For organizations and employees alike, recognizing the critical link between business protocol and profit is key to your success. Learn how to confidently interact with colleagues in ways that make you and your whole organization shine with this special report, 13 Tips on Business Etiquette: Setting a professional tone with co-workers, clients and customers.
Discover best practices on making proper introductions; cubicle etiquette; “casual dress” rules; handshake protocol; appropriate body language; guest etiquette; workplace behavior faux pas; business dining etiquette, office wedding invites and other co-worker special occasions; business letter and email protocol—and even how your office decorations may affect your professional image.
13 Tips on Business Etiquette also presents real-life etiquette questions answered by “America’s foremost authority on manners,” Letitia Baldrige. And you’ll learn tips on how to finesse awkward, embarrassing situations at work, courtesy of the great-grandson of Emily Post, etiquette expert Peter Post.
CUBICLE ETIQUETTE: 8 CLOSE-QUARTERS RULES
Open office spaces, where most people work without doors, encourage teamwork and creativity. But they also mean working closely with others — sometimes too close for comfort.
Even if there aren’t four walls and a door marking the area, you need to respect everyone else’s workspace. While many of these rules follow basic common courtesy, some rules of etiquette are more obvious when entering someone’s office than when swinging by an open cubicle.
Start with these eight etiquette rules:
1. Don’t “prairie dog.” Walk around the partition to see a neighbor, instead of popping your head over the top. And as you walk down the passageways, don’t peek into each workstation.
2. Pretend that workstations have walls. Don’t barge into a work area that has no door. Lightly tap on the wall near the opening or say “Excuse me” to announce your arrival. Never assume it’s OK to enter someone’s workspace unless he or she signals you to do so.
3. Allow co-workers to complete calls. Don’t try to interrupt with sign language or lurk just outside the cubicle. Drop a note on the desk or return later.
4. Grant your neighbors private time. Stagger lunch breaks to provide everyone a few minutes alone at their desks.
5. Move conversations from hallways. Lead the group you’re talking with to a conference room or other common area so you don’t disturb co-workers who are trying to concentrate.
6. Don’t chime in on conversations you hear over the wall. Whether it’s a work question you can answer or a private conversation you’d rather not hear, ignore comments that aren’t directed at you.
7. Keep lunch in the kitchen. Or, when you absolutely can’t leave your desk for a meal, choose foods without strong odors, and dispose of your trash in the kitchen,
not in your own wastebasket.
8. Turn down the volume. Set your office phone ringer on low (and send callers directly to voice mail when you won’t be able to answer), set your smartphone to silent mode, and minimize the volume of any computer/cell phone alarms.
"CASUAL DRESS" ETIQUETTE: DEMYSTIFY YOUR EVENT’S DRESS CODE
Casual. Corporate casual. Business casual. Smart casual. Resort casual. Don’t leave meeting attendees baffled about your event’s dress code.
Explain what you mean by “business casual” or “corporate casual,” etc. with examples of appropriate attire for men and women. One event’s “resort casual” encouraged wearing jeans, while another explained that shorts were acceptable, but not denim or cutoffs.
Strike the right tone in offering your advice to attendees, whether it’s a formal “suits are not appropriate” or a friendly “leave your ties at home!”
If you will be attending a meeting where the dress code is unclear, conduct casual research: Contact someone in the host organization, talk with previous attendees to learn what people really wear (ties are encouraged, but no one wears one), or seek the advice of experts at a clothing shop that caters to business people.
HOW TO FINESSE AWKWARD, EMBARRASSING SITUATIONS
Knowing whether or not to tell your CEO that he has spinach stuck in his teeth is a strong test of your business etiquette skills. (Answer: Tell him, but discreetly.)
How would you handle the example below?
You find a personal — and potentially embarrassing — document left behind on the photocopier.
Solution: Normally, you’d put forgotten pages in a tray beside the copier, for people to claim later. In this case, though, deliver the document in person, advises Peter Post, author of The Etiquette Advantage in Business and great-grandson of Emily Post.
And don’t peruse its contents. “Save the person any worry,” writes Post, “by volunteering: ‘I didn’t read this when I opened the copier lid, but I could tell it was private and thought I’d drop it by.’”
Office etiquette no-no’s: Respect others by avoiding these top annoying behaviors
Showing consideration for your co-workers isn’t merely polite. Those surveyed for the staffing firm Office Angels said they’re more likely to help considerate co-workers, and that those colleagues are more deserving of promotion than annoying office mates.
The top irritating behaviors cited:
Noise created by technology topped annoyances that ranked high just a few years ago, such as leaving the photocopier with a jam.
Don’t dismiss the impact of annoying habits: More than a third of office workers say they’ve considered switching jobs to escape the irritation.
HANDSHAKE ETIQUETTE: SETTING THE STAGE FOR INSTANT RAPPORT
While some may think the business handshake is a thing of the past, it’s still a potent way to make a good first impression. A firm, well-timed handshake to pair with your smile is a sure way to stand out, whether you’re at the company picnic or an industry conference.
Here’s how important it is: A prospective employee with the best handshake is more likely to get the job, research shows.
Even if you’re not a job-seeker, a good firm handshake will grant you instant rapport when meeting someone new. With that in mind, here’s a refresher course on the proper business etiquette of the perfect handshake:
JOB ETIQUETTE: WHEN A CO-WORKER GETS THE PINK SLIP
Your friend at work gets handed a pink slip, and now you feel awkward. So awkward, in fact, that you’re tempted to do nothing. But that’s the last thing you should do.
Here’s how to deal with the situation:
React quickly, or risk appearing insensitive. Even if you can say only, “I’m sorry. And I don’t know what to say.”
Steer clear of downplaying or saying anything inauthentic. Avoid saying things like, “This place is going down the tubes” or “I know how you feel.”
Set up a gathering, once the initial shock has faded. Make it just the two of you or invite others, so you have time to say goodbye outside the office. Keep it focused on the person, and “understand that some things are out of our control,” advises psychologist Kenneth E. Reinhard.
Avoid morphing into a self-help book. You don’t need to have all the answers, so keep it simple. “You want to say that you’re feeling for them right now, but keep it simple,” Reinhard says. “You don’t have to do much more than be an outlet.”
Don’t indulge in office gossip. If you get together with your buddy post-layoff, steer the conversation away from sour office topics, such as who might be laid off next. “You’re preventing that person from moving on,” Reinhard says.
— Adapted from “Coping When a Close Co-Worker Is Laid Off,” Kayleen Schaefer, The Wall Street Journal
GUEST ETIQUETTE: ROLL OUT THE RED CARPET FOR VISITORS
When a VIP comes to your office, how do you dole out extra-special treatment? It’s always important to treat guests politely with good manners and basic business etiquette. However, when an important client, business partner, or other visitor comes through, it’s a good idea to pull out all the stops.
Being friendly and responsive is the key to treating VIPs well, says Peter Post.
Here’s Post’s advice on how to do that:
Greet VIPs by name. “There’s something so powerful about using somebody’s name when you greet them,” Post says. “I’m always surprised when some people don’t do it.” Make the person feel welcome. Post even suggests standing up in some cases.
Example: Stand up, say: “Hello, Mr. Smith. Let me tell John you’re here.” Go to John’s door, as opposed to calling him, open it for the VIP guest, then close it behind him. These are nice, simple things you can do. And you’ll be remembered.
Deliver a heads-up to the boss. Even if you wouldn’t normally give your boss a five-minute warning before an appointment, this would be a time to do it. That sets the stage. “You’re giving him that moment to get ready,” Post says.
Shoo away distractions so you’re not caught juggling when the VIP arrives. If someone comes to your desk with a problem, be direct in asking her to wait.
Example: “I want to help you with that problem, but I know Mr. Smith is about to arrive and I need to give him my full attention. I’ll get back to you.”
Make small talk only if you observe a clear signal. “I think part of the smartness of an admin is an ability to read people,” Post says. If the VIP ends up waiting a minute or two, you’ll need to evaluate whether to attempt chitchat. If he whips out a newspaper, don’t try to make conversation. If he sits and smiles at you, then ask about the weather.
“And, please, converse without going into controversial topics,” Post advises.
BUSINESS PHONE ETIQUETTE: SOOTHE ANGRY CALLERS
While people these days communicate in a wide variety of ways, phone calls are still a common practice, especially for customer service. In many cases, that means dealing with unhappy and upset customers.
Turn a growling caller into a purring, pleased customer with these telephone etiquette techniques:
OFFICE DONATIONS: KEEP IT LOW-KEY WHEN PASSING THE HAT
Not only is there no such thing as a free lunch, but those birthday cakes for co-workers can cost you, too.
It’s not unusual to be asked to help pay for celebrations at the office, such as birthdays and baby showers. In a survey by OfficeTeam, more than 75% of respondents said employees chip in at least once a year; 15% said employees receive donation requests monthly.
Avoid asking colleagues for too much too often by following these office protocol guidelines from OfficeTeam:
Keep it selective. Asking a new hire who has never met the mom-to-be to contribute to a baby shower is unfair. Instead, extend the invite to those who are most familiar with the person receiving special attention.
Keep it reasonable. Rather than specifying a dollar amount, ask coworkers for voluntary contributions of any size toward buying a cake, gift or other item.
Keep it low-key. Send a general email announcement or circulate a donation envelope for anonymous contributions—that’s preferable to a personal plea, which can make people feel uncomfortable and on the spot.
BUSINESS EMAIL ETIQUETTE: THE ART OF THE PERFECT MESSAGE
In a business world filled with Zoom calls, informal texts, and quick instant messages on apps like Slack, formally written emails can still make a big impact on people — but many people today are out of practice. Who hasn’t started writing a professional email, only to encounter “the big um” after the first sentence?
“The big um is when you get your first couple of words out and wonder, ‘What’s next?’” says Angela Ensminger, co-author of On a Personal Note: A Guide to Writing Notes with Style (Hallmark). “That blank paper is very intimidating.”
Ensminger told attendees at an International Association of Administrative Professionals convention that great emails come from taking these five steps:
1. State why you’re writing in a straightforward manner. Example: “Thank you for taking the time to visit our offices.”
2. Elaborate on step 1. Example: “It was so valuable for our entire executive team to meet with you face to face. And your meeting sparked several creative ideas that we’re excited to pursue.”
3. Build the relationship. “This is the most important step,” says Ensminger. “What you’re saying here is: ‘Your relationship matters, and I’m proving it by taking the time to write this email.’ In business relationships, time taken is worth everything. If there’s a bell curve of emotion to a message, this is the top of it.”
That key step is often missing in professional emails, adds Ensminger, so doing it well will set you apart from the crowd. As you write, take into consideration how close your boss is to the recipient and what’s coming up next in the relationship.
Example: “We feel fortunate to have spent so much time with you. We look forward to seeing you again at the XYC convention next year.”
4. Restate why you’re writing. Example: “Again, thanks for your visit.”
5. Offer your regards. For business emails, “Sincerely” is the standard
Bottom line: It takes practice, but the payoff is huge.
Noteworthy etiquette: Say more than thanks
Managers are always looking for ways to tell the team “thanks.” Appreciation is one of the few, affordable ways to retain and motivate everyone. Follow these tips to translate your sentiments into the written word:
1. Use professional fonts like Arial, Helvetica, and Georgia whenever possible.
2. Avoid templates, and make each letter a unique expression of what you specifically appreciate.
3. Craft the right message with these effective “building block” phrases from How to Write It, by Sandra E. Lamb:
Must express my appreciation.
So grateful for your contribution.
Unequaled in effort.
Done with such expertise.
An exemplary performance.
Offer my sincere appreciation.
I was so impressed by.
Your performance is noteworthy.
Set an outstanding example for.
Demonstrate such dedication.
BUSINESS DINING ETIQUETTE: 5 RULES
Whether you’re lunching with peers at a convention or meeting with a vendor, business dining etiquette can keep you from marring your image with a faux pas.
Here are five etiquette rules for business meals, that go beyond basic table manners, according to Robin Jay, author of The Art of the Business Lunch: Building Relationships Between 12 and 2.
1. Never, ever talk with your mouth full. Instead, take small bites so you can quickly swallow if somebody asks you a question, Jay says.
2. Come prepared with a few casual, non-business topics in mind. It helps you avoid awkward silences. People enjoy giving their thoughts on subjects like travel, sports, and movies.
3. Always be kind to the wait staff, no matter what happens. Anyone who is nice to you but nasty to the server is not a nice person.
4. Know your lunch partner’s business. It’s especially key when your tablemate is someone you’d like to impress, but the rule holds true regardless. The fewer times you have to say (or think), “I didn’t know that!” the more impressed the other party will be. Take a few minutes to do a Google search before you leave for lunch.
5. Put some thought into choosing the right restaurant. Too casual or inexpensive and the person may not feel valued. Too expensive and they may perceive you as wasteful. When in doubt, suggest that the other person pick the place.
In addition to these tips, it’s crucial for employees to refrain from checking their smartphone or other digital devices when dining with co-workers.
OFFICE DECORATIONS: BALANCE PERSONAL & PROFESSIONAL IMAGE
If reaching for reference materials requires moving a handful of beads you brought back from Mardi Gras, your personality may be overpowering your professional image.
Personalizing our office space is tempting because we spend more awake hours there than anywhere else. It certainly can be beneficial to create a work environment that feels pleasant to be in. But strike a balance by answering these questions about your cubicle décor:
1. Who will see it? A receptionist in an office with many VIP visitors obviously enjoys less freedom of expression than someone whose workplace hosts few outsiders. In wide-open spaces, search for private spots to display meaningful mementos.
Example: Post an inspirational quote on your keyboard tray.
2. What does it say about you? Great choices for office decorations tell visitors something about you that might spark a conversation. A photo of you crossing the finish line in a marathon might inspire others as well as yourself. But a wall of blue ribbons hints at either boasting or insecurity. And while live plants add a splash of color, a dead one screams “Neglect!”
3. Is it distracting? Although cubicle walls may block your items from view, they still may disturb others. Avoid smart phone ringtones, alerts, and apps that feature loud sound effects, or fresh flowers if your neighbor suffers from allergies. Judge whether a candy dish on your desk offers hospitality, unwelcome temptation, or an invitation to distractions from work.
4. Does it go overboard? Show off a few prize pieces from your collection, but leave the rest of it at home. The test: If it’s impossible to take a professional-looking photo of you from any angle in your workstation, you’ve surrounded yourself with too many items unrelated to work.
Just like professional dress in the workplace, seek cues from the corporate culture, your manager and others you respect about what’s appropriate in your workplace
PARTY ETIQUETTE: SPECIAL OCCASIONS WITH CO-WORKERS
Office party etiquette is simple: Don’t do anything that you don’t want the entire company to be talking about for several years to come. Contrary to popular myth, an office party is not the place to wear a lampshade on your head. Keep your dignity, and respect the dignity of others.
For co-worker special occasions, follow these gift-giving tips:
A common practice is for the birthday person’s co-workers to provide a cake and a small in-office party. Flowers from the boss are also a nice touch. A birthday card for a co-worker celebrating the special day is always considerate, but birthday gifts are never required in business.
An executive may choose to give small gifts to special staffers, such as a long-time assistant. There’s no need for employees to give gifts to the boss, unless the working relationship has
extended over many years or the employee is socially close to the boss and his or her family.
Although all wedding invitations require a written acceptance or regret, you are not required to attend the weddings of all employees who send invitations. If you receive an invitation from someone who is not in your department or is not your superior, feel free to send your regrets. A gift is not required for these events, but a note congratulating the newlyweds is a thoughtful touch.
If invited, executives should attend the weddings of their staff and senior-level managers. If they can’t attend, executives should still send a gift. Among peers, wedding invitations are common and should be treated as social events. Except when invited to the wedding, employees are not required to give their bosses wedding presents. In any event, a wedding gift from a subordinate to a boss need not be lavish.
If you are invited to a baby shower, you should follow the personal rules you have established for contributing to office celebrations. It is not essential that you attend the shower or give a gift to every company employee who has a baby. However, executives should give shower gifts to their close colleagues, assistants, and immediate staff. You may choose to send others a card or a personal note.
When an executive retires, a party is standard protocol. At a retirement party, the company should give the person a gift based on his or her length of service and seniority.
The retiree’s staff and immediate boss may wish to give him or her a present in addition to the official corporate gift. The best gifts are small presents that express how much the retiree will be missed at the office.
ETIQUETTE QUESTIONS: EXPERT ADVICE FROM LETITIA BALDRIGE
Letitia Baldrige has been called “America’s foremost authority on manners.” She has written dozens of books on manners, entertaining and design. In a column in Business Management Daily’s Administrative Professional Today, she answered readers’ questions on workplace etiquette and protocol. Here’s a sampling:
What’s the proper way to introduce business associates?
Q. I occasionally escort business visitors around our office and introduce them to our executives. I’m never sure whose name and title to say first—the visitor’s or the executive’s. What’s the proper protocol?
Letitia: Always start with the more important person’s name. For example, if you’re showing your CEO’s new executive assistant, Susan Flynn, around the office, you’d say: “Jim, I'd like to present George’s new executive assistant, Susan Flynn. She has just transferred here from our offices in Pasadena. Susan, this is Jim Farnsworth, our corporate counsel, and you’ll be seeing a lot of him.”
If you’re introducing someone important in your company to a more junior visitor, you would come out first with your senior executive’s name: “Mr. Anderson, I would like to introduce Camilla Bianco to you. She is a new vice president for creative services. Camilla, this is Jonathan Anderson, president of the Blue Division.”
If you get confused, relax: The important thing is to say the names of both people clearly. They'll take it from there.
Office wedding protocol: Must I invite everybody?
Q. I’m planning my wedding and trying to keep the guest list to a manageable number. But I feel compelled to invite people from work. How can I invite some people but not others without hurting anyone’s feelings? And I know I should invite my boss, but should I invite my boss’s boss?
Letitia: Tell everyone well before your big day that you’re having a small wedding, so no one will feel left out. Invite only very essential friends from the office, including your boss (but not your boss’s boss!), his or her spouse, and perhaps your two closest friends. Your family members should take priority over co-workers, as should close friends from other parts of your life.
If you’re lucky enough to have a group of supportive, close friends at work, ask them to give a simple, no-frills cocktail party in honor of your wedding a couple of weeks before it takes place. Then you can invite everyone from work, and they will feel caught up in the excitement of the wedding and look upon this event as if it were a reception.
Business dining etiquette: Who pays for lunch?
Q. When a group of co-workers takes a colleague to lunch for a special occasion, such as a birthday, how should we divide the tab?
Letitia: I presume most people want these special occasion meals for office colleagues to be amusing, memorable and pleasant from every aspect. The big obstacle to success is when the bill is presented. There is fumbling and mumbling, indecision and objections. The conversation at bill-paying time might go like this:
“I had only a house salad, so I should pay less.”
“Is $10 enough?”
“I had a really expensive dessert. Should I pay more?”
“I didn’t bring much cash” ... and on and on and on.
The way to solve this is always to split it according to how many people are in attendance. The total should include the cost of the guest of honor’s meal, plus the gratuities for everyone.
If you feel you were cheated by spending less this time, it will probably even out the next time, or the time after that, when you will be spending more than the others. It almost always comes out in the end.
Apps like Venmo and Zelle also make it effortless to repay co-workers for meals and other expenses.
For instance, one employee can pay for the entire meal, and then everyone else can settle up by sending the money for their meal to them through an app like Venmo.
To split a large check 10 ways is easy. To calculate each person’s charges, butter pad by butter pad, spoils the party.
Does it matter who opens a door nowadays?
Q. What’s the proper procedure when a group of people are approaching a closed door? If I (a female) arrive first, I usually open the door and hold it for others, but I notice that makes some people (particularly older males) uncomfortable.
Letitia: We spend too much time worrying about who should go through the door first. The important thing is just to get through it!
If you hold the door for a man who is clearly embarrassed by it, rest easy in the knowledge that you won’t see many more men like him. He’s obviously of the “outgoing generation” of businessmen whose touches of chivalry are no longer the norm. Just be thankful you once knew a “real gentleman.”
Of course, you can avoid this problem by simply not being the first person at the door. Let someone else be the first.
If you find yourself stuck with holding the door for what seems like an interminably long line of people, step away from the door and let someone else cope with it. You shouldn’t be left holding the door for the whole world.
What’s the protocol on presenting my business card?
Q. When’s the proper time to present my business card at a meeting?
Letitia: When you present your business card to someone, you’re handing yourself to that person, so it pays to remember these business card etiquette tips:
To gracefully exchange cards while talking to people before a meeting, hand the other person your card, saying: “I hope you won’t mind if I give you my card, and I would appreciate having yours, also. I would enjoy discussing some things further with you, and now is obviously not the time.”
Read the other person’s card before you put it away, then follow up with a call within a day or two. Never present your card when the recipient is talking to someone else, hurrying to an appointment, talking on the telephone, or eating and drinking.
Cubicle etiquette no-no: A noisy co-worker is driving me crazy
Q. I work in a wing of office suites with two cubicles for another assistant and me. My neighbor almost constantly makes noise, tapping pens, making “squeal” noises (“Aaahhh,” “Hmmmm,” etc.) while she’s reading or whatever, humming, clearing her throat over and over… it goes on and on.
It’s driving me crazy listening to this all day. She has already been addressed about the noise level, and it has improved, but I still have to listen to it all day. Do you have any suggestions, other than wearing headphones or earplugs?
Letitia: Have a confidential talk about this problem with your supervisor or someone in human resources. Don’t be dramatic about it. Just say that you’re supersensitive to noise, and that your cubicle colleague is driving you nuts.
Mention four noisy things she does all the time, and then lay off describing her so negatively. Throw in a compliment or two about how valuable she is in her work. Add that you’ve tried not to let her noisiness get to you, but it has affected your work. Then, ask meekly: “Is it possible that either she or I could be moved away from the other?” Then, follow with “I know I must sound unreasonable to you, but I’m proud of my work and I don’t wish to be working less than effectively because of this problem.”
If the boss or human resources person recognizes how valuable your work is, he or she will honor your request ... and your noisy co-worker never has to be any the wiser.
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