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INT_dresscode_orig20120816-17262-19db99qCan you be too professional at work?

A friend of mine texted me the other day to ask if you could ever be “too professional” at work. I wrote her back that I thought the short answer was no. But here’s the long answer:

The reason my short answer was no is largely because I believe acting professional means acting appropriately for your work and at your workplace. The only conceivable objection I can come up with to being “too professional” at work is that you might act stuffy, alienate customers or coworkers, or act overly formal for your job. But my argument is that those problems come not from being too professional, but from not acting professionally, not acting appropriately for your job. Each job and each workplace, even within the same field, will demand a specific level of formality of behavior. Let’s take attire for example: I’ve worked in libraries where jeans were appropriate attire and I’ve worked in libraries that were strictly business casual. There are probably libraries that require more or less formal attire because of the job description of their employees and certainly outside of the library world you want to dress appropriately for your work. A suit would be as out of place in a mechanic shop as coveralls would be in the boardroom (remind me to tell you sometime of how I used to dream of wearing coveralls as a library page. I still think this is a great idea).

Much like attire, in some workplaces it might be appropriate to use very formal language and modes of address with your customers, coworkers, and supervisors, while in other places it might be appropriate to be less formal. As with attire, you want to act appropriately for your workplace because that is the professional thing to do. If you are overly formal with patrons at a small, rural library branch that feels more like the community’s living room, you are judging the situation as wrongly as if you act too informal in a library where patron’s are used to being treated with more formality.

What do you think? Does this definition of professionalism match yours? Do you think it’s possible to be too professional?

We all know communication at work is very important. But sometimes not communicating can be a valid and wise choice.

Recently, I sent an email informing my colleagues about an interaction I’d had with a patron and asking for follow up from some of them. In a sea of the normal follow up emails, there was one one-sentence email from a coworker, putting down the patron.

I was immediately disappointed because I like the person who sent the email and I have a real problem with patron bashing. I understand we need to vent and inform each other, but this was not venting. It actually came across as a gesture of solidarity and support, but at the cost of disrespecting the patron. I quickly re-read the email I had sent to make sure I hadn’t unwittingly put down the patron myself but I had maintained a neutral tone and there was no hint of frustration.

This one sentence email that had probably taken my coworker mere seconds to write gave me more than a moment of pause. Should I stand up for what I believe in and tell her the patron was fine and there was no need to talk ill of her? That’s what a large part of me wanted to do because I didn’t want my silence to be mistaken as approval. However, I struggled with what do say because this coworker is in a supervisory role. I’m also new to my organization and still feeling out the culture. On top of all that, I didn’t want to reject her friendly overture.

Ultimately, I decided to say nothing largely because this was over email. As we have all experienced at this point, getting one’s tone right over email can be difficult and as this person and I don’t know each other well, I didn’t want to risk it. If this person had been standing in front of me, I could have probably dealt with the situation casually and quickly but I didn’t want to risk an email. So I let it go.

What do you think? Are there times where you chose to say nothing? Do you ever regret not saying something? How have you handled similar situations?


Three wise monkeys on Innoshima Island photo by Japanexterna.

photo credit: Cracker Jack via photopin (license)

photo credit: Cracker Jack via photopin (license)

Oh new job jitters! It’s stressful and disconcerting to go from a job where you felt secure in your knowledge and role to a new job where you don’t even know where the bathrooms are. This is especially stressful when you want to be a leader in your new job. You want to do well! You want to impress! You want to leave your mark! You want…a pen, where is the supply closet again?

I’ve been experiencing this phenomenon myself and as I come out of the new job haze (I know where the bathrooms AND the water fountains are!) I have a few tips to share. I share these tips from two perspectives: trainer and trainee. One of my last projects at my previous position was to train new student assistants. Obviously, one of my first duties in my new position was being trained. Going from trainer to trainee helped me get a smooth start in my new position and now I hope to help you whether you are starting a whole new job, starting in a new department, or taking on a new job duty.

1. Be patient.

Nobody expects you to be an expert on your first, second, or even fourteenth day on the job. Nobody, that is, except for you. I’m sorry to report that you are going to feel awkward and lost for a while. If you embrace this you put a lot less pressure on yourself to be amazing right now. This leaves you more brain power to learn your new duties instead of beating yourself up for not knowing something.

2. Be quiet.

There is an urge to prove yourself in the early days on a new job. If someone is showing you something that you think you know, you’ll have the urge to interrupt, take over, or tell the person you already know that. Instead, just listen. You might not know it. You might not know all of it. Or you might think you know it but surprise, this is something different.  Managers usually have a system in place for showing you the ins and outs of your new job and the most impressive thing you can do while being shown new things is to listen and ask questions. A manager will be able to tell by your questions and by watching you in action that you know a process. Obviously there are exceptions: if someone else has shown you this procedure already or if you are totally comfortable with a process, it’s fine to speak up. Just don’t feel like you have to call out a bunch of answers to a process you only sort of know in order to impress. Again, go back to number 1: no one expects you to know everything right now.

3. Trust yourself.

Confession time: on my second day at my new job, I was at the circulation desk and the phone rang. And I stared at it. It rang again. I stared. I stared until it stopped ringing. It wasn’t until the moment the phone had started ringing that I realized I didn’t even know what to say when the phone rang! No one had told me! I completely missed that call because no one told me how to answer the phone. Which, of course, is silly, because I know how to answer a phone. I’ve been answering phones in one way or another my whole life and professionally for over sixteen years. You, like me, were hired for your new job because you have skills, experience, and the personality for it. The hiring committee knew it, so don’t you forget it when you’re on your new job. Of course you’ll do silly things like not answer the phone and it’s ok, the library is still standing and I am not fired, but remember: you know how to do a lot of this already. And if you don’t, just ask for help. Trust yourself to know how to answer your metaphorical phone.

Good luck out there with new jobs and new job duties! It can be a stressful time but it is ultimately rewarding to challenge yourself and learn new things. Just remember: be patient, be quiet, and trust yourself.