In a Harvard Business Review article the business coach Barbara Pachter tells the story of a bank vice president who arrived early for a meeting, opened his briefcase and took out deodorant. He then, in the presence of co-workers, opened his shirt, and put it on.
As stunningly inappropriate as his behavior was, he must have assumed that it was acceptable.
An employee who spends his lunch hour berating his supervisors and co-workers who are not present, doesn’t seem to realize that those who are present assume he is berating them on other occasions. A manager who routinely tells vulgar jokes must never notice the lowered eyes and crimson cheeks of those staff members who are offended or simply embarrassed for him.
Most every child learns to say please and thank you, if not from parents, then from teachers. Whether or not they put them into practice, most adults are aware of common courtesies such as holding doors open for others and sending thank you notes. But manners are more than a set of rules or guidelines. Emily Post says, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
Etiquette in your day-to-day interactions with colleagues and clients, whether in person, in your use of email and other written communications, or in your phone conversations, is a crucial element of your professional presence. It is the observable indication of your education, social awareness, and sensitivity to the feelings of others. Goethe said, “A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.”
What constitutes good manners varies somewhat by culture. Rudeness and inappropriate behavior of any kind is most often the result of inattention, a lack of awareness of mores of the surrounding culture. Your workplace culture is not spelled out for you, but with attention, it can be observed. Whether you are a new hire, or have been with your organization for years, there is always room to improve your business etiquette.
One of the most effective ways to discern the fine points of the business etiquette in your workplace is to observe the behavior of someone in the organization who is successful and whom you admire and respect. Once you’ve chosen an etiquette mentor make a point of observing how he or she interacts with others, especially in the following circumstances.
- Notice how he acknowledges others. Does he greet people by name and make eye contact? How often and in what way does his thank others for their help or contributions?
- Pay attention to how much he speaks, including his tone of voice, and how much of his time is spent listening. Does he ask questions? What indications does he give that he’s listening? How does he express disagreement with others?
- How does he enter a room? Does he knock when entering another person’s office or excuse himself when interrupting someone who is working?
- Does he make a new pot of coffee if he takes the last cup or refill the copier when it’s empty?
- At social functions note his interactions with others. Does he acknowledge and thank the servers? What and how much does he drink?
- Observe his written communications. Are some more formal than others? Is grammar and spelling correct? Are they succinct? Do they contain any personal, friendly comments?
- When does he use email, when the phone, and when does he speak to others in person.
- How much of his personal life does he share with co-workers.
Let your etiquette mentor be your guide to the protocols in your workplace. Your observations will be a window into the culture of your organization and, as you adapt to that culture, you will be able to navigate even the most difficult interactions with co-workers, managers, senior level executives, and clients. You might be surprised to find that what you learn also enhances your relationships with individuals in your personal life.