Your Best Foot Forward: Image in the Workplace: Personal and Professional Image Can Make or Break Your Employees' Careers-And How Your Organization Is Perceived

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Picture this: The CEO is presenting her new ideas for the next quarter. You notice your co-worker texting and checking email. Another coworker, dressed in rumpled jeans and a t-shirt, yawns. After the meeting, your manager asks you to introduce a new employee to others. You oblige, and then dish on everyone in the office.

What do these simple actions say about you and your co-workers? Like it or not, the way we dress, carry ourselves, and interact with others speak volumes about who we are and contribute to the professional image we present.

But personal and professional image extends beyond the office door to other parts of the professional community. In fact, more companies are finding that employees' demeanor and behavior--and how others perceive them--can affect a company's reputation, and ultimately, the bottom line. Some companies are tackling professional image and business etiquette and are training employees on how to step it up a notch.

The basics of image and etiquette

Several key concepts are at the heart of image and business etiquette training. First, employees must be aware of how their personal and professional image, dress, behavior, and other peoples' perceptions help--or hinder--their progress in the workplace.

Second, employees and leaders must be willing to give up something to create a unified company image, according to Michael E. Parker, president and CEO of Value-Centered Enterprise, a professional services firm based in San Pablo, California. That means employees may need to reign in their personal styles a bit, and leaders may need to give up their hard-line positions.

Third, everyone must acknowledge that business etiquette isn't just about the firm handshake. Rather, it's about putting others at ease, says Diane Gottsman, owner of the Protocol School of Texas. Ultimately, people do business with those with whom they are most comfortable working.

But how do you train employees to enhance their professional image--and the company's? How do you get employees to first look inward and then think about the good of the group?

Employees usually respond favorably to an inclusive approach that doesn't single out individuals, notes Juanita Ecker of Professional Image Management in Columbia, South Carolina. Ecker, who primarily trains employees who are being groomed for leadership positions, recalls a young man who thanked her after one of her business etiquette presentations: "Whether I stay at this company or go somewhere else, I will use these lessons for the rest of my professional career."

Getting started

Before you buy into image and business etiquette training, assess current image standards. Define the image you want employees to present inside and outside the organization. Then, get familiar with the differences between image and perception and where the two intersect.

Image is what we project. Whether we realize it or not, we shape our image when we show up for work with a smile, respond in a timely manner to calls and emails, and show interest during meetings. Business etiquette also falls under the image umbrella.

Attire also plays a role. Janet McClain, human resources director at Athens Administrators in Concord, California, recently received image training with other company leaders. She says that the concept of professional image goes much deeper than simply dressing better.

"It's also about how we carry ourselves," McClain explains. "It's about being self-aware, and it's about our verbal, non-verbal, personal, and written expressions. Image even crosses over to our workspace and surroundings. For example, is your cubicle neat and organized? Or do you have coffee stains all over your desk?"

Perception, on the other hand, is about how others view you. Employees who dress inappropriately for work or yawn and text during office meetings may be perceived as inconsiderate or disinterested in the company's success. …