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Strengthening the Front Line

Professional impressions—Everyday practices
are critical to success

Small lapses can create lasting impressions

By Emily Huling, CIC, CMC

What happened to the days when bosses paid attention to their employees' work habits, business practices, and social behavior and gave constructive feedback on what they found? I'm not a fan of micro-management, but sometimes people need to be educated or reminded about proper business etiquette, professional office practice, or even personal habits that are detrimental to their effectiveness or career success.

I visit countless offices, sit in a lot of employee workstations and review work, and I meet one-on-one with many people. What I observe confirms that most bosses could do a better job of noticing and, when appropriate, offering advice based on the conduct they witness.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? I was lucky enough to have benefited from bosses who had the interest and, by today's standards, the courage to comment on personal and professional matters that affected my career success.

During a one-on-one meeting when I was a commercial casualty underwriter, Phil, my supervisor, asked if he could tell me something that would help me. "Of course," I said. (Take note, that's an effective way to begin a sensitive discussion.) He asked me if I realized that I nodded my head when others spoke. No, I didn't know. He told me that when I nodded my head, it could be taken that I was implying agreement. He thought I might be just doing it out of habit to let someone know that I was listening. Phil was right! I didn't even realize I was doing it. I'm sure it was annoying to people who talked to me in person on a regular basis. Thank goodness he told me.

Ray, another underwriting supervisor, reminded me during an impromptu performance review to delegate work to the rating staff, not to do the work myself. Delegating to others is difficult for many people, he acknowledged. We make excuses that it's easier or faster to do it ourselves. We are assured that the work is done the way we want it done when we complete it ourselves. Ray helped me understand that not delegating work to those whose job it is to do that work is actually insulting to coworkers. We're essentially telling them that we don't trust them to do the job accurately or promptly. Not delegating causes friction between coworkers and between supervisors and direct reports. After that eye-opening moment in my work experience, I was diligent about following workflow and procedures. I started taking time to thoroughly communicate instructions and educate others when needed. Those work qualities have served me well throughout my entire career.

Check out these other day-to-day issues that impact professionalism, productivity, and credibility to see how you do.

Correcting others' mistakes yourself. Many of the same reasons why we don't delegate work apply to correcting others' work. We believe it's quicker, it's no big deal to do it ourselves, you feel bad bothering them, or you want to avoid a confrontation. But the error may be an education issue that will recur if it's not discussed. Then a negative cycle begins. Many times when I've been involved to correct a chronic performance situation I hear, "I've been doing it that way for years and no one ever mentioned it." Not addressing persistent work inaccuracies is a losing proposition for all parties.

Texting during meetings or meals. But what if I need to, you ask. It doesn't make any noise and I'm not bothering anyone. Here's my response to those justifications. It's rude. If you need to communicate with someone not present in the room, in any format, excuse yourself and leave the room. If you don't do that, you are telling those you are with that someone or something is more important than they are. Here's a recent example of how out-of-place texting played out for a college student during a coveted summer internship program. The intern texted at the table during a business lunch. With one keystroke she was automatically disqualified as a potential hire. She was a great student and super worker. Wouldn't you think that sometime in a college career preparation class she would have been taught basic business protocol and etiquette? Apparently not.

That being said, there is new business mobile device etiquette that applies in some classroom or group gatherings (not private meetings or meals). The new rule sanctions using mobile devices during the meeting and encourages that they be kept out in the open. It makes sense if you think about it. We're hooked on learning more about something or responding to a message immediately. Instead of people hiding their devices on their laps (like we don't know what they're doing, right?), encourage participants to keep their electronics on the table and, of course, silent. When I present at public events, I let everyone know it's permissible to use their electronics in this manner. It makes for a much more relaxed meeting and people are generally courteous.

Business dining etiquette. Having a meal together is a relaxed way for colleagues to get to know one another outside of an office setting. But be careful not to get too comfortable and lower your professional standards both in conversation and dining etiquette. Volumes have been written about dining etiquette, but here are just a few tips to sharpen your professional presentation.

If you are the host, make reservations. This demonstrates that you've thought ahead, prevents long waits or no available tables. Let the server know you get the check. Allow your guests to order first.

A few notes about table etiquette. Place your napkin on your lap immediately upon being seated. If the silverware is wrapped in the napkin, place the silverware in the traditional position in front of you.

Don't talk with a full mouth. Take small bites. When eating a sandwich, consider cutting it in half or quarters to make it more manageable. When cutting food with a knife and fork, don't cut all of your food at one time. Cut only the bite that you will be eating next.

When you have finished, don't push your plate away from you. Leave your plate where it is in the place setting. To indicate to the server that you have finished your meal, lay your fork and knife diagonally across your plate from the four o'clock position to ten o'clock position with the knife blade facing you and placed to the right of the fork, whose prongs are up. Once you have used a piece of silverware, never place it back on the table. Put it on the bread plate or dinner plate. One more utensil tipódon't leave a used spoon standing in the soup cup. When you're finished, place it beside the cup on the saucer.

Dining etiquette wouldn't be complete without a few reminders about the code of conduct of casual business conversation. It's what we have learned. Do not discuss religion, politics or sex. Do not speak disparagingly about business colleagues. If an issue is brought up questioning an individual's competencies or timeliness, listen and ask if there is something they would like you to do to help solve the problem. Keep the conversation factual, professional, and brief. Of course, never initiate a conversation that speaks ill of another.

Eliminating distracting and damaging personal practices. Any habit that undermines credibility, authority or trust should be eliminated. Here are a few I've witnessed that influence how I regard a person. Women who constantly play with their hair diminish my view of their self-confidence and professionalism. The unfortunate hair habit may be brushing bangs out of their face or twisting strands of hair repeatedly. It's quite distracting to have a conversation with someone when she is playing with her hair.

A damaging personal practice that both males and females are guilty of is checking mobile devices all the time. As previously pointed out, it's rude and conveys that the people in your presence are not important.

A few other habits that undermine a professional impression are chewing and cracking gum, clicking a pen, not cleaning up a mess in the break area or kitchen, speaking too loudly in common areas, yelling across the office to get someone's attention, and interrupting others with non-work-related talk when they are trying to work.

Your appearance influences how others perceive you. Last, but not least, make sure that your attire appropriately represents your position, credibility and knowledge. Clothes should meet standard professional guidelineóclean, pressed, well-fitting, and age appropriate. Be careful that on casual dress days your "I'm here to do business" image is not compromised.

Please review this article again and do a self-check of your own practices. What, if anything, should you change to enhance the professional image you work so hard to maintain?

The author

Emily Huling, CIC, CMC, helps the insurance industry create top-performing sales and customer service organizations. She is the author of Selling from the Inside and Great Service Sells. For information on her products and services, visit


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