Professional etiquette: Build your career on it

There is a work culture expectation in being a professional.

There is a work culture expectation in being a professional. Yet, rarely is “professional etiquette” defined. It seems ironic that team members and management alike expect you to act as a professional even when no one takes the time to explain to you what exactly that entails.

Where are you supposed to learn it? Is it something you’re born with, or is it a responsibility of the educational system to teach?

Regardless of your work environment, there are common guidelines establishing behavior in the workplace. When you embrace professional etiquette concepts, you will stand out and be able to build your career in veterinary medicine.

What is professional etiquette?

It seems to be a simple question. In reality, it has a variety of connotations. Professional etiquette may refer to the manners you display at a dinner meeting, the qualities an employer is looking for in a new team member, or the social skills needed to be successful in organized veterinary medicine.

Regardless of the situation, being aware of your social graces and the presence you wish to portray will support a satisfying career. “Etiquette allows you to present yourself in a polished, professional, and polite way. It encourages others to take you seriously,” writes Kristie Lorette in the article, “Business Etiquette and Professionalism.”1

This code of conduct is critical for smooth personal interactions and for setting the correct tone for the veterinary environment. Proper etiquette is mandatory for instilling trust and confidence in the team.

One thing is for sure—if you don’t have professional etiquette, it’s going to be difficult to either obtain the job you desire or to keep it. The same can be said about retaining clients.

Where is the handbook?

“In spite of its importance, we rarely ask ourselves how professionalism develops,” writes Patrick Miller, PhD. “We don’t ask how people become professional. We simply take it for granted that almost everyone does, in fact, become professional. We seem to assume professionalism is somehow inculcated in each of us as an integral part of our upbringing. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Perhaps the most striking thing about professionalism is that people need a definition to recognize it, but don’t need anything at all to recognize its absence.”2

Performed by the York College of Pennsylvania,3 a 2013 study revealed fewer than half of all businesses have programs that specifically address professionalism for new employees. More than 90 percent of human resource professionals and managers surveyed believe colleges, not businesses, should be responsible for professional development.

Yet, some hospital managers note a decline in the professional habits of veterinary team members.4 Thus, the gap.

Who is responsible for instilling professionalism in employees: parents, educators, or businesses? Unfortunately, the burden usually falls on businesses because that is where the rubber hits the road regarding services delivered in a professional manner.

Creating a handbook

Expectations regarding professionalism while working in a veterinary hospital may already be included in your employee handbook. Often, these expectations are listed under sections with titles such as, “Thou Shall Not” or “Code of Conduct.”

The following are examples of how an employee handbook may read. In both cases, it’s more of a passive way to teach etiquette skills.

Because your conduct is so very important to your success and that of the hospital, you are expected to maintain the highest standards of personal and professional conduct.

The following is a list of behaviors that could lead to disciplinary action:

  • lying on the employment application or at any other time during employment;
  • being under the influence of alcoholic beverages or illegal drugs while on hospital property;
  • destruction or damage of hospital property; and/or
  • disregarding safety regulations.

A positive spin on employee handbook expectations may read like this:

We value:

  • honesty;
  • sobriety;
  • a strong work ethic;
  • safety;
  • being on time and ready to work; and
  • interacting with clients in a polite and genuine manner.

Consider how you and your team can identify professional traits everyone values. Then once defined, enrich the employee handbook and incorporate them into your training programs.

Common guidelines

There are many sources online defining ideas around professional etiquette. We will touch on a few we feel are critical in veterinary medicine.

First impressions

“There is a world of research that clearly indicates you will be judged professionally and personally in the first few seconds of your meeting someone for the first time. In fact, your first impression is recorded and is used as a yard stick for all future communication by those whom you meet,” states Kevin Hogan, PsyD, a leading expert in body language, persuasion, and sales.5

You are always making first impressions (e.g. meeting a client or new team member for the first time, interacting at a networking event). Regardless whether it is right or wrong, you will be judged on your body language, appearance, and the level of confidence you exude.

Professional etiquette plays a role in each of the following:


When speaking with someone, watch your tone and volume, and remember to be inviting. When listening, show the person you’re engaged by nodding, leaning forward, and making eye contact (but not staring).

Body language (nonverbal clues), tone and volume of voice, eye contact, and personal space all reflect whether your conversation is being accepted or rejected. If you’re unsure in these areas, you have homework to do.

Engaging with team members

Team members often define “professionalism” with the word “respect.” Yet, this concept encompasses many areas and is hard to directly define.

You could start by looking at examples of what it means to treat others with respect. The following is a summary taken from the article, “How to Demonstrate Respect in the Workplace”6:

  • Be courteous, polite, and kind
  • Encourage coworkers to express opinions and ideas
  • Listen to what others have to say before voicing your viewpoint. It’s disrespectful to speak over or interrupt another person
  • Use employees’ ideas to change or improve the workplace. Give credit where it is due, or better yet, encourage team members to implement their ideas
  • Never insult, name-call, disparage, or put down people or their ideas
  • Do not nitpick, constantly criticize little things, judge, demean, or patronize
  • Treat employees fairly to mitigate a hostile work environment
  • Include coworkers in meetings, discussions, training, and events
  • Offer praise to staff often and publicly, while discussing difficulties in private

Engaging with clients

Your clients are the reason you are treating their animals. Veterinary medicine is a client-based service—we may lose sight of that from time to time. Continually growing professional relationships with your clients and community enhances your career and satisfaction.

Let’s look at some basic etiquette:

  • Be courteous, polite, and kind
  • Thank them for entrusting you with their pet
  • Listen to what your clients
    have to say about their pet and their lifestyle
  • Greet them with confidence, and be well-groomed and prepared to help them
  • Never insult, name-call, disparage, or put down people or their ideas
  • Do not judge them for the treatment path they choose for their animal

Written correspondence

Professional etiquette does not stop at your appearance, mannerisms, or ability to present yourself with confidence. It is evident in the way you write and show up on social media. What you write in an email, on Facebook, or other platforms are words that last a lifetime.

Before you hit the “send” or “post” button, ask yourself the following:

  • “Are these words thoughtful or thoughtless?”
  • “Is my post or email considerate or inconsiderate?”

In other words, “If you wouldn’t say it in a social or work setting, don’t say it online, in the most public of forums.”7

Confidentiality and patient information

You may be aware of the laws governing your personal records and confidentiality as outlined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).8 Even though the veterinary community is not bound to HIPAA, veterinary hospitals and clinics are still held to strict confidentiality in employee, client, and patient information.

Professional etiquette extends to not only how you talk and discuss work-related matters in the hospital, but also when you leave the physical building. Confidentiality is a 24-7 proposition. You are never “off the clock.”

Within your employee handbook, you may find a confidentiality form every team member is asked to read and sign. The statement may include wording along the lines of the following: “All employees will be expected to exercise the greatest caution and concern in the protection of any information that is of a confidential nature.”

This etiquette even extends to when you no longer work for a specific hospital. Your professionalism is elevated when you don’t “gossip” about other hospitals or discuss previous cases.

Take professional etiquette seriously

Hopefully you now understand the importance of professional etiquette. Fully embrace your ability to be a professional in your appearance, attitude, and written correspondence. The success in your job, interactions with team members, and client engagement will be based on your ability to behave as a professional. No matter where or how you learn it, abiding by this code of conduct will enhance your career. It’s up to you.

Rebecca Rose, CVT, director of possibilities at CATALYST Veterinary Professional Coaches, has a diverse background in the veterinary community, working in and managing clinics, collaborating with industry partners, and facilitating engaging team workshops. Denise Mikita, MS, CVT, CATALYST’s manager of possibilities, brings extensive knowledge in practical clinic experience, organizational management, and team dynamics. Combined, the authors have more than 50 years’ experience in elevating veterinary teams. In addition, they have sat on veterinary councils, led state and national professional organizations, and have volunteered for animal welfare groups. Rose and Mikita can be reached via


1 Business Etiquette and Professionalism. Kristie Lorette.

2 Professionalism: The Decline of a Critical Set of Behaviors. Patrick Miller, PhD.

3 Center for Professional Excellence, York College of Pennsylvania,

4 Really? A Decline in Professionalism?! CATALYST VetPC.

5 Can you Hear your Body Talking? Kevin Hogan, PsyD.

6 How to Demonstrate Respect in the Workplace. Susan Heathfield.

7 Online Etiquette: The Ultimate Guide to Social Media Manners. Scott Steinberg.

8 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

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