The start of a new school year is always exciting. Whether it is your first semester and you are getting your first job in the United States somewhere on-campus, or you are returning from a rewarding internship experience that you did while on Curricular Practical Training, the start of a new year is a perfect time to think about what it means to be “professional” in the United States.
Being “professional” or “professionalism” isn’t a term that is limited to professions that require extensive education or that require a suit and tie. While professionalism may look somewhat different depending on whether your job is as a food service worker, a research assistant, a software engineer or Accountant at a Fortune 500 company, there are some expected traits that exhibit good professionalism here that employers will expect you to have if you are going to succeed in your career in the United States. Here are some traits of professionalism that are common across all careers in the United States:
Arrive on time:
Punctuality is incredibly important in the United States, when you are meeting a classmate or professor, and especially if you have a job. In the United States, people expect you to show up on time to start work or for meetings – to arrive late gives an impression that you don’t care about your job.
Dress appropriately for the workplace:
What you will wear to work will depend on the job- whether it is a uniform, lab, or office environment, there will be different expectations. It is perfectly okay to ask what the dress code is at any new job. Regardless of the dress code however, a universal rule is that you should arrive neat and clean. All scents should be neutral and devoid of body odor, strong cologne, or incense. Keep in mind that how you dress after you start a job and the way you dress for an interview are very different. Even in places where employees dress more casually for work, it is usually expected for someone to dress professionally for an interview.
Be a Team Player:
In order to succeed in the U.S. workforce, you should be able to work well in a team. Offer to assist other co-workers if they are overburdened. Something that will also help you build respect among your co-workers is to avoid gossiping about your co-workers, and not over-sharing your personal problems.
Take responsibility for mistakes:
Making mistakes is a part of learning, and because we are human, even the most competent person will occasionally make a mistake. In the US work environment, it is a valued trait when employees admit an error. You should learn from that mistake, and get assistance in training or technique to ensure it doesn’t happen again, but admitting a mistake instead of blaming others will also make you a respected and valued member of the team.
This isn’t just about telling the truth- it is also about omitting relevant information or misrepresenting yourself or your skill set. Honesty about not being trained or equipped to do something is the best policy- it will avoid mistakes, and potentially even injury, if you disclose your lack of training or experience. It will not be a liability as long as you can also explain how you are a quick learner and already learned to do something similar – something we refer to as “transferrable skills”.
Only leave a job with appropriate notice:
The minimum expected amount of notice that any employee should give before leaving a job is two-weeks. Some jobs and professions require additional notice – for many jobs requiring an advanced degree one month is a minimum, maybe more in order to smoothly transition your work duties. There are of course some instances in which it is okay to leave a job without notice- if you aren’t being paid as promised, if your safety is threatened, if you are being asked to do something illegal are some examples. However, absent those types of circumstances, how you leave a job is just as important as how you performed when you were in the job. Every former employer is a potential source of feedback on your performance in the United States, regardless of whether or not you listed them as a reference.
Practice good ethics in accepting job offers:
A job search process is an arduous one for any employer. Not only are considerable time and resources being used for the search itself, but the planning of projects is being done before you even arrive on-site, based on your acceptance of the offer. It is important to understand that when you begin your work life in the United States, whether it is in food service at Campus Enterprises or at an employer that recruits at NC State, the job offer, even one that is verbally accepted, creates a contractual relationship between you and that employer. To reneg on that job offer has consequences, and in small industries where portions of companies are bought and sold, you may find yourself needing to work with that company again. You could even lose the new offer, because employers who discover that an individual reneged on an offer with a competitor may see you as untrustworthy and unethical. These are not terms you want associated with you before you even begin your career!
Your career in the U.S. begins at NC State!
Please remember that as an international student, your career and professional reputation are beginning right here, right now, while you are a student at NC State. On-campus employment is a wonderful opportunity that assists students financially, and some will get invaluable experience in their field of study. Sometimes however, students who are working outside of their fields in areas requiring more manual labor, such as in food service, or service related jobs such as Campus Recreation or the Library, develop a mindset that this job or their supervisor will not help them in their chosen careers, and therefore perhaps don’t treat the job as seriously. These students couldn’t be more wrong!
Hiring managers are of course looking for relevant experience, however they are also evaluating professionalism. What will their former employer say about them? Would they rehire the student? Were they punctual? Did they perform tasks correctly and on time? Were they good team players? Did they ever complain when asked to do something? Hiring managers know that they can train an employee to do the task at hand, but these other traits? They display professionalism, and are much harder to train.
Amongst on-campus employers at NC State, recent instances of international students quitting a job without notice or reneging an offer before starting has created a climate where on-campus employers are now hesitant to hire international students. This has negative consequences for all international students, many of whom depend on on-campus work. It is also extremely short-sighted on behalf of the students, who at this point could have a solid job on-campus, where they can build their professional reputation and references for that summer internship they are hoping for off-campus.
Over the summer, several graduates from NC State (also all international students) reneged post-completion job offers at one company. That employer is now questioning whether they should recruit from NC State at all going forward, because they question the professional ethics being taught to NC State students. This is an impact that not only affects the other students that might have been hired in place of these individuals, and the reputation of NC State students in general, but also threatens the very reason many of you chose NC State as your school- the ability to get a job with a reputable employer after graduation.
It should also be noted that departments on campus are taking notice. Depending on the circumstance, reneging on an off-campus offer for either internships or post-completion work will find the student unable to use the Career Development Center or ePack as a resource, will not be able to participate in on-campus interviews, and departments have created ‘black lists’ where students will not receive any future support regarding references or letters documenting acquired skills. This can ultimately impact a future green card application, where documenting skills is a critical part of the Labor Certification process.
OIS and the Career Development Center will be offering a number of workshops this year regarding professionalism, resumes, job searching and interviewing, as well as the visa processes for off-campus employment. Please keep an eye out for those sessions and if you are in doubt about how to handle a tricky employment issue in the U.S. please ask! If we can’t assist you we will refer you to the best resource to assist. We look forward to working with you all to facilitate your employment experiences and to make the hiring of NC State International Students a pleasant and rewarding experience for all involved!
Elizabeth James, Director