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A first night, not a dress rehearsal: acting professionally during a graduate internship

Calling all students and grads: before you step into the workplace, think about your behaviour and the impression you want to create. In this post, I’m going to address the thorny issue of professionalism in the workplace…

stripy_sock_man_190Your first forays into a professional working environment as a graduate can be unnerving. Leaving full-time education where you are increasingly encouraged to consider yourself a favourite customer, entitled to all sorts of services and facilities, can be a shock. Even during the holidays, when many students perform the same role as full-time, permanent staff, there can still be a sense for both parties that this is part of the student experience. It is only after graduation that the familiar sense of context falls away, removing all of your usual cues and references for expected attitudes and behaviour. Insecurities can set in: How do I act? Will I be treated like an adult, or the “new kid”? Am I allowed to ask for help?

What is professionalism?

Professionalism, as a set of behaviours and values alongside your key employability skills is your armour against these insecurities. Acting professionally in a work environment is vital in order to uphold your organisation’s standards and brand and avoid potential embarrassment. It’s also your key to gaining the respect and support of your colleagues, with the sense of understanding and belonging that these bring. Longer-term, developing a reputation for professionalism can benefit your career; in an environment with high stress or conflict – or where discretion is highly prized – behaving in an appropriate and professional manner will get you noticed. For the right reasons!

Monster, the career management portal, lists ten ways to be professional at work adapted below. Perhaps you’ve learned these the hard way, but it’s worth checking in now and again to make sure you embody – and reflect – positive working values:

  1. Competence.You have the skills and knowledge that enable you to do your job well. As an intern, your job may be to learn first,then do!
  2. Reliability. People can depend on you to show up, and submit work, on time.
  3. Honesty. You tell the truth and are upfront about where things stand. Careful not to be outspoken or rude, and make sure you’re ready for any repercussions if offering criticism.
  4. Integrity. You are known for your consistent principles.
  5. Respect for Others. You treat everyone as if they matter. Grasping the preferred level of formality when speaking to your managers is a quick win.
  6. Self-Upgrading‘. Rather than letting your skills or knowledge become outdated, you seek out ways of staying current. As an intern, showing you are an eager, self-starting learner goes a long way.
  7. Being Positive. Avoid pessimism. Having an upbeat attitude and trying to be a problem-solver makes a big difference.
  8. Supporting Others. You share the spotlight with colleagues and work well as part of your team.
  9. Staying Work-Focused. Not letting your private life needlessly impact on your job.
  10. Listening Carefully. You check understanding and give people a chance to be heard.

In reality, professionalism could be dictated by company policies (e.g. internet/social media/mobile phone use), by the examples made by senior members of staff (it could be important to sense-check whether you have chosen the right person to emulate!), or by the more intangible “culture” of your office or organisation (e.g. dress-code). It’s important that you bring yourself up to date immediately with any company policies, as failing to uphold these could result in dismissal – ask your line manager or HR department if you are not sure what applies to you, or where to find it. Your team’s notion of professionalism will be more subtle – notice when colleagues make disapproving comments or display negative body language in response to someone’s behaviour, particularly regarding personal boundaries, communication with customers, or teamwork.

Think before you act

When you are on an internship, it’s important to run through a quick internal checklist that will immediately put you in the best position:

  • Who is my direct “boss”? Who else has control of my workload/line management?
  • Who will I work closely with?
  • What policies are in place that I might need to read through?
  • What are other people wearing, and how are they behaving in their work areas? (check dress code and food/drink/lunch arrangements as a bare minimum)
  • When will I need to actively demonstrate my professionalism?
  • Who or what might tempt me to behave unprofessionally?

Behaviours to avoid

CV blogger Kate Seidametova, writing on US website Resumark, notes some of her top behaviours to avoid:

  1.  Arguing or engaging in an open conflict with a co-worker. Disagreeing is OK (and can sometimes produce a more informed decision) but do it respectfully and politely and don’t cross the line. Use good judgment and watch your manners.
  2. Dressing “too casually”. If you come to work sloppily dressed your looks will portray an image of a disorganized and messy worker. Dress professionally, especially if you your boss is on a conservative side.
  3. Making comments or jokes that could be offensive to others. Always avoid references to anyone’s personal characteristics such as nationality, race, gender, appearance or religious beliefs at work. (Be careful not to be lulled by “office banter” – you’ll still be responsible for your own words, should you be overheard)
  4. Raising your voice or acting on emotions. If you’re an emotional person, try to take a break and calm down before an important conversation. People often do and say things driven by a spur of the moment that they later regret.
  5. Lying. Being deceitful or dishonest will tarnish your reputation for life if you get caught. It is just not worth it.

Over time, you will begin to define your own idea of what constitutes professionalism, based on the behaviours you have seen in yourself and others, good and bad. You will be influenced by the cultures that you have worked in, their level of formality and the specific challenges of those environments. Wherever you go, and wherever you end up, Kate’s final words on the subject make a mantra worth repeating:

“Professional behaviour is never having a need to prove that you are superior to anyone else”

3 thoughts on “A first night, not a dress rehearsal: acting professionally during a graduate internship

  1. Interesting as I’ve just started a new role myself (after graduating). I am in quite an informal office where there is a lot of “banter” and I finding myself in situations as you mention, such as “banter” arguments, inappropriate jokes and voice raising. I’m not the only person doing this, but I have questioned my behaviour of late. Reading this post has made me question a few things…

    • Hi Nick
      Thanks for your comment. I think it’s surprisingly easy to be drawn into this actually, particularly when you’re new. We all want to ‘fit in’ at some level, but it is important to draw a distinction between friendliness and inappropriate humour/behaviour. Senior managers will be observing your behaviour, so try to avoid creating a negative impression. You’re clearly very self-aware – use it to your advantage.

      Good luck!

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