Career Corner: Professionalism at the Workplace

By Song Woo, Contributor
May 3, 2013 3:33 pm Last Updated: April 24, 2016 4:43 am

Over the past month, our firm has hired a number of new people due to growth. I am always excited to see new faces walking around the office, and I can’t help but reminisce about my time as a new employee, when I first began my career. It’s always a bit awkward being the new guy in the office. Maybe you’re a bit unsure of how to act around others, and watch people closely to get a feel for what’s appropriate and what’s not. You never want to be that person that everyone sees as the office “jerk.”   

Maybe the word “jerk” is a bit harsh, but it seems as though every big office has someone who fits that description. I know I never wanted to be seen as the “jerk”—probably no one does. Perhaps they aren’t aware of how they come off to others. Perhaps that someone is you. Either way, it’s in your best interests to be as professional as possible in the workplace.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t joke around or be relaxed in the office. A work environment should be fun. When I describe professionalism, I’m talking about respect—respect for you, respect for others, and respect for the organization. It really isn’t that hard to be professional. That’s why it bugs me so much when I see others who just aren’t cognizant about their lack of professionalism. 

I am reminded of someone I used to work with, who deep down inside was a pretty good guy that I was actually quite fond of, but the guy just didn’t get it. No matter how hard I tried to convince him that some of his actions made him look very unprofessional, his behavior didn’t change that much. There was nothing overtly bad or malicious that he did. He just acted as though he worked in a vacuum where his actions didn’t impact others. The three main issues he had were tardiness, inability to acknowledge others, and selfishness.

First of all, he had the worst track record of being on time. He would call it his “kryptonite,” referring to Superman’s one weakness. “Believe me,” I would tell him, “you’re no Superman!” If he could do what Superman could, then maybe having one glaring weakness like that would be acceptable. But in the workplace, if you’re constantly late, it means you have no respect for other people’s time. 

Another issue I couldn’t understand was how he had such a hard time greeting people. I don’t think I ever heard him say “good morning” to anyone who sat near him unless they greeted him first. We had a very open work environment so you could see each other. Whenever he came into the office, he would sit down, turn his computer on, and not say two words to anyone around him. If only he realized that a simple hello or good morning to his fellow co-workers would make him appear that much more professional. I think it’s a little disrespectful and unprofessional when you ignore people as if they weren’t even there.

Ultimately I came to realize that he was just selfish. The only things that were truly important to him were the things that personally impacted him. For example, if he had an issue with his car and needed to take it into service, he would definitely be on time for that appointment. That was important to him. On the other hand, if something great happened to someone else at work, maybe an award or some sort of recognition that someone else earned, or even if something great happened for the company overall, if he wasn’t directly linked to it, it didn’t matter to him. 

I often wonder how much more he could have accomplished had he demonstrated more professionalism—because he had the talent. I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed this. I’m sure our boss was aware of it as well, since he never seemed to progress within the company. In fact, people who had less tenure and less natural talent eventually progressed and evolved passed him.

Professionalism shouldn’t be such hard work. It should come naturally. It’s ironic; when I was a young kid, my mom always stressed three things to me when teaching me how to behave properly. Always be polite and greet others before they greet you, never be late, and always think about others before you think of yourself, don’t be selfish. I didn’t realize it back then, but she was teaching me how to be professional.

Song Woo, an employment and career management expert, is the President and CEO of Lighthouse Management Group.