Don't bake brownies for work [Commentary]

The office is not a social club; here are some tips to remain professional -- and successful -- on the job

September 12, 2014|By Merritt Baer

I'm an entrepreneur with experience in both public and private sector, and I work in tech, a traditionally male-dominated field. It's important that workplaces affirmatively work to recruit and retain top women talent. Once you get the job, certain minor changes can help ensure you assert yourself professionally. Cheryl Sandberg advises to take a seat at the table — literally and figuratively. Here are a few more tips:

•Don't bake brownies. You're not a Girl Scout troop leader at work, don't act like one.

•Don't use exclamation points in email correspondence. Just try it: "Thanks." Periods work just fine and project a more professional tone. Exclamation points can come across as juvenile.

•Never say "I'm sorry, but…" before a request. "I'm sorry, but I never got the attachment you sent." You're not sorry — you didn't do anything wrong. Delete that phrase from your vocabulary unless you are writing an apology note.

•Never say "If you have time," or "if it's OK," unless you are writing to your superior or require permission for something. These phrases are obviously deferential and they convey that the recipient's time is worth more than yours. Don't say "thank you" when you're simply asking someone to do his/her job. Sometimes I catch people — particularly women — writing it even when doing the recipient a favor. No need to write "you're welcome," but it's OK to say it in your head.

•Keep your work space neat. Even if you're naturally a messy person, you want those around you to associate you with order and cleanliness.

•Dress up, and dress appropriately. Yes, it shouldn't matter but don't give any ammunition to your critics by sporting cleavage or above-the-knee skirts. I'm of the belief that these days, pantyhose are optional, but it depends on your office protocol. No sleeveless shirts or dresses; wear a cardigan or blazer. I wear business formal because I've found that I'm more likely to be pulled into meetings when I put on the suit that morning.

•Consistently follow up to ask interesting people for coffee or a glass of wine. You don't have to have something you directly need or want from the person. Networking is not what's done at networking receptions, it's cemented one-on-one, and based on genuine relationships.

•Find and hold onto patrons. (Patron: more experienced person who is looking out for your advancement and invested in your success.) It's not the same as a mentor. Mentoring is one-way; patrons find ways to look out for your continued growth because they're convinced that you will repay their service by succeeding. When you find someone with whom you click, put in the legwork to research their interests and follow up regularly. Write thank you cards on paper after each interaction.

•Never pretend to know more than you do. "I don't know" is a worthwhile phrase. It will require those around you to speak concretely and be prepared to define the terms and concepts they use.

•Don't rescue babbling. It's a social grace to jump in when someone starts to wander with the conversation, but I suggest that it's OK to let him go down the rabbit hole. It's not required that you lubricate the inarticulateness of another person.

•Recognize that there is always a client. No matter what your profession, there is someone whom you should consider the client: your boss, patient, coworker, customer. Anticipate their needs and outperform.

•Listen lots. Especially in the first few months on the job, make sure you're talking much less than you're listening. Don't participate in workplace whining, even though it's tempting.

•Ask what the deadline is when you receive a project. Sometimes I cranked to finish a project before learning it wasn't time sensitive. To balance your demands, not just in work but in life, make sure you know what is a time crunch and what isn't. It demonstrates sustainability and communications skills and it will prevent burn-out.

•Have a plan. You know that annoying interview question about where you'll be in five years? It doesn't have to be an answer that pleases everyone, but think about what you want in one year, two, five, 10. You're more likely to get it if you decide what you want and start laying the building blocks to get there.

Merritt Baer runs a tech consulting company, merrittrachelbaer.com. She will be appearing September 15 at the Baltimore Women In/Tech conference (2014.baltimoreinnovationweek.com) to speak on "Lead It: Seat at the Table: How are more women taking executive leadership roles?" Her email is mbaer@post.harvard.edu.


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