Professionalism in the Workplace: A Guide for Students and New Graduates

students and professionals networking in the workplace

When you graduate from college and join the workforce, how well you do your job will have a direct impact on your opportunities for advancement and your overall career trajectory. However, your job performance is only one part of the equation for career success. Your professionalism in the workplace is arguably just as important as your skills and expertise.

People who adhere to the basic principles of professionalism in the workplace develop a good reputation among their colleagues and supervisors. They become known as hard workers with integrity and a strong sense of ethical responsibility. And when the time comes to promote from within, managers may be more likely to reward hard-working individuals who demonstrate this professionalism.

Definition of Professionalism

Clearly, professionalism is important—but what exactly does it mean to act with professionalism? It’s a concept that can be challenging to pinpoint in exact terms. In general, professionalism refers to the conduct, characteristics and qualities of a person who acts with competence, ethics and integrity. Someone who behaves professionally embodies the following:

  • Accountability
  • Discretion
  • Reliability
  • Honesty
  • Self-regulation and self-discipline
  • Respectfulness toward others
  • Well-kempt appearance
  • Competence to perform their job

Some people might also include in this definition the possession of specialized knowledge in a field. As a student, this is something you aren’t expected to have just yet; you’ll develop it during the coming years in your studies and while on the job.

Someone who behaves in a professional manner is also able to stay calm under pressure. For example, consider a customer service representative who must deal with the angry ranting of an upset customer. Someone who acts with professionalism doesn't interpret the customer’s attack personally; instead, they stay calm and business-like and work on solving the problem constructively.

The Importance of Professionalism as a Student

It’s often thought that studying regularly and paying attention in class are the most important things a student can do to get the most out of their college education. While these habits are certainly crucial, they aren’t the only ones you should take. The way in which students conduct themselves inside and outside the classroom can set the stage for how successful they will be after graduation.

In other words, it’s important to adopt good habits now so by the time you graduate, conducting yourself with professionalism will be second nature to you. Furthermore, displaying professionalism as a student is a way to demonstrate respect toward your professors and fellow classmates. Remember that the way in which you conduct yourself reflects upon your character. In addition, behaving professionally is a necessary step toward becoming a responsible adult.

Tips for Behaving Professionally as a Student in College

Now that you know what professionalism is and why it’s important to exhibit it during your college years, it’s time to take a closer look at exactly how to adopt these behaviors. One of the most important habits to cultivate is punctuality.

Being punctual will be crucial throughout your life. It starts with showing up to class on time or, ideally, a little early. By showing up on time, you demonstrate to your professors and classmates that you value your education and you’re respectful of the importance of other people’s time. Students who show up late to class cause unnecessary disruptions to the lecture or discussion. Plus, they often miss important information.

Along with being punctual, being prepared for class is important. Students who are prepared have all the needed supplies with them (e.g. laptop or notebook), along with their assignments ready to hand in. They keep their schoolwork organized, and as a result, they don’t have to worry about finding a lost assignment at the last minute.

In addition, strive to maintain a well-kempt appearance. It isn’t necessary to wear a suit and tie or a pantsuit to class, but you should try to avoid looking sloppy. Instead of a T-shirt, for example, consider wearing a nice blouse or a button-up shirt.

Students who have good personal hygiene and show care in how they dress look polished and professional. They also tend to exude self-confidence, and as a result, they are well-respected.

Here are a few other areas in which you can embrace professionalism as a student:

  • Language: Unfortunately, it’s common to hear students use slang or abbreviations that are ordinarily used in text messages and social media posts. This is fine when speaking with close friends, but when you’re in the classroom or participating in a study group, it’s best to use more formal language. Professors may have a hard time taking a student seriously if they use slang excessively.
  • Class discussions: Assignments and tests comprise the bulk of your grade, but many professors also grade students on whether they contribute meaningful remarks to class discussions. Always pay attention in class, ask well-thought-out questions and contribute insightful remarks whenever possible. This demonstrates your critical thinking abilities and communication skills, and it shows that you care about the class discussion.
  • Assignments: One of the worst things a college student can do is to turn in assignments late or not turn them in at all. Since things happen unexpectedly that may delay an assignment, it’s best to try to get your work done at least a day or two ahead of the deadline. Additionally, put forth your best effort in each assignment.
  • Self-reliance: College is a time when you’re learning how to become more independent and self-reliant. It’s always best to try to solve problems yourself first, and only ask others for help when necessary. That said, if you do need help, don’t hesitate to ask for it, as there are plenty of resources on campus to assist you.
  • Mindset: Adopt the mindset of a professional, such as by avoiding procrastination. For example, instead of thinking "I don't feel like doing this now" think, "I'll do this now so I can meet up with friends later."
  • Courtesy: It’s important to behave with courtesy and respect toward your professors, your classmates, university staff and others. When you enter a classroom, library or similar setting, turn off the volume on your cellphone (and don’t use it during class). Also, avoid gossip.

Accountability is also important. For example, when you make commitments (whether they are academic or social in nature), you should keep them. In order to avoid having to break your word, try not to over-commit yourself.

Note that it’s normal for people to behave differently in formal settings, like the classroom, compared to informal settings, such as a get-together with friends in a cafe. You can dress and act more casually outside the classroom or professors' offices. However, you should still strive to embrace other aspects of professionalism at all times, such as behaving with courtesy toward others.

The Importance of Professionalism in the Workplace

If you embrace the characteristics of professionalism as a student, then professionalism in the workplace will come naturally to you after graduation or during your first internship experience. When you accept your first internship or job, you are no longer solely representing yourself. You’re also representing your organization.

As an employee, your conduct and attitude reflect upon your employer. An organization with unprofessional employees is less likely to be a robust company geared toward long-term success. It’s important to understand that your company’s success equals your own success, as whether or not the company is doing well will have a direct impact on your own future opportunities.

Employees who conduct themselves professionally develop positive reputations as being hard workers who are courteous and respectful toward others. In turn, they are more likely to be treated with the same courtesy and respect. Additionally, these employees are more likely to be rewarded for their efforts with opportunities for advancement, such as promotions or professional development activities.

Employee Dress Code

As an employee, you should follow the same general rules of professionalism as you did when you were a student, but with some modifications and additions. For example, it’s even more important as an employee to dress appropriately.

Review the employee handbook prior to your first day on the job and make a note of the dress code. It’s generally advisable to dress a little better than the dress code requires; unless, of course, it already requires formal business attire.

It’s common for new employees to dress better than their coworkers for the first few days on the job. During this time, you can get a sense of how your coworkers and supervisors interpret the dress code. Then, you can adjust your own wardrobe accordingly. Note that you may need to dress more formally on days when you expect to meet clients or otherwise interact with non-employees.

Workplace Culture

Your first few days on the job will introduce you to the workplace culture. Don’t hesitate to ask a fellow coworker about how things are done at that office. For instance, at some offices, you might send a quick email to a supervisor requesting a meeting, whereas other offices might require you to formally submit the request to your supervisor’s administrative assistant.

One of the trickiest issues to navigate while maintaining professionalism is office politics. Office politics can be broadly defined as the manifestations of power dynamics within an organization. These manifestations can take the form of gossiping, backstabbing, spreading rumors or intentionally withholding information to make someone else look bad.

Clearly, these negative manifestations of office politics are undesirable in any organization. In fact, they can be detrimental to your career and cause long-term damage to your reputation if you engage in them. It’s best to stay out of it as much as possible by minding your own conduct and trusting others to treat you in kind.

Personal Issues in the Workplace

Another important step in maintaining office professionalism is working to keep personal issues out of the workplace. When you’re at lunch, it’s fine to chat with a coworker about the latest blockbuster or your attempts to housebreak your new puppy. However, when you’re working on company time, you should be focused on your work; try to keep chitchat to a minimum.

Remember that it isn’t just your own time that you’re wasting when you’re talking about personal issues in the workplace. Nearby coworkers might have to hear the conversation, and it can distract them from their own work.

Social Media and the Workplace

Social media can be a great way to keep up with family and friends, especially if geographical distance keeps you apart. Yet, it’s important to use discretion at work.

Avoid using company time and equipment for checking your personal social media accounts or performing any non-work-related online activities. Some companies have strict policies regarding this issue, and your online activities may be tracked when using company computers. Similarly, avoid using your own devices for social media purposes when you’re on the job, except during scheduled breaks.

In addition, you should be mindful of what you post on social media. Even if you have strict privacy controls on your account, you should avoid posting anything negative about your job, workplace culture, coworkers, clients or supervisors. It’s always possible for your negative comments to be brought to light, and this can place both your job and your professional reputation in jeopardy.

Professional Development

So far, much of this guide has covered the behaviors that you should or shouldn’t engage in. Although it’s a major component of professionalism, your personal conduct isn’t the only part component. Remember that the definition of professionalism also encompasses your competence and specialized knowledge—in other words, your ability to do your job well.

Although you will no longer be in school after graduation, it’s strongly encouraged that you consider yourself a lifelong student. Always look for opportunities to expand your knowledge and skill set in order to improve your effectiveness in the workplace and your value to your organization. Employees who are committed to ongoing professional development are more likely to be rewarded with advancement.

Grand Canyon University strives to empower students with all the tools and resources they need for success as a student and in their professional life beyond school. We strongly encourage our students to make use of our Office of Career Services, which offers comprehensive career preparation assistance ranging from resume writing support to networking skills development. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to begin envisioning your future at GCU.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.