Everyone has an image to maintain — or in some cases, build from the ground up. This is true in both our personal lives and our professional lives. And you want that image to be a positive one; otherwise, you’re already putting yourself at a disadvantage.
What do we mean by professional image? And how can you cultivate a positive one? From putting your best foot forward at networking events to simply showing up at the office, your professional image (or lackthereof) impacts your reputation. Let’s take a look at what it means and how to keep yours positive.
What is your professional image?
What does is mean when someone mentions their “professional image”? This is what you project in a professional context. It depends on several factors — how you act, what you say, your clothing, your attitude and more.
A professional image can give you an advantage: people will respect you more, aside from the work you produce, and have a more positive perception of you as an individual. Clients, colleagues and managers will appreciate you. You’ll be more likely to nail that interview or secure that promotion. Meanwhile, if you lack a strong professional image, you could lose out, even if you're an excellent worker.
How to cultivate your professional image.
So, how do you enhance your professional image? Here are some steps for projecting your professionalism and confidence in the workplace and beyond.
1. Pay attention to the norms of your workplace and industry.
Every office has its own norms and standards. In some, for example, it may be acceptable to wear jeans and a tee-shirt to work, while others may demand business casual or even formal attire. This extends beyond clothing. For instance, perhaps it’s common to take your full lunch break at your place of work, while in another office, employees generally eat at their desks and work through lunch.
Part of cultivating your professional image means respecting the standards of your workplace and industry. While you should always err on the side of formal when you’re in doubt — such as when you’re going in for an interview and don’t have the lay of the land — once you’ve taken stock of the situation, fall in line with the way other people conduct themselves. Do keep in mind that there are some things that are almost never acceptable — wearing rip jeans or having a super-messy desk, for instance.
2. Dress the part.
It’s unfortunate but true: appearance matters. The adage “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” holds true. Even if your office is casual, make an effort to keep your appearance neat and tidy. Your attire and presentation should convey your professional image. Wrinkled clothing or plunging necklines don’t convey professionalism. Jeans with a hole in them? Not so much. Whether you’re meeting a prospective client or showing up to your cubicle, make sure to take care with your appearance, because it does say something about you.
3. Communicate effectively.
Communication can be a difficult skill to master, but it’s an important one for maintaining your professional image.
When you write an email or message on Slack, avoid using crass or overly informal language — even if you’re speaking to a close friend. You never know who might read your message. When speaking with clients or colleagues you’re not on very familiar terms with, keep your tone formal and polite. You can make it a bit less formal if you’re communicating with a colleague you know well.
It’s also important to project confidence. If you’re delivering a presentation or even making a phone call, plan out what you’re going to say if you’re feeling anxious. Punctuating your sentences with “um” or “like” is a sign of a lack of confidence and can hurt your professional image, but having a script will help you avoid making this common verbal tic.
4. Be approachable.
Being generally friendly and courteous is another hallmark of professionalism. You want to blend in with your company culture, as well as demonstrate approachability at networking and business events. Don’t try to constantly steal the spotlight or place blame on others; this will hurt you far more than it will help you.
There are also simple gestures you can make toward the goal of being more approachable: smile at everyone, shake hands when you first meet someone, listen when someone else is speaking and never gossip about others.
5. Pay attention to your body language.
Body language is just as important as your verbal communication. It can say a lot about you — and your professional image. Strive to:
• Make eye contact
• Maintain good posture
• Look at and turn toward others when they’re speaking
• Avoid crossing your arms, playing with your hair or touching your face
6. Clean up your digital presence.
Assume that anything you put online — or anything anyone else puts online about you — is something your colleagues will see. If your Instagram is full of pictures of you partying, it’s going to negatively impact your professional image.
To keep your digital presence positive, do a regular audit, examining your social media accounts and Googling yourself every month or so. Sometimes, you may not have control over what other people post about you, but do your best to clean up your digital image, taking down pictures and other posts that could hurt you down the road. If someone you know posts something that could put your reputation at risk, politely ask them to take it down.
Your professional image is an important part of your work life. Not only will it affect others’ perceptions and opinions of you, but it can also make or break your chances of landing an interview or position or securing a promotion. As with many aspects of your life, it’s something that require care and dedication to maintain, so make sure you’re taking strides to keep yours a positive one for current and future roles and responsibilities.