Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The one about professional behavior

So, one of my colleagues comes into my office today and tells me that an academic advisor has asked for copies of our handout on professional behavior. We do not have one. So, I responded, "Well, what does she mean by professional behavior?" The ensuing conversation careened across the landscape as follows.

I know you think you know what I mean, but I don't think I mean what you think.
Pretty cut and dry here. We have the full range of recruiters and companies visiting campus. Some are incredibly laid back, wearing polo shirts and chinos, while other sport $500 suits. What one sees as professional behavior, the other sees as overly casual behavior. Yes, there are a few standards that we will discuss below, but the fact remains that the range of meaning surrounding the term "professional behavior" is broad to the point of ambiguity. My recommendation to any erstwhile candidate is that he or she become familiar with the culture of any company or organization with which they might interview. This is where all that gnarly networking is so important.... knowing people that know the culture is primo.

There is no such thing as fashionably late... there is just late.
Let me start by saying that I drive my entire family crazy by my desire to be not just on time, but a few minutes early. Let me add to this, I hate waiting in line for anything. Fifteen minutes is my limit, even at a 5-star restaurant, so you can imagine how I feel when someone is late for an appointment. Once, a client with a 30 minute appointment showed up 20 minutes late and said, "I hope I am not too late." I replied, "Not at all, there's still 10 minutes left." We went to my office where I talked about the impact of being late on job interviews and first impressions. I don't care how casual the recruiter or hiring manager might be, the last thing that you want is to be one of the top two candidates and have your competition remembered as "the kid from Orange County" and you remembered as "the one who was late." Bottom line: It is professional behavior to be on time no matter where you work.

Excuse me while I take this call.
Back in the day, when cell phones were the size of shoe boxes, I would watch folks screaming into their cellphones and I remember thinking, "If you are THAT important, why aren't you important enough to have somebody that answers your calls for you?" Perhaps if there is anything that upsets me more than someone who is late for an appointment, it is someone who answers their phone during an appointment. I will say that it is probably okay to have your phone ring and apologize while cutting it off, but it is never (Get that NEVER) okay to actually answer the phone.

A friend told me about being in an interview with his boss. The candidate's phone rang and he said, "Excuse me," and then said to the caller, "I need to call you back. I am in a meeting." A few minutes later, the phone rang again. He once again said, "Excuse me," and this time said, "Let me call you back in about 30 minutes, I am in a meeting." The boss stood up and said, "Nah. Go ahead and take the call, because the interview is over." Take it from me and the poor slob in this story, whether it is an interview or business meeting, cut off the phone.

Yo, dude. How's it goin'!
I live in California, so I call a lot of folks "dude" and I get called "dude" a lot as well. I still remember, however, the first time a subordinate called me dude. It was followed throughout the day with "homes, brah, and man" occasionally prefenced by "Yo!" At the end of the shift, I told my young charge that I would prefer it if he would simply call me and the other supervisors by our names. His reply? "Sure, dude. No problem."

The other vignette that falls under this rubic occurred when I taught in Alabama. In the halls and in talking with students, I almost always referred to my colleagues as Dr. Martin or Dean Roberson or Ms. Young. In their offices or when we were in meetings, they were David, Terry, and Jenny.

How you refer to people with whom you work is important and is a direct reflection of your respect for them and the organization. Follow the lead of those around you. As a safe rule of thumb, think about it this way. Most people do not mind being called Mr. Jone or Ms. Lopez, but some will object to being called "Cuz."

Here, let me get that for you.
Being at a university is sort of like be in a giant sociological fish tank. There are always crowds of animated, bright young adults moving from one location to another underwritten with incessant chatter and lots of laughter. The most intriguing things that I have noticed occurs at the ingress/egress of buildings. You know, doors. I have two experiences, one is holding the door for a student or students who blow right past without a word... like I am the doorman. In fact, that is not exactly correct because when I enter or exit a building that has a door person, I always say "Thank you." While this behavior is not unique to Gen-Y'ers, it does seem to proliferate in that group. I will guarantee you that if you are on an interview or the new person on a job and someone holds the door for you, they will remember if you do not say, "Thank you." Not the way you want to be remembered, dude.

The runners are at the starting line.
My other experience with doorways is what I call the cattle chute. The cattle chute occurs when two (or more) people approach a doorway at the same time and one (or more) of them try to squeeze through. (The variation on this is when one of them speeds up a bit so as to hit the portal first.) I would have to say that the generally accepted behavior is to give right of way to the other, even if it results in "You go first. No, you go. No, you go." Again, you will be remembered for your courtesy. BTW, as an old dude, I think you should always let us go first, because old dudes almost always say something witty like, "Nah, you go first. I'm in no hurry to get to work." I might add that you should NEVER EVER say, "Age before beauty." Not simply because is has not been funny since the Eisenhower Administration, but us old dudes are pretty sensitive about that kind of stuff. The easy take away here is, hold the door and wait for others to go through.

Répondez, s'il vous plaît
This is what RSVP means. It is French for "I need to know if you are going to be here and if you say you will be here you have made an actual commitment to come, so be there or let me know if you have to cancel." That is a loose translation. I have been very surprised at the number of people who seem to believe that RSVP means, "Hold a place for me in case I decide to show up." We always (Get it? ALWAYS) hear from employers when students who have reserved spaces do not show up and do not cancel. Most places ask for an RSVP because they are planning food or there is limited space. If you decide to no show, they spend money on food that goes to waste or someone does not get a seat to the event. It is so not cool. Sure there are exceptions to this rule, but they involve hospital stays and alien abductions. I know no other way to say this than to say if you reserve your place for an event... SHOW UP.

Hmmm. I've seen that somewhere before.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should because it is the same stuff your mom and your kindergarten teacher tried to jam into your brain when you were five. Professional behavior is, quite frankly, mostly common courtesy. Listening when others speak and not cutting them off. Being respectful of others. Observing organizational and cultural norms. Referring to others with formality unless they give you permission to do otherwise. Opening doors. Saying please and thank you. Recognizing others achievements. The list goes on. It really is not rocket science. Doing the professional thing is generally doing the "nice" thing.


  1. Daryl,
    Wonderful blog.
    Karen Kerr

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