how buddy-buddy you think you are with your bio instructor, blurring the line could, as Ashley concludes, “cause drama and misunderstandings.”
This line can be even more difficult to distinguish once you venture into an internship or job. Vicki Salemi, Career expert for Monster.com and author of Big Career in the Big City, makes an excellent point. “Your supervisor might be around your age or younger than you,” she says. “Even if this is the case, you should always respect who you’re reporting to because the age of that person doesn’t matter.”
Acknowledging boundaries will allow you to be better off professionally, so do what you can to maintain appropriate relationships with those around you.
We’ve all had that professor or manager who drops F-bombs left and right. Should his or her potty mouth grant you permission to hop on board the expletive train?
According to Salemi, the answer to that is a big ol’ no. “Hearing your boss swear doesn’t give you a free pass to start swearing at work,” she says. It’s often tempting to model ourselves after our surroundings, especially in work environments. But Salemi clarifies that cursing right out of the gate knocks you down a couple rungs in the professional ranks because your foul language will encourage others to form equally foul impressions of you.
8. Forgetting to look the part
When it comes to work, impressions are everything. That’s exactly why Salemi says you need to be “polished, poised and articulate” in all areas of your life.
Temple University senior Maggie Andresen almost learned this the hard way. “I was fortunate to receive a paid internship at a respected newspaper, and didn't realize until my editor pulled me aside that the title on my online portfolio could be construed as unprofessional to employers. He told me it was the only thing that made him hesitate before hiring me,” she says. Although Maggie’s editor recognized her talent as a photographer, one seemingly small detail nearly blew her chances of working for him.
Of course, website names aren’t the only online obstacles. “Not every part-time job is created equal in the eyes of future employers,” says Regent University sophomore Michaela Bonner. “If you're a student by day and a bartender by night, don't fill Facebook with questionable or ‘sexy’ photos from work.”
Tidy up your timeline, tighten your personal brand, tuck in your shirt and take a moment to organize your desk. Otherwise, your sloppiness will, as Salemi suggests, put a damper on your professional aspirations.
9. Calling off commitments
Have you ever felt like you could—and should—do it all?
“This is something I've actually dealt with recently,” says University of Missouri-Columbia junior Micki Wagner. “For my journalism major, my school requires us to do a semester in the university-owned community newspaper.” Last week, Micki’s editor asked her if she could help cover the university’s homecoming parade. “I said yes, knowing I couldn't take it on because I have so many other projects I'm working on. But I said yes anyway because I felt like she wanted me to. Long story short, I ended up having to back out of the homecoming parade.”
The pressure to take on as many tasks as possible pushed Micki to overbook herself. Though other reporters were able to fill in and finish the job, she concludes that “the professional thing to do would've been to just say no from the jump.”
Case in point—committing fully to a few projects is more professional than stretching yourself too thin.
10. Making excuses
Whereas Micki owns her mistake, some of us are more inclined to blame our bad moves on everyone (and everything) but ourselves.
Peters points out that each excuse you drop eats away at your professional credibility. “If you’re not getting the grades you want or the results you desire, making excuses conveys that you’re not accountable for your own academic performance,” she says. Drexler adds that deflecting your errors or refusing to be proactive in correcting them might discourage others from working with you because it’s difficult to collaborate with a classmate or coworker who believes she does no wrong.
Have you been strutting down the path of professional success, or are you guilty of a few too many of these moves? Regardless of whether you’ve done none or every single one, these acts of unprofessionalism will always try to stand between you and a bright future. So, instead of swearing up a storm or pinning your pitfalls on your group members, Drexler, Matta, Peters and Salemi agree that your best bet is to sharpen your communication skills, solve problems in smart ways and stay curious about the people and places surrounding you.