Professional Etiquette | Foundation 6 – Lesson 9

Go back to Job Search Prep Syllabus.

I don’t want to spend too long on this topic because there is a major piece of me that can’t believe these things need to be said. Still, I’ve seen the mistakes with my own eyes, and I don’t want to take the chance that the next mistake-maker will be you, so… here we go:

From this day forward, you are always on, all the time, even with your family. Whether you think of it as “professionalism,” “personal branding,” or “just being you,” you must now be “more perfect.” I don’t ever want to hear you complain that you didn’t realize someone was listening, you didn’t know who that person was, or that some people should just accept you for who you are.

(Because someone’s always listening, the road back to the person you’re talking about is always shorter than you realize, and nobody has to accept you for who you are.)

But I’ve talked about this. So what does it mean?

For one thing, you must become adaptive. Don’t focus so much on adapting to a “corporate environment,” because that environment is going to change from company to company. Focus instead on being adaptive, which means that you are willing to negotiate your personal preferences with the group. It also means that you are going to be attentive to the way I want to work and you are going to go out of your way to make my life easier. This is a particular form of respect, and this is what I want to see.

Unfortunately, the way most people use the word respect, it comes across as, “Do what I say and don’t ask questions.” But that’s not it at all. What your future employer wants to see is that you will make him/her more important than yourself. That you will earn respect for yourself by first showing it to others. That you will be someone who won’t annoy or pester.

That you’ll be a grown up.

Now, when you’re selling yourself, you need to keep in mind that your conversation/interview exists within a broader context. The employer has probably seen other candidates. If the hiring manager is older, s/he may have children your age. There are biases and filters in place, and you have to accept that. So, for instance, if you are on the phone with your mom when the interviewer walks up to you, and you keep the interviewer waiting while you finish your call, the interviewer is going to think “overprotected/sheltered child with helicopter parents” and will now turn the entire interview into a hunt for the answer to a single question: “How much parenting will you require on the job?” You’ll think you’re dazzling the person with stories about how you raised $500k for a charity group in college, and the interviewer will be thinking, “Baloney. I wonder what favors Daddy called in to help you pull that off.” But s/he’ll never say it… you’ll just never hear back from him/her.

To protect yourself from such (mis)attributions, you need to immediately re-frame the conversation the moment you make contact. Previous lessons have covered how to convey interpersonal and other skills. Here are some ways to make sure that you come across as professional, too:

  • Leave your cell phone someplace else, like in your car. Don’t even tempt yourself with it.
  • Wear something that in a different context would get someone to notice you, but not anything you’d ever wear on a date.
  • Men: you need to look like your future CEO material. Go grab a copy of Fortune and flip through it. Look at the powerful people. Dress they way they’re dressed… and don’t look for the two guys in flip-flops and say, “See?!” You know where I’m going with this. Your pants should have a crease and you should have a sport coat that fits. (I don’t care if you never wear this stuff again. You’re selling today. Look better than you think you need to.) And by “fits,” I mean mentally as well as physically. If you have a style, great, but most of you don’t… so you’ll need practice. Wear the thing to dinner a couple of nights so that when you put it on for a job interview, it doesn’t feel stiff. Also, no dangling keychains, no make up (do I really need to say this?), and no t-shirts—regardless of how much money you spent on it, it’s still a friggin’ t-shirt.
  • Women: this is a little impolite, but you need to hear it. Put ’em away. Yes, I’m talking about what you think I’m talking about. This is not the time for “lift and separate.” Form fitting is fine, but buttons straining to pop are not. And when you turn around, I do not want to see a thong peeking out at me. Nothing against butt floss—heaven knows I’m no puritanical fundamentalist—but this is neither the time nor the place. If your pants call for one, fine. But check: if you’re pants are light, don’t be wearing black underwear. And if your pants have a low waist, make sure everything has a low waist… or that you’ve got a long shirt on. Anything else and I’m going to have a hard time taking you seriously.
  • Everyone: if you’re young, you probably still have some nervous habit left over from your teenage days. Find out what it is and get over it. Do you play with your hair? Chew it? Chew gum? Fidget? Rock your knees back and forth? Tuck your leg under your butt when you’re sitting? Bite your nails? Whatever it is, now’s the time to get past it. Did I say “now?” I meant NOW.
  • Ask me when and how you should follow up by phone by asking if I prefer to be called during the day or before or after hours, when things are less hectic. Pay attention. If I say I’m up at six and you can call me at seven, call me at seven. But if I say call me at work, then don’t call me cell next Saturday morning!
  • Be pleasant and friendly to everyone you meet, starting with the security guards / garage attendants… These are real people. Talking with them will serve three purposes: first, should anyone see you in action, they’ll like you. Second, it’ll loosen you up before the meeting that counts. And third, should you get stonewalled later during follow up, these are the people who can help you break through. It’s the receptionist, after all, who decided whether or not to route your call!
  • Sit up. No slouching.
  • Minimize the “ums” and “likes.”

If you can do all this, you’ll be lightyears ahead of your competition! (How do you stand out given all these constraints? First, by being GOOD AT WHAT YOU DO; second, by being crisp, tight, and controlled. Think of pop musicians: you can spot the formula from a mile away, yet you can also clearly tell the good ones from the wanna-be’s! Finally, you are allowed to take risks… just take them purposefully. Don’t waste your risk-taking on something silly like your wardrobe.)


Bust out the video-recorder! For this one, you’ll need a friend to help you. Have them put you through a mock job interview. Record yourself and then watch it, noting any “tells,” leftover teenager behaviors, and nervous tics. The interview should feel contrived… that’s the point. When you get into the real interview, you will feel as nervous and weird as you do being mock-interviewed by your friend, so watching how you react now will give you some clues as to how you will react during the real deal. Also, dress up for it so you can see how you look: are you trying too hard? Do you look like you’re going on a date right after the interview? Or are you professional, crisp, and ready for action?

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