The saying, "The clothes make the man -- or woman," is not entirely true when it comes to the workplace, as a snazzy wardrobe, taken alone, does not create an appearance of professionalism. Appearing professional means becoming professional -- a task that requires a significant investment of time and motivation.
The fastest way to appear unprofessional is to be unprepared. Rush into a meeting late without your notes, and you'll likely remind your supervisor of a disorganized middle school student. Keep track of your appointments and always have what you need at the ready -- whether it is a pen, notepad or or a cup of coffee to help keep your eyes open. Management professional Mark Haas recommends keeping your work-related electronic devices fully charged, printing maps prior to appointments and keeping business cards on hand. Making a list of the things you need to do to be prepared in every professional situation can be helpful, as well.
Walk into work with doughnut crumbs sticking to your blouse or put off washing your hair one day too many, and you'll come across as unprofessional no matter how brilliant your work. Sure, the iconic Einstein picture may come to mind, but unless you've recently won a Nobel Prize, keep your hair and clothes neat and up-to-date. Pay attention to the details -- a neat manicure makes a better impression than chewed-up nails, and a long-lasting lip stain might be a better choice than lipstick if the color tends to migrate to your teeth.
Mark Twain famously wrote, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” While you can't be silent at work, it is wise to think before making remarks that colleagues and clients might perceive as uninformed, overly political or rude. The workplace is not the environment to let everyone know that you're moving to Uruguay if the wrong person wins the election. It's also a good idea to polish up your grammar and work to eliminate curse words. Strong accents influence people's perceptions of you as well. For example, a 2010 Harris Poll found that on the whole, Americans tend to think people who speak with a New York City accent are rude, and that those who speak with a Southern accent are less intelligent. (See Reference 3) If you have a strong accent, working to downplay it can help you to appear more professional.
The best way to appear professional is to know your job inside and out. Attend workshops to help you to become a better salesperson, customer service representative or teacher. Think about it -- when you need your clothes dryer repaired, you want the repairman to be able to tell you why the clothes aren't getting dry and do something about it -- not shrug his shoulders and make a stab in the dark. The same holds true for any profession. Develop a reputation for being as sharp as a tack by becoming a lifelong learner at your job.
Elise Wile has been a writer since 2003. Holding a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction, she has written training materials for three school districts. Her expertise includes mentoring, serving at-risk students and corporate training.