Professional Etiquette Module

Steps in this module:

  1. Learn: Read the following brief document.
  2. Apply new knowledge.
  3. Complete the reflection activity.

Step 1 – Learn


“Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
“Clean your plate.”
“Thank you for making breakfast for the family while I was sick.”
“No singing at the table.”
“You can’t go until you clean your room.”
“I like how you use your words, not your fists.”

Have you ever heard these comments from parents or friends?
Every family, organization, club, or group has rules and expectations. To participate in any group, you need to know what is appropriate, what is expected, what is optional, what irritates others, and what will get you kicked out. When you join new groups, it is common to feel clueless. You simply have not learned how to negotiate group expectations. How should you dress, talk, act, use humor, and get things done?

This module provides some examples of traditional office etiquette expectations. You will work through these examples and check with your supervisor to understand the culture of the organization.

So, who cares about professional etiquette?

The short answer is: your supervisor does, so you should too. Students are often surprised by the things supervisors and office staff think about them when they are just acting “normally” for a student. The expectations others have of you are often never discussed, yet you are evaluated on those unspoken standards.

Here is why your supervisor cares: you are a representative of your organization and others judge your supervisor based on your behavior. For your customers, you ARE the organization. So, your manager wants you to represent both yourself and them in the best light to both internal and external customers and clients.

You will face two kinds of etiquette expectations:

  • Internal customers who comprise the members of your own organization or team. Think about a time when you had an unexpected absence from work. Who on your team was affected? Those people are your internal customers.
  • External customers who are looking to you for help. Everyone has experience as an external customer: a person who approaches an agent whom they hope will meet their need. Think about how your “professionalism” will impact your customers in a positive manner.

The Basics

Age and culture: GenZ, Millennials, GenX’ers, and Boomers

professionalEtiquette1Some researchers claim that each generation has different values, norms, rituals, and work expectations. Although nobody perfectly fits a generational description, it may be helpful to use those categories to explore “professionalism.” Your supervisor or upper manager will probably be from a different generation. This means that their expectations and values may be at odds with yours which makes it important for you to learn work culture expectations.

Etiquette Tips That Can Help You Succeed

Be Available

The first way that you make your colleagues and customers feel valued is by acknowledging them promptly.

  • When the phone rings, answer it before the third ring.
  • When a customer or colleague enters your work area, you need to look up from your computer, stop whatever else you’re doing as soon as possible and give them your attention.

TIP: If you’re in the middle of something you simply can’t stop (such as a phone call), acknowledge them verbally, or with a nod and hand motion, and ask them politely to wait. Otherwise stop what you are doing and give them your attention.

Be Welcoming

Greet your colleagues or customers in a friendly, appropriate manner.  Make eye contact, smile, and say something like, “How is it going today?” Then stop, and let the person respond.

TIP: Your first opportunity to be a good listener is when you ask the “How may I help you?” question.

Appear Helpful…

Appear eager to help, but not in such an aggressive way that the person is annoyed. Don’t trail people around the premises or constantly ask them if you can help.

TIP: Ask your supervisor, colleagues, and customers if they need help. If they say they don’t want help right away, let them know where you will be available and let them come to you.

…Then Actually Be Helpful

    • Help the customer by directly addressing his or her request.
    • Actively listen and show that you’re listening by making eye contact or jotting down a note. Ask clarifying questions if necessary to get more details.

TIP: Do not interrupt when the other person is speaking—you can’t listen when you’re talking.

    • Be helpful to internal and external customers by being knowledgeable about the services your group provides. Have you ever asked an employee something they should know only to be met with a blank stare? Learn your job and then some. Know your stuff – inside and out. Have a clear sense of the department’s goals, functions, and know where your work fits in. Try to get to the point where you never have to say, “I do not know, but so-and-so will be back at 3 pm.”

TIP: Also, know the difference between being knowledgeable and showing off. Tell your customers what they need to know, not everything you know about it.

Be helpful by knowing about other services at your organization that are linked with your office. Get to know the related workings of the organization so that, if the help your customer needs is not available in your department, you have a reasonable knowledge of where he or she can get it.

TIP: The help you give (or aren’t able to give) can be a big influence on how the customer feels about customer service across campus.

Be Positive

professionalEtiquette2Be cheerful, courteous, and respectful throughout the interaction. Remain calm at all times, even when the customer or co-worker is rude. If you believe that your ability to do your best work is compromised, then talk to your supervisor about what is going on so that the two of you can work it out.

TIP: Leave your personal life at home. Your customers neither need nor want to know that you are having a bad day, that you are having relationship problems, that you are tired, or that you feel sick. Once you step into work, smile, and carry on.

Go the Extra Mile

Whatever the extra step may be, take it. For instance, if someone walks into your department and asks you where to find a specific office, don’t just say, “It is on the north side of the building.” Escort the person there. Wait and see if he or she finds the office in question.

TIP: They may not mention it to you, but people notice when you make an extra effort. They may even tell your supervisor about it.

Deal with Complaints

No one likes hearing complaints, and it is tempting to develop an attitude of, “You cannot please all the people all the time.” That may be true, but if you give the complaint your attention, you may be able to please this one person this one time and reap the benefits.

TIP: If you or your department hears the same complaint over and over again, think about how it might be resolved and talk to your supervisor about it.

Be Reliable

Reliability is vital to good relationships, and good internal and external customer service is no exception. Do not make promises unless you will keep them. If you say, “I will have this ready for you on Tuesday,” make sure it is ready on Tuesday. Otherwise, do not say it. The same rule applies to customer appointments, deadlines, and other business matters.

Close appropriately

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” is always a good way to wrap up. End your interactions with others on a positive note: Thank them or wish them a good day.

Employer Suggestions for The Student Intern

There are many employer surveys that list suggestions to student interns and employees. The list is long so we made it easy for you by consolidating those suggestions below. Read through them and mark those that surprise you or make you curious. Then discuss those items you marked with your employer. It’s a great way to understand professional etiquette from another’s point of view.


  • Complain
  • Exclusively hang out with cliques
  • Talk about previous jobs or procedures
  • Gossip about colleagues
  • Play with your phone or computer games
  • Do your homework before asking if it is OK or if there are other projects


  • Do more than is expected – give your work that special touch or attention
  • Act interested in boring tasks so you completely understand and can do them
  • Remember names of co-workers
  • Prepare for meetings – have everything ready before you meet.
  • Thank people
  • Learn the business
  • Show up early sometimes
  • Leave late sometimes without being asked
  • Choose co-worker friends slowly. Sometimes the friendliest people are the neediest and unpopular at work.

Ask your supervisor:

  • What could I do to exceed your expectations?
  • What have past employees done that made your life much easier?
  • What tips would you pass along from the most successful employees who have had this job?
  • What is the worst thing I could do in this job that you want me to avoid?
  • Whom should I emulate?
  • Who is great in this role that I should learn from?
  • How can I best help you?
  • How can I become employee of the year?

Your personal list:

List any additional suggestions you have heard or know from past jobs.

A word about dress code:

You would be surprised by the stories employers tell about inappropriately dressed student workers…and how they are frustrated with it. Many students have never been coached on appropriate business attire. Often, students assume that the fashions they wear are perfectly fine since they are popular in public. However, you can actually embarrass supervisors by your fashion choices (you represent your supervisor to the public), and they may not tell you. Ask your supervisor to comment on your clothing, grooming, and appearance. Ask them to be specific. Your evaluation can hinge on problem areas including, but not limited to, clothing being overly tight or revealing, too casual, too colorful or too formal for the work environment, personal body odors or too much perfume/cologne use, exposed tattoos, etc. Now is the time to ask.

Step 2 – Complete the Checklist

Professional etiquette checklist

Read the statement in the left column then check the box on the right that you believe most closely describes the expectations at your current place of work.

Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree Does not apply
Phones MUST be answered in 3 rings, even when a customer is in front of me
“Business Professional” is an appropriate dress code
“Business Casual” is an appropriate dress code
“Casual” is an appropriate dress code
Show up early for your shift
Stay late without being asked
Always call ahead to report an absence/sick day
Being shy has its drawbacks on this job
Texting between tasks is OK
It’s fine to snack or eat at my desk/work site
It’s best to clarify office concerns or problems with co-workers before talking to my supervisor
Professional staff and supervisors prefer to be called by their first name
Co-workers prefer information via phone
Co-workers prefer information via email
Co-workers prefer information face-to-face
My supervisor prefers that I communicate progress on a task regularly until it’s done
Wearing light perfume or cologne is appropriate
It’s good to chat and share stories with co-workers to build teamwork
It’s fine if my boyfriend/girlfriend visits me while I’m on the job
My supervisor only wants me to communicate progress on a task when the rough draft is done
Whatever I do, it should pretty much reach perfection
For most tasks, “good enough” is all that’s required
When my work is all done and there is nothing to do, it’s OK to study or do things online
It’s OK to occasionally curse to make a strong point around here
It’s important to take notes when receiving instructions
If I’m confused it’s better to figure it out first before asking for help
When a request for a task is made, I should always ask how important it is and when do they want it.
I know exactly how the supervisor will evaluate my performance

Step 3 – Reflection

Complete this section and review with your supervisor

  1. The following text will be used to post a notice in the cafeteria. Change the wording, layout, and font for maximum impact.

    A lot of people on campus are enjoying Ultimate Frisbee. We play on Saturdays with Frisbees that USG provides. We want to get more people involved so everyone is invited to this Friday’s Ultimate Frisbee marathon Saturday starting at 11:00 and lasting until 4:00 in Alumni Park. USG will provide the Frisbees.

  2. The following message was left by a co-worker for a student employee in the Library. What type of information would you add to make it more complete? You can invent the information to add or just say what type of information is missing.

    You are supposed to re-shelve the books.

  3. Edit the following emails written by student employees to their supervisors. For each message, click below the text and correct the composition. Make each as clear, comprehensive, accurate, and appropriate as you can.
    1. sup? I can’t work firday. U can schdule me another day. tell me when.

    2. I happen to like working with Sheila but you put me with Bob. He sucks. I want to work with her.

    3. You told me to file the papers but I couldn’t find any. Sense I couldn’t do it, I left.

Module 2: Written Communication

  • In your current position, what types of written communication do you use most often? (List them all.)
  • What are your main challenges with written communication?
  • What are some strategies you can use to ensure correct composition, clarity, comprehensiveness, accuracy, and appropriateness?