How to Portray Etiquette and Professionalism for Your Job Interview

Displaying Etiquette and Professionalism while Interviewing

One area in which it is absolutely crucial to practice excellent business etiquette and professionalism is in the hiring process. Because a job interview gives both the employer and the potential employee a snapshot of what it would be like to work with the other person, it's easy to understand why it is necessary for both sides to exude professionalism and etiquette.

For everyone:

Obviously, it should go without saying that you should not use any words that would not be described as politically correct. If you are unsure of what kinds of terms are, or are not, appropriate, ask someone! Ideally, you should have trusted family, friends, or mentors who can help you, but -- worst case scenario -- ask the person how they prefer you to refer to them.

As an interviewee

Applying for a job and going through the interview and orientation process is a particularly stressful time and you want to be able to focus your efforts on substantive issues, rather than the appearance of propriety. This starts with the first contact you have with a potential employer. This could consist of meeting someone at a networking function, filling out an application, submitting your resume, and so on. Whether it is a voice mail that you leave, meeting someone face to face, or submitting a written paper, a potential employer will automatically make assumptions about you, based on how you present yourself. Worry about the interview later; for now, focus your efforts on everything that leads up to the interview.

If you are meeting potential employers at a job fair, networking function, or any other in-person venue, be sure to dress appropriately. Your interview is not the only time you need to"dress for the job you want, not the job you have." If you are 18 and applying for a job at McDonald's, a three piece suit may not be necessary, but will rarely make a negative impression. Alternatively, going to a cocktail hour at your local Chamber of Commerce in a pair of jeans and a tee shirt is highly unlikely to yield favorable results. While it is certainly within your rights to dress how you want, remember that employers are looking for someone that not only will fit in with their organization, but will also be a good representative of their company with others. Consequently, dirty, stained, or wrinkled clothing will be frowned upon. Clothing or accessories that make a strong political or religious statement may not go over well, either. Both men and women should dress relatively conservatively in terms of color, cut, and size of their clothing. Even a job fair for a company that does primarily manual labor, or is in the service industry, should still adhere to these standards; there are plenty of real examples of men and women who went to such events and were pulled out of line and considered for management or upper level positions, based solely on their appearance.

Above all, understand that while you may feel that it's appropriate to wear yoga pants to an interview at the YMCA, they may not agree. You may think that it's no one's business if your skirt is "too" short, but the interviewers may not agree. If you have a tattoo or body piercing that will be visible to interviewers, and you are going to a place that is not associated with tattoos, body piercing, or similar venues, you may be discriminated against. It absolutely may not be "fair," but the vast majority of businesses know that the perception of their business is paramount to their success, and they want to hire people with whom they feel comfortable representing their brand. Even if a company ends up being more relaxed or loose with their policies regarding appearance, err on the side of caution when it comes to interviews.

If and when you speak with someone on the phone, even if it is only to leave a voice mail, use appropriate language and speak clearly. Identify yourself, what you are calling about, and your phone number; it is ideal to leave your name and number twice, speaking clearly and slowly both times. If you speak with someone, be sure not to make any assumptions regarding the person on the other end of the line; no one will take kindly if you make assumptions about their sex, race, sexual preference, age, and so on, whether you are right or wrong. In fact, remember that you don't know the person on the other end of the line at all. Don't make any assumptions about their religion, political beliefs, or anything else -- simply because it is not something with which you are very familiar. Likewise, be very careful not to use any words that might be interpreted as inappropriate; curse words are obvious, but other negative terms, such as "crap" or "dang," may cause the person on the other end of the line to question your professionalism, your etiquette, and even your intelligence.

When it comes to written materials, whether on paper or on the computer (or even a cell phone text), be 100 percent confident about your spelling, grammar, and appropriate word use. Applications should be taken home for completion unless you have all pertinent information and are confident regarding spelling and grammar. Applications and resumes should never, ever contain errors. An application filled out on site, if absolutely necessary, may give a little more leeway, but an email, text, resume, or anything else that does not have to be filled out on site, should be perfect. This will demonstrate to a potential employer that you have mastered basic English, that you know how to effectively communicate, that you are committed to being the best representation of yourself (and hopefully their company), and that you are taking your job search seriously. Essentially, what you are demonstrating to a potential employer is your business etiquette and professionalism.

Again, don't make any assumptions about the person to whom you are writing. Managers have been known to throw out resumes when the cover letter is addressed as "Dear Sir," or similar; it is no longer 1955 and women are working in the professional world in all capacities, so leave your options open. Again, it's good to be assertive during this process, but remember that there is another person involved and how they think, feel, and act may make all the difference in whether or not you are hired.

During your interview, you may be speaking either formally or informally with one or more people. It may consist of questions and answers, activities, or even exercises that will demonstrate your aptitude for certain tasks. Effectively preparing for an interview is a whole other topic, understand that how you handle each question or request needs to demonstrate both etiquette and professionalism. In point of fact, sometimes questions or requested actions may seem shocking, irrational, or even unethical; some hiring managers have been known to do this to assess your professionalism in handling these issues. Far more important than any particular job, is acting with personal integrity, while maintaining a standard of professionalism. Consequently, if you are asked to do something you believe to be illegal or unethical, refuse to do so in a calm and professional manner.

If there are objections to something you say in your interview, or you feel discriminated against because you referred to your pets as children, or you wore a tie endorsing the NRA or similar, that's tough. Employers cannot discriminate against you based on a number of factors, but they absolutely can, and will, make decisions about your character based on the information you give them in the interview; in point of fact, that's the purpose of an interview. If all they needed to do was see your resume, there would be no interview process. So stick to the topics at hand and be conservative, but natural, in terms of small talk or personal statements. And for any of you who may be questioning these issues based on "freedom of speech," reexamine the Bill of Rights. You are protected from being arrested by saying something outrageous or outlandish, but you can absolutely, perfectly legally, ruin your chances of being hired by saying something ridiculous.

Before you leave your interview, be sure to thank your interviewers for their consideration of your employment. Remember the names of all of the interviewers (if possible), or at the very least the main interviewer, or the person who would be your direct supervisor, and send a thank you note to them immediately via snail mail. Many hiring managers report they no longer will even consider a candidate who does not send a thank you, even if the interview was excellent. It is a competitive world out there and taking time to review resumes, interview multiple candidates, and make decisions takes a lot of time from the schedules of your interviewers, so it is only proper etiquette to thank them for their time both in person and by mail. Even if they choose not to hire you for the position, your professionalism will be remembered for any future time when you may be interacting with these interviewers again.

As an interviewer

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Business Professionalism course?

Business etiquette and professionalism in the interview process is not one-sided. Hiring managers, supervisors, business owners, consultants, and anyone else who may be involved, also need to act professionally and have appropriate etiquette practices.

When hiring a potential employee, you have to make big decisions based on a relatively scant amount of information. Resumes, a phone call or two, and an interview (which may be as short as 15 minutes) obviously cannot give you all of the information it would be helpful for you to know about any given potential employee. Consequently, the reality of the interview and hiring process is that you will be making assumptions based on the interviewee's experience, ability to communicate, and perceived ability to fit in with your organizational culture. Nevertheless, make assumptions that are based on the individual, and not on the demographic groups they represent. Put simply, don't assume that a person has specific political beliefs because of a piece of religious jewelry. Don't assume someone will fit in better with your current organizational culture because of their race. If it is absolutely critical that you look at any potential hire as an individual or you are likely to find yourself dissatisfied with your selection. Of course, it is also illegal to make hiring decisions based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, and genetic information in compliance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

As a natural extension of the EEOC, it is unprofessional to ask certain questions in an interview, including a number of questions that are very commonly asked in interviews. While many of these questions are common in the interview process, most of them would be considered rude in a social venue; as a general rule of thumb, remember that if you would not ask a person a question socially, you probably shouldn't ask it in an interview. Of course, there are still other questions you would ask socially, but still are not legally allowed to ask at work. The following questions are some of the most frequently asked questions that are usually illegal:

- Have you ever been arrested?

- Are you married?

- What religion are you/what religious holidays you practice?

- Do you have children/are you planning on having children/are you pregnant?

- What country are you from?

- What is your first language?

- Do you have any debt/how is your credit score?

- Do you drink alcohol?

- Have you ever used illegal drugs/when did you last use illegal drugs?

- How long have you been working/how old are you?

- What type of discharge did you receive in the military?

All of these questions represent real concerns on the part of the interviewer. Nevertheless, they are illegal for excellent reasons and to protect the rights of everyone. If you have concerns regarding someone's marital and/or parental status because of the hours you expect them to work, ask them if they would be available during those hours or however many hours per week you need them, rather than asking about their personal life. Issues such as military discharge, drug use, and criminal background also represent valid concerns; you can ask if an individual has been convicted of a crime or if they are currently using illegal drugs, as these questions relate more directly to your immediate concerns.

If you find yourself frustrated because you think past behavior is important for you to make your decision, remember that we have all made mistakes in our past and should not be judged forever based solely on a poor choice or mistake. If that fails, then remember it's illegal and you can lose your job or business by asking. Of course, some of these questions may be legal to ask if there is a direct link between the question and the open position. For example, a bank teller may have to disclose their credit history as they will be handling large amounts of cash.

Other actions on behalf of the interviewer, with regard to business etiquette and professionalism, are relatively simple and straightforward. First, be sure you introduce every person that is present for the interview to the interviewee. The potential hire should know who is present for their interview and their role in both the interview process, and the company as a whole. Second, communicate your decision with each individual you interview. Whether you have selected that person or another candidate, each person you interviewed also made a sacrifice of their time and effort; it is simply polite to acknowledge that you appreciated their effort, even if they are not the person you hire. Phone calls or emails are ideal, but even a written letter is acceptable as long as it is sent to the interviewee as quickly as possible so they can move on in their job search.

Third, it is impolite and unprofessional to waste someone's time by having them come in and interview when you have already made your hiring decision. Many professionals who are looking for work are currently employed and therefore frequently have to take off work (usually in a secretive way) in order to interview with your company. If you have no intention of hiring that individual, it is rude to pretend otherwise. If you are obligated to interview a minimum number of people, even when you already know who you plan to hire for the position, then let the interviewee know that during the interview. You don't have to say it outright but let them know that you are considering an internal hire (or whatever), but that you still want to get to know them so you are able to consider them for any future positions. If you really want to be professional and practice good business etiquette, you actually will get to know them and consider them for future positions.

It is also important for both the interviewers and interviewees to understand that not every type of employment is subject to EEOC rules in their hiring process. Religious organizations, for example, may be able to discriminate on the basis of religion or even other aspects of a person's identity that might be considered incompatible with the religious institution's dogmatic beliefs. In other words, The Salvation Army is legally able to refuse to hire someone based on their sexual orientation (though this does not imply that they would discriminate, simply that, as an example, they can discriminate).

Once a candidate has been selected for a position, negotiations regarding salary and benefits typically occur. Because this is a tricky aspect of the hiring process, it is likewise particularly imperative that everyone involved uses good judgment and professionalism. Obviously, these issues are going to come down to matters such as budgets, policies, expertise, and so on. But the professionalism comes primarily in communicating regarding these issues, as well as respecting the other party's decisions. In short, neither party should judge the other based on the salary desired, or the salary offer, and the same goes for benefits.These issues can be discussed, and there should be some room for movement, but there are always methods to discuss these tricky matters in a polite and respectful way, including if a consensus cannot be reached and the potential employee chooses not to work at the position or for the company with whom they have been interviewing.


For the purposes of this course, we will refer to onboarding and orientation interchangeably.

One of the more interesting and potentially problematic aspects of the human resources or hiring manager is to bring a new hire up to speed regarding company policies, especially those related to the individual's life outside of work. For example, most companies will not permit an employee to wear their uniform while engaging in certain behaviors, such as smoking or drinking alcohol. Many professional positions include "morality clauses" which usually refer to behaviors that would be deemed unsuitable for someone in their position, even if the behavior does not directly relate to their employment. For example, a teacher who is arrested for domestic violence may face discipline or dismissal from their workplace even though their actions do not directly impact their quality of teaching.

There may be other requirements based on the type of employer or business involved. For example, a youth minister who frequents strip clubs on his or her nights off may be dismissed as that is engaging in behaviors not considered in keeping with the values and morals of the church where they minister. Responsible human resource professionals will be very clear about the expectations of off-hours behavior (if any exist).

After the new employee has completed their paperwork and begun their employment, proper business etiquette dictates that the individual is made to feel welcome and shown the ropes, not just within their individual position's job responsibilities but also within the larger organizational culture. New hires should be introduced around with special attention given to the individual's supervisor, department, subordinates, and any other closely related positions.

Representatives of the company should answer a new employee's questions honestly, but should not imply there are any expectations of the new employee to conform to common practices by other employees unless those practices are actually policy. Throughout the first several weeks of the employee's time with the company, any potential issues that may arise based on differences between common practices in the organization and the individual should be addressed on a case by case basis. During this time, it may be helpful to inform the new employee that there are certain choices they may be making that are potentially negatively influencing their relationships with their co-workers. If these issues should arise, it is imperative that the employee not feel that they must conform based on other people's practices, but rather should just be made aware that certain things they do or say may have unintended consequences, so they can understand the individual company's standards of business etiquette and make professional decisions regarding their willingness, or lack thereof, to adhere to those standards.