NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Maintaining your reputation at work could be just as important as meeting the deadlines and challenges of your current project.

You can stay one step ahead of your co-workers by establishing a balance of being cautious while also maintaining your personality, which can boost your reputation in the office and across social media.

Always respect the corporate culture and follow the lead of your co-workers when it comes to appearance. If you are ever in doubt about what to wear, always dress a step above what you think you should wear, said Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and the founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, Fla.

“When it comes to clothing, dress for your client’s comfort, not your own,” she said. “Familiarize yourself with the office environment and pay attention to the people around you, especially those in a position above you.”

In this era where image is even more critical, embrace the fact that appearance matters instead of hating it. First impressions still matter, so while it sounds old school, dressing the part “telegraphs what people can expect from you,” said April Masini, who writes an advice column.

If you prefer to dress less formally and choose more “out of the box styles,” other people will expect you to be more creative, she said.

“If you’re wearing the best that Brooks Brothers has to offer, you’re going to fit in at most board meetings and people will expect you to be successful,” Masini said.

Beyond dressing well and with pride, maintaining your professional image is relatively simple if you have a grasp of what is expected from you as an employee, said Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas in San Antonio. One key element is to arrive to work on time and being ready to tackle your work head-on instead of eating your breakfast and putting makeup on at your desk, she said.

“Exceeding what is expected of you as an employee, carrying yourself with confidence and showing a genuine interest in your job and your co-workers makes you an asset to your organization and enhances your professional image,” she said.

As more corporate cultures lean toward a collaborative nature, people are spending more time working together in meetings or even online. Disagreements and different ideas or strategies on how to achieve your goals are bound to happen.

The first rule of thumb is to never interrupt someone while he is voicing an idea, said Whitmore.

“Always give others an opportunity to voice their opinion,” she said. “Even if you disagree, be respectful, listen and don’t make any off the cuff remarks.”

Maintain your focus and remember that the suggestion from your co-worker is simply a business idea. Avoid assuming their comments are personal and never reply with a personal attack.

“State why you disagree and offer solutions to the problem at hand,” Whitmore said.

Simply agreeing with your co-worker or boss is not the solution. Companies are not seeking “yes” people, but those that can add value or original ideas, said Gottsman.

What’s important is how you deliver your opinion, so focus on your tone of voice, body language and how you respond to opposing viewpoints, she said.

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“Listen to what other people say,” said Steve Paskoff, CEO of ELI, an Atlanta-based workplace learning company. “Try to repeat their remarks in a non-threatening, non-accusatory tone and then state your disagreements in a professional, non-personal and factual way.”

Conflicts can arise frequently, but if you feel the situation is serious or will not resolve itself, then address the issue in private or with a supervisor. The best way to deal with conflict is not to be so quick to judge other people’s opinions, Whitmore said.

“Hear people out because even if you believe your way is best," she said. "Oftentimes other people can enhance your ideas."

You’ve heard this since you were a child and were caught arguing with a friend at school or neighbor, but “playing well with others” is vital. Unfortunately, the goal remains a headache for management. In fact, managers spend 18% of their time resolving staff personality conflicts, according to an Accountemps survey.

To foster a more supportive work environment, focus on building a rapport with your colleagues by offering to help them when they are overloaded, said Bill Driscoll, district president of Accountemps, a San Diego–based staffing firm. Don’t overlook the small things such as being appreciative and recognizing your co-workers who support your projects and initiatives.

“Being considerate of others is at the heart of building a good reputation at work,” he said. “Etiquette offenses occasionally happen, but too many can have a cumulative effect on your professional reputation and career prospects.”

If you feel that you could be the root of the problem, start by recognizing that you could be acting in ways that are exacerbating the conflict and address the issue by making changes, Driscoll said.

“There’s a good chance the other person is even less comfortable than you are in these kinds of situations and will welcome your gesture of peace,” he said.

Accept the fact that you don’t always need to be right, Gottsman said. It’s unrealistic to think you will never make a mistake, but how you handle it will determine to a great extent of who you are as a professional.

“Don’t try and shift the blame or go radio silent, hoping no one will notice,” she said. “Own your error, come up with a solution and apologize for the inconvenience it may have caused. This shows maturity and tells your boss you can be trusted to handle a difficult situation under pressure.”

Discuss the situation later when both parties have had time to cool down and avoid bringing up issues from the past or your own personal problems.

“Keep in mind that the purpose of this meeting is to resolve the conflict, not to vent your feelings,” Driscoll said.

Being friends with your co-workers or clients is certainly part of the norm nowadays and unavoidable, but creating boundaries online will help you uphold your professional image. Never say anything rude or inappropriate about your company, colleagues, clients or other business contacts on social networking sites, Driscoll said. Some posts of worker and boss tirades have become popular hits on the Internet.

“You never know who might see it,” he said. "It’s easy to forget who is in your network. Untag yourself from any inappropriate photos.”

Start by checking your privacy settings to control who has access to what information and create different lists of friends, so that your business contacts are granted different access to information than close friends.

“When in doubt, leave it out,” said Whitmore. “Anything you post can come back to haunt you. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. It’s not worth losing your job over, or worse your reputation.”

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet