Three Ways to Prove You're a Professional

May 07, 2015


Virtually every employer reports they have little difficulty finding smart, technically competent students for their summer intern and associate programs. However, many of those same businesses report that too many students lack so-called “professional” skills.

To convey that you are a professional, focus on the following three key concepts:

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Look the Part

This is one area in which earlier generations had an easier time of it. When previous generations entered the workforce, new professionals donned the “uniform,” which for both men and women consisted of structured suits, crisp shirts/blouses, and well-polished conservative shoes. Today’s rules regarding appropriate attire are less formal, making it easier for a new professional to make a serious mistake.

Before you head to work, if your employer has not specified appropriate attire, plan to dress as you would for an interview—not a bad idea given that a summer internship or associate program effectively is a multi-week interview. Then use your first week to observe key players in the workplace and take their lead. If junior professionals dress in suits, you should plan on doing the same. If instead “business casual” is the norm, you may forego a suit.

Here’s what’s absolutely critical: throughout the entirety of your summer employment, never confuse “business casual” attire with “casual” attire. If you’ve been told “business casual” is appropriate, khaki slacks or skirts and well-pressed cotton or linen shirts/blouses will almost always work. Store a “just in case” blazer or jacket in your office (“just in case” you’re unexpectedly invited out to a nice business meal or to an important client event.)

And please avoid these mistakes:

  • Ladies, sundresses with or without a sweater, are not appropriate in most business offices.
  • Gentlemen, if you don’t need to wear a tie, cover up your chest hair, which no one wants to see.
  • Torn jeans and shorts are never appropriate in an office setting.
  • Any footwear that draws attention is probably a bad idea. If you wear sandals during your commute, change into business shoes before you reach the office.


Sound the Part

Just as it’s important for you to look the part, it’s equally important that you sound like a professional. This requires that you sound confident but not arrogant. Before you open your mouth (or draft an email for that matter), be certain of the message you want to communicate, choose your words carefully, and speak succinctly.

If necessary, address the following specific speech habits:

Use of space fillers – When they are uncertain what to say next, many summer employees allow space fillers, words like “uhm,” “ah,” “like,” and “you know,” to pepper their language. Employers complain that these are distracting at best and make summer hires sound completely unprofessional at worst. If you are uncertain as to what you should say next, simply pause. When you next speak, you’ll sound thoughtful and deliberative.

Inflecting up at the end of a sentence – This verbal tic communicates that you are uncertain about what you just said. When you ask a question, your voice should inflect up. When you make a definitive statement, your voice should end on a down note. (If you need an example of someone making a series of definitive statements that end in periods rather than question marks, listen to Jon Stewart or any “real” newsperson.)

Learn to respond to “thank you” – When you turn in an assignment this summer and a senior employee says “Thank you,” respond, “It was my pleasure,” or “I enjoyed the assignment. Is there anything else that I can help you with?” Please do not respond, “No problem,” which completely diminishes the work you just did.

Develop a Professional Attitude

Attitude is everything. You can wear the wrong outfit to work once and still recover. You can even survive a meeting in which you seem less than confident about a particular assertion. But if you bring an unprofessional attitude to work, I can assure you that your summer work experience will not yield the job offer you want.

Following are five attitudes you need to demonstrate each and every day:

Be prepared – At a very minimum, once you enter an office, carry a pen and paper or an electronic tablet with you everywhere. This allows you to accurately record assignments and requests as they are delivered. Trust me on this: you never want to interrupt a senior partner to ask, “Do you have a pen so that I can write this down?” The only thing worse may be thinking that you can remember a very specific request . . . and then failing to do so.

Take initiative – Attend every event to which you are invited this summer. This includes every single meeting, training program, and business-social event. Employers schedule training events and meetings to increase your knowledge and skills. Show an eagerness to learn and grow. As to social events, these are scheduled so that an employer can start to know you as an individual. Demonstrate an interest in every single person you meet and the organization that has employed you.

Welcome feedback – It’s easy to receive positive feedback. Responding to constructive feedback can be more difficult. But here’s what’s important: if you’re told that you need to show some improvement, and then, if in fact, your performance improves, you will actually make a far more positive impression than the person who performed okay but never improved from their first day of work. With any feedback that’s less than positive, here’s your rule of thumb: own the problem and fix it!

Understand client service – In a knowledge economy, employers expect summer hires to bring to the workplace a certain threshold of “book smarts.” Possessing a client-service attitude will distinguish you as a professional. Focus on your internal and external clients’ short- and long-term goals. Demonstrate a desire and an ability to help them accomplish their goals.

Show some gratitude – A little bit of gratitude will take you a long way. It communicates that you understand your place in the world, which is not necessarily at the center of your employer’s universe. Gratitude can help you land a job, and showing a lack of gratitude can keep you from receiving an offer. Express your appreciation to everyone with whom you work, from hiring partners to office support staff.


What You Need to Know

Employers increasingly express concern with a lack of professionalism among their new hires. Prove you are a professional by looking the part, sounding the part, and developing a professional attitude.



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