The Howard Group


Developing a Professional Image

Developing a Professional Image

I was interviewing Jerry for a District Sales Manager position.  Upon meeting him, my first impression was not a good one:  Jerry was wearing polyester blue pants, which had to have been purchased over 10 years ago.  He was wearing a red knit tie - a style which was not fashionable at the time. His shirt was red and white stripes, which was much too "busy."  Finally, his blue sports coat was not the same color blue or same material as his pants.  My first thought was, "This guy might be trying hard, but he does not quite understand what it takes to create a professional look."  Throughout the interview this first impression kept "getting in the way."  My subconscious was telling me that if Jerry didn't know that what he was wearing was inappropriate, what other professional issues would he not be aware of?  His interview style lacked in two particular areas, also: 1) he kept "dropping names: as if I would know who these people were (I didn't); and 2) he would tell stories during the interview that had no relevance to what we were talking about. Needless to say, although Jerry's resume indicated he was well-qualified for the job, we didn't hire him.  The number one reason why?  He did not convey a professional image. 

You want you to avoid making similar mistakes.  The following article discusses three areas where you need to create a professional image for yourself.  We will review:

1.  Appearance

2.  Communication

  • Verbal
  • Non-verbal

3.  Professional Etiquette

This topic is a sensitive one for many individuals.  This is because "professionalism" means different things to different people.  There are different expectations for different jobs and different industries.  Because of this, throughout this chapter, we ask you to keep an open mind.  Generally speaking, most of the tips and suggestions listed apply to most positions and industries.  There may be other considerations you may need to make depending on the job you are applying.

Let's look at how to develop a professional image in order to obtain that new position.  Specifically, this article covers what to be aware of during interviews, and other meetings with individuals in your field.

What is "Professionalism?" 

Professionalism has different meanings depending on your line of work.  For now, think outside the scope of your current/last job.  Brainstorm and think about what key words or phrases come to your mind when you think of the word:  PROFESSIONALISM.





Okay, now think of the people you know that come to mind when you think of professionalism.  What words and phrases describe these people?







Let’s see how your key words lined up with the three generally accepted variables which determine professionalism:  1) your appearance; 2) your communication style; and 3) your professional etiquette.  Let's take a look at the first variable:  appearance.


When determining the appearance factor, your goal is to dress appropriately for the company and the position you are interviewing.  How do you know what is appropriate?  As a general rule-of-thumb, men will be in suits and women in skirts with a jacket. If you really want to do some field research, consider the following:

1.               Do you know people who work there?  If so, ask them what they wear to work, and what others wear. 

2.               If it is a large company, go into the lobby and look around at the people going in and out.

3.               If you can be inconspicuous, park your car in the parking lot 15 minutes before work begins.  Watch the people as they walk in the building.  What are they wearing?

The next step is making the purchase.  Begin by going to a boutique or department store in your area.  Ask the salespeople what they would recommend as conservative, but stylish. Tell them that the purchase will be used for interviewing.  You can either buy what they offer, or go to a more inexpensive department store.  There are many discount stores that sell brand names at less expensive prices.

Creating the "Excitement" Factor

Think about how you feel when you are given a gift box that is wrapped in beautiful, interesting paper.  Isn't there some excitement and curiosity created by the outside appearance of the gift?  For instance, let's say you are given two boxes.  One box is wrapped in plain brown paper.  It is dented on one side and has some dirt marks on the top (you know where this is going).  The other box is wrapped in beautiful paper with a large matching bow.  You don't know it, but the same exact thing is inside each.  However, which one, if given a choice, would you likely want to open first?

This analogy can be compared to meeting someone for the first time.  Think about the last time you were at a party.  The people you were most interested in meeting and talking with were probably those who appeared most attractive to you.  This is similar to the excitement and curiosity you can create when meeting an employer for the first time.  You want the employer to like what he/she sees and want to learn more about you.

Make an Investment in Yourself

The first step in putting together an interview wardrobe is to look through the clothes you already have.  There may be pieces you can use, which can help you avoid buying an entirely new outfit.  Perhaps you have a blouse/shirt/tie you can use.  You may just need to buy a new suit.  For women, you may have accessories that can compliment a new outfit.  Scanning your wardrobe before going shopping can result in saving you a lot of money in the long run.

No matter what you currently have, it is important to know that you need to invest in yourself.  This means buying quality clothes, with matching shoes and accessories.  We call it an "investment" because you need to buy more than one outfit.  Why?  Because you may be called back for a second or third interview.  You certainly don't want to wear the same thing twice.  Many of you may be thinking, "I don't have the money!"  This part of your job search is so critical, you need to be creative in finding the money for this investment.  If you are looking for a position paying $60,000, spend 1% of that, $600 - on clothing.  Even if you are looking for a job paying $30,000, $600 is only a 2% investment.

When choosing what to wear, the two most important things to be sure of are:

  1. Wear something you feel comfortable in.  Naturally this doesn't mean you can wear your favorite sweat pants and T-shirt!  This does mean to try on many different outfits/suits.  Pick those that make you feel confident, powerful and at-ease with yourself.  The last thing you want to do is worry about how you look, instead of thinking about what you are saying.  Don't let your appearance be a distraction for you.

  1. Wear what is appropriate.  You have to "speak the language of the company."  For example, if the first language of the company is Spanish, you would speak Spanish.  In the same respect, if you learn that the people at the company dress most often in blue suits and white shirts, you should do the same.

Appearance Tips

The following are some tips for everyone to follow when picking what to wear in interviews and professional meetings:

¨     Cultural differences - If you are meeting with someone in a city a far distance away, be aware of the differences in cultures and dress expectations.  What you wear for a professional meeting in Los Angeles might be different than what you would wear in Dubuque, Iowa.

¨     Move around - When you are trying on clothing, it is important to move around in it.  Sit down, walk around, and look in a mirror at yourself while doing so.  Check yourself when you sit down - do your buttons pop open?  Also, look at the length of your pants - are they too short or too long?

¨     Colors - There are no "right" or "wrong" colors.  Wear those that make you feel good and others say you look good in.  Avoid colors that make you look "washed out."

¨     Blazers and suits - Women should always wear a blazer, men a suit.  No matter what level of position you are interviewing for, you want to look exceptionally professional.

¨     One level above - When you are going on an interview, decide what the typical dress expectation is at the company.  Then, dress one level above what you think others will be wearing.  Remember, people expect you to "dress up" for an interview, no matter what position you are applying for.  Also, you never know what other influential people you may meet while at the company.  You want to make a great first impression on everybody.

¨     Simple is better - Think "classic."  Don't wear anything "abstract."  Again, you don't want your outfit to distract the person you are speaking with.

¨     Ties - For men, you want to wear ties in conservative styles.  Don't go wild.  To determine what styles would be appropriate for an interview, ask a department store salesperson.  Be careful not to buy anything too "trendy." 

¨     Shoes - You can buy the most expensive suit and have every detail looking great, but if your shoes are worn and scuffed, it can ruin your entire look.  Make sure your shoes are shined, polished and neat.  Also, make sure they are not completely worn on the bottom; if you cross your legs, this will show.

¨     Hair - It is good to get a hair cut or trim often during your job search.  Also, (just a thought) if you haven't updated your style in a few years, you may want to explore a new cut.  Tell your hairstylist you are going on an interview.  Perhaps he/she could suggest a conservative, classic style, which may look better than your current one.

¨     Eyeglasses - You don't want to wear glasses with lenses that get darker when you go outside.  This will prevent the employer from seeing your eyes and may convey the non-verbal message that you are trying to hide something.  If they don't change quickly when you come indoors, this could be a problem.  Also, if you don't have a glare coat on your glasses, you may want to get this.  Often, there is a glare that is created from indoor lighting, which can be very distracting.

¨     Cologne - If you can avoid wearing perfume/cologne, this is the best way to go.  The reason is many people irritated by strong smells.  If you do want to wear some scent, apply it very, very sparingly.

¨     Smokers - If you are a smoker, avoid smoking in your clothes before the interview.  Some people may be turned off by the smell of smoke.  You want to be fresh going into every meeting.

¨     Weight – Here comes a touchy area, but it needs to be addressed. If you believe that you are a few pounds overweight, make sure to buy clothes that fit well.  Don't tell yourself you'll lose 10 pounds before your first interview if you won't.  Be honest with yourself.  Also, remember that darker colors can be more flattering than lighter ones.  There are certain styles, too, which are more fashionable than others.

For Women Only

¨     Baggage - Remember that the less pieces of "baggage" you have, the better.  You don't want to look like you are "moving in."  If you have a purse and a briefcase, just take one to the interview, a briefcase is preferred.  Make sure it is big enough to hold your note pad.

¨     Revealing - Make sure your outfit is not too revealing.  You’re going to a job interview, not a college bar. Sit in your skirt and check to make sure it is not too short.  Also, bend over in front of a mirror.  If your top is revealing, change it. 

¨     Accessories - You don't want your jewelry and accessories to be too big, dangle or showy.  A simple watch, ring, necklace, and earrings are fine.  Less is better in this case.

       ¨     Remember the details

§       Nails - Your nails should be clean and neat.  Your nail polish should be a light color, and your nails should not be too long.  As mentioned before, they should not be distracting from your overall appearance.

§       Makeup - Your makeup should be simple and natural.  If you haven't had a makeover in a few years, make an appointment at your local department store.  Most counters do makeovers for free, or for a minimal purchase.

§       Nylons – If you wear them, take an extra pair along with you, in case you get a run. 

It is a good idea to arrive early for your meeting.  Go to the restroom and check yourself thoroughly.  Look at your teeth, nose, and mouth for any distractions.  Check your zipper too!  You will be nervous, so double-check everything that could cause embarrassment.

Now that we have looked at the Appearance factor of your professional image, let's review the second variable - Communication.  We will look at verbal, as well as non-verbal, communication considerations. 


You have made it into the interview and you look great - you have created excitement in your packaging.  The next step is to make sure you communicate effectively in a verbal and non-verbal fashion.  You may be the best person for the job, but if you can't get this across to the employer, it doesn't matter!  Also, it is important to remember that it is not just the words that come out of your mouth.  Your goal is to make a "connection" with the employer.  You want to build rapport and create a comfort level between the two of you.

Communication can be broken down into three parts:  1) the words we say, 2) how we say it, and 3) our nonverbal language.  Studies seem to suggest that approximately ten percent (10%) of our communication lies in the words we say, 40% is our style, and as much as 50% lay in our nonverbal language.  We will look at "how you say it," or your communication style. 


Here are a few tips to remember:

  • Breathe - Breathe from your diaphragm and sit up straight.  Often, when you are nervous, you forget to breathe effectively and speak too quickly.  This can make you appear more nervous than you really are, and this is distracting and can lead the interviewer to believe you lack confidence.

  • Take your time - Taking pauses is expected and makes you appear more intelligent.  If you jump too quickly to answer a question, you could look too prepared and "canned."  When asked a question, take a moment to gather your thoughts and prepare a thorough answer.

  • Don't cut off the interviewer - Many people have a habit of finishing people's sentences for them when they know what is being asked.  Don't do this! It is annoying. 

  • Tell me about yourself - Inevitably, you will be asked this question (or a version of it) each time you interview.  To avoid sounding like you have answered this a million times, begin by asking the question "Is there a particular area of my career you are interested in?"  Perhaps the employer is only interested in your last position.  This helps you know where to begin your story. 

  • Less is more - Be concise in answering the interviewer's questions.  Avoid "over-answering."  If you don't answer the question in its entirety, the interviewer will most likely ask you a probing question to obtain further information.

  • Complete ideas - Be sure to finish your sentences and have complete ideas. 

  • Don't be a “storyteller” - If the interviewer didn't ask to hear something, don't tell it.  Some people tend to be long winded and tell stories which have nothing to do with the question asked.  Think before you begin a long explanation. 

  • Vocal tone - Vary your vocal tone.  This helps you to remain interesting.  Often times when we memorize answers to questions, we become monotone.  For this reason, it is important to memorize ideas only and put different wording together for each circumstance.

  • Don't bad mouth last employer, ever! - Avoid talking badly about your former/current employer.  If you leave any indication that you had "problems" at another job, this will send negative signals to an interviewer.

  • Simple wording - Avoid using big words and convoluted phrases.  The message this often sends is you are trying to overly impress the interviewer or that you are insecure with yourself. 

  • Filler words - Be aware of using filler words like "um," "OK," "like," etc.  Often, we use these words because we are stalling while trying to think of something to say.  Instead of using these words, take time to pause and think of what you will say next.  This helps you to gain your composure and put together your thoughts.  Start practicing to eliminate these words in your daily speech so that it becomes natural to take pauses and avoid these words.

These tips will help you improve the verbal communication variable of your professional image. 


As we said earlier, as much as 50% of what you communicate comes from your non-verbal language.  For this reason, people tend to believe your non-verbal language before they believe the words that are coming out of your mouth.  Therefore, make sure your non-verbal communication does not contradict your verbal language.  An example of this would be:  crossing your arms and legs while saying you are very open to change.  Here are some non-verbal tips to remember:

  • Use open body language - Avoid crossing your arms.  The non-verbal message this sends is:  you are unwilling to change, and/or not interested in the other person.  Be open with your body language at all times: put your legs flat on floor, put your arms on the arms rests, sit up straight, and look comfortable.

  • Don't correct too quickly - Many of us have habits we are trying to break.  If you catch yourself, don't correct yourself too quickly.  This can look silly, and draw attention to the habit.  When you catch yourself, move slowly and naturally into a new position.

  • Keep things out of your hands – Sometimes when we have things in our hands, we tend to play with them.  Keep pens, pencils, and papers out of your hands to avoid doing this.

  • Be aware of space - Each person has a spatial zone, which they don't want to be invaded.  Be careful to keep out of the interviewer's "space." 

  • Hand over mouth - Avoid putting your hand over your mouth.  The non-verbal message being sent is that you are lying or trying to hide something.

  • Maintain eye contact - Be sure to keep eye contact with the person you are speaking with.  By doing this you create a non-verbal message of honesty. 

Professional Etiquette 

Professional etiquette refers to mannerisms you will use during an interview.  The following section reviews etiquette techniques.

Etiquette Tips

After you are in the door and sitting down, here are a few more tips to remember:

  • Posture - Be sure to sit up straight in your chair.  This makes you look confident and in control.

  • Drink - If you have been offered a drink (coffee, tea, water), it’s okay to accept it, especially if the interviewer has a drink.  This acceptance helps to build rapport. 

  • Greeting - After you have shaken hands, glance around the room quickly.  You want to look for things in the office that tell you something about that person.  If you see plaques or pictures displayed, you could comment on them.  This may result in a conversation that allows for further rapport building.

  • Be real and honest - One of the most important things is to be yourself.  You don't want to put on a front, get the job and then the interviewer sees you are a totally different person.

  • Handling interruptions - If there is an interruption during your interview (phone call, knock on the door) you may not know what to do.  The proper thing to do is to relax, sit still, and don't fidget. The interruption will pass.

  • At the end - When the interview is complete, let the interviewer be the first person to stand up.  This allows him/her to remain in control.

In terms of etiquette, the best thing you can do is: use your intuition.  Your gut feeling is often the best indicator of whether you should do something or not.

The Handshake

Upon the event of your interview, you will be meeting several people in the organization and have the opportunity to shake hands with at least one person.  Many times, the importance of the handshake is overlooked by many people.  However, this is no small issue.  Your appearance is the first impression an employer gets of you, and your handshake the second.  If you pass the first impression, you don't want to flunk the handshake.  Our suggestion?  Give a firm handshake that makes the other person feel comfortable.  Practice your handshake with friends if you have to, asking for suggestions to make it better.

Here are some pointers:

q      Slide your hand into the other person's hand so that the skin between your thumbs and first fingers are touching,

q      Give a slight squeeze and a very small up-and-down shake.

q      Look directly into the person's eyes while you are shaking hands and smile.

Things to avoid:

q      Don't have a "wimpy," limp hand.  Some people are too delicate with their handshake.  The common mistake is a limp wrist or a lose grip. This is a definite turn-off to most hiring authorities.

q      Avoid the "death grip."  Some people think that to appear aggressive and confident they have to have an extra firm handshake.  Remember, you don't want to hurt the other person or make them uncomfortable.

q      If you are nervous and have sweaty palms, wipe your hand quickly on your pants/skirt before offering your hand. 


All of this information can be overwhelming and can seem a bit awkward to think about.  Hopefully by addressing these topics, you can adjust those areas that need improvement. Think of it this way, remember the skit that Tim Conway did regarding his golfer routine? (For those of you on the younger end of the age spectrum, it was hilarious!)  When you think of all the things you are supposed to do when golfing - bend at the knees, arms straight, head down, etc. - you will look pretty funny when you are doing it all at the same time.  The key is to seamlessly coordinate as many of the tips in this article into your professional image in such a way that you look comfortable, natural, and confident.

© 2010 The Howard Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

"From the first phone call I had with The Howard Group to the very last one, it was nothing but – Professionalism!"

"The time you spent with me to ensure a solid match is the mark of a pro. I now realize that you wanted to make sure this change was good for all parties concerned."