5 Must-Have Principles of Professionalism

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

In today's fiercely competitive marketplace, the principles of professionalism are what distinguishes individuals and companies from their competitors. Understanding the fundamentals of business protocol and professional etiquette are more important than ever in our constantly evolving, multicultural workforce. There are also nuances and subtle behaviors that can help make you and your team stand out from the competition.

From learning body language cues and proper introductions and greetings to managing small talk, business card presentation, and e-etiquette, gaining knowledge of and implementing these fundamental skills can help you and your team project a stellar executive presence. Mastering these skills can also help create expert brand ambassadors for your organization, help instill an authentic sense of cross-cultural awareness, and, most important, help you and your team develop into a new class of leaders.

Some important principles of professionalism to consider:


Body Language

Did you know that a simple act, like using one's left hand instead of the right, is considered offensive in India? In other countries, gestures like the "OK" signal, beckoning someone to come to you with your hand upward, and crossing legs (which shows the bottom of your foot or shoe) are also considered highly disrespectful. Body language is not a universal language; just as words and phrases have different meanings in different cultures, so do different body movements, gestures, and signals. With a little research, mastering body language fundamentals in countries in which you may be doing business (as well as here in the United States) can help you keep the conversation going smoothly.


Always try to be all-inclusive in your greetings. When doing business around the world, make sure you shake hands with everyone you meet, and greet everyone in the room. Failure to do so is considered a rejection of those you omitted and will be noticed. The most important thing to remember is to know how to correctly introduce yourself and others, and always demonstrate proper forms of address. Formalities are especially important internationally, and you will never be incorrect with a formal demeanor. In fact, many cultures associate formality with rank, wealth, education, and heritage. But whether you are in this country or abroad, address someone by using an honorific (such as Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Dr.) with a person's name when meeting for the first time to show respect. And again, be observant of countries (like China) that use the surname first.

Business Card Etiquette

The exchange of business cards is a moment of great significance and ceremony in the United States and many other countries. Failing to follow proper protocol (for example, not using both hands to give or receive a card in Japan and South Korea) has the potential to be not just embarrassing, but insulting. Also, make sure your card looks professional and doesn’t fall into the “gimmicky” category. Think of your card as a small messaging platform that will speak to your expertise and professionalism long after your meeting is over.


Dressing to professional standards demonstrates an important level of respect and understanding that's extremely critical to making a good first impression. Women should always err on the conservative side when it comes to dress and jewelry, keeping in mind that, in some cultures, revealing too much skin (including open-toed shoes), wearing tight clothing, or flashing too much “bling” can be construed as inappropriate and impolite. For men, standard, well-tailored business suits and ensembles will usually suffice (although the rules on wearing ties always seem to be changing). But again, remember that different countries have different standards of formality when it comes to business attire—if working abroad, do your homework on the customs of your host country.


With regard to electronic communications, be sure that you and your staff know the protocol of contacting a client, associate, or prospect online. Too often, formalities are forgotten and communication becomes much too casual—leaving a tarnished impression on those you most want to impress. As with formal introductions, use honorifics (“Dear Mrs. Jones” instead of “Hey Anne”). Proper grammar and spelling are also crucial to polished and professional correspondence that best represents your company. Also, because so many of us are connected on social media platforms, be sure to maintain professionalism at every click. A text is not a good way to approach a new client or business prospect. Instant messages on Facebook and LinkedIn should also be avoided, unless your employees and clients share a relationship outside the work environment. Even then, it’s good form to keep professional boundaries in these instances to ensure nothing offensive reflects on your company.

To learn more, join my session at the ATD 2018 International Conference & EXPO to learn the time-honored and proven principles of professional business protocol to share with your team to help them make a great first impression.

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