Business etiquette encompasses “the forms, manners, and ceremonies established by convention as acceptable or required in social relations, in a profession or in official life”, according to Webster. Refined etiquette skills show people you are someone to be taken seriously AND comfortable to be around.

Business Etiquette Basics

You won’t ever stray too far off the mark if you remember to be courteous and thoughtful to the people around you!

  • Consider people’s feelings
  • Stick to your convictions as diplomatically as possible
  • Address conflict as situation-related, not person-related
  • Apologize when you step on someone’s toes
  • Avoid raising your voice (You actually receive more attention when you lower it.)
  • Avoid harsh or derogatory language toward anyone, present or absent
  • Avoid interrupting. As a first time woman manager, you probably will have less “airtime” in meetings. But when you do speak, you will be more effective, credible and respectable.

As you can tell from the basics above, it’s all about people!

Beyond the basics, we’ll be looking at business etiquette as it relates to the workplace in general, personal interactions, using the telephone, business-related social events, email and hand-written correspondence.

Business Etiquette: The Finer Points

Much of business etiquette involves nuances and subtleties that are unique to your corporate culture, the region in which you live, and the requirements of a given situation (conducting international business, perhaps). With more “business” being conducted in social situations (over dinner and on the golf course) now than ever before, the line between workplace etiquette and social etiquette is getting a little blurry. Which is why “people etiquette” is so important because it doesn’t differentiate between the two.

The following advice from those who study business etiquette today will help you .

Business Etiquette: People

  • Take the time to talk and visit with people! Don’t differentiate your attention based on position or standing in the organization. Several people can be involved in just setting up for a meeting, and cleaning up afterward, so be sure to thank the administrative and janitorial staff when they are involved. Show your appreciation.

  • Make it a point to arrive ten or fifteen minutes early each day and use the time to visit with people who work near you. If you’re off-site, use that time to introduce yourself around and chat with the people you don’t know so you will get to know each other as people.

  • It’s a good idea to keep a database about people, their addresses, phone numbers, spouse’s name, children’s names, birthdays, etc. Send cards or notes for birthdays, congratulations on promotions; flowers for engagements, weddings or condolences for loss of a family member. Do this personally unless the notes, cards or flowers routinely come from your department or the organization as a whole.

  • Manchester Partners International conducted a study in 1997 that showed 40% of newly hired managers fail the first time around because they don’t build good relationships with peers and subordinates. These new managers felt it was more important to show respect and practice etiquette around superiors than peers or subordinates. Never forget that today’s competitor or subordinate may be tomorrow’s superior. If you show respect and courtesy to everyone, you won’t have to worry about discomfort if an unexpected turn of events occurs.

  • The only thing you owe your boss beyond what you owe peers and subordinates is more information. Be sure s/he knows what you are doing, give him or her a “heads up” as soon as you are aware of any issues and that s/he is aware of outcomes and milestones. Never surprise your boss! Always speak well of him or her inside and outside the company, and give him or her the benefit of the doubt.
Business Etiquette: Meeting People
  • Before attending an event, refer to your “people database” to refresh your memory about people you are likely to see. If you forget someone’s name, “cover” it by introducing someone you do know first – which usually will prompt the person whose name you’ve forgotten to introduce himself or herself. If that doesn’t work, just admit to a mental block, and move on. If you make a big deal out of forgetting someone’s name, they’ll remember the moment a lot longer than you will.

  • Keep introductions basic, offering only brief information about the people you are introducing to clarify your relationship with them.

  • Use an introductory handshake appropriately. The host or person with the most authority usually initiates the handshake. Maintain eye contact and understand how to properly introduce people. Authority still defines whose name is said first – your CEO before a customer. And traditionally, younger people are introduced to older people.

  • Always carry a supply of business cards!

Business Etiquette: Social Dining

  • Arrive at the location at the stated time or up to 30 minutes later. Under NO circumstances should you arrive earlier than the stated time. (The exception is if you are hosting an event, in which case you’ll want to be sure everything is well set up and be there to greet your guests.)

  • If you are at a restaurant, what should you order? When possible, let your host take the lead. Ask him or her for recommendations and don’t order the most or least expensive item on the menu. Avoid food that is messy or hard to eat. The safest course of action regarding alcohol is to stick with a club soda or tonic with a twist, regardless of what others are drinking.

  • Begin eating only after everyone has been served. Always pass food to the right - unless the flow is going to the left. Remember the table manners your mother and grandmother taught you (don’t talk with your mouth full, don’t slurp your soup) and you’ll be fine.

  • Take small bites so you can carry on a conversation without having to delay to chew a mouthful, and save the toothpicks for the ladies’ room. Should food spill off your plate, you can pick it up with a piece of silverware and place it on the edge of your plate. Never spit a piece of food into your napkin. Remove it from your mouth using the same utensil it went in on and place it on the edge of your plate. The exception to this last being if you think you will need the Heimlich Maneuver unless you use your fingers – in which case it’s OK to do so.

  • If in doubt about anything, watch what your host or hostess is doing.

Meanwhile Back At the Office

One business etiquette tip I will share with you right away is: don’t eat lunch at your desk! It may seem like a great time saver, but depending on your preference for a tuna salad sandwich with a pickle spear, a beef burrito or Chinese food, your office may take on the aroma of a restaurant kitchen. And if your boss or an important customer happened to drop in immediately after you’d disposed of the leftovers or, heaven forbid, while you were eating, there’s no way to grab a can of Lysol Spray to get rid of the odor. It never occurred to me that anyone would find eating at my desk objectionable until someone mentioned it to me.

Take your lunch to the cafeteria or outdoors to avoid this faux pas.

Business Etiquette: Telephone

  • Always return calls – preferably on the same day. Even if you don’t have the answer to a caller’s question, let them know you are working on it, when you expect to have the answer or you can refer them to the appropriate person to get it right then.

  • Try not to keep a caller on hold for more than 30 seconds.

  • If you are going to be out of the office, have someone cover your phone or, at a minimum, be sure your voice mail is working and your message includes the correct day and when you will be back. Never let your caller get a message that your voice mail box is full! If you check your messages while you are away from the office that won’t happen and you won’t miss important calls. Only use your “do not disturb” button when you really have to.

  • When you are on the receiving end of a live call, identify yourself and your department. Try for enthusiasm, or at least warmth. The caller doesn’t know you are being interrupted to take the call.

  • When you need to leave a message for someone, be sure to include your phone number if you request a call back.

  • Keep a phone log so you can refer back to a call if you need to recall important information.

Business Etiquette: Email

  • Make your subject line specific, not just “Hi”. Your recipient’s time is too valuable to spend extra time trying to figure out what your email is about. Everyone receives so many emails that, if you want yours to be read, keep it to the point.

  • Don’t forward emails with a page or more of mail-to information before the content.

  • When replying to a question, copy only the question into your email, then provide your response. On the other hand, it’s too blunt and confusing if you just send a response that says “Yes” or “No”.

  • Don’t type all in capital letters! It’s the equivalent of yelling in person.

  • All the rules of proper sentence structure and grammar apply. Avoid long sentences, staying concise and to the point.

  • Setting up email distribution lists will save you time and ensure the right messages reach the right people.

Business Etiquette: General Correspondence

  • Whether you’ve just met someone, or have known the person for some time, it’s important to follow-up non-routine meetings with written correspondence. Write a follow-up / thank you note within 48 hours.

  • In handwritten notes or formal letters, always address women as Ms., no matter their marital status. Always proof for typos and check name spellings. And don’t forget to sign your note or letter.

  • Follow the rules of business letter composition – have an opening (why you are writing), a justification (reinforcing or justifying what you are asking for and why you should get it), and a closing (specifically asking the person to act on your request).

“Everything I Need to Know
I Learned in Kindergarten”

Well, maybe not everything, but it’s not too far off the mark. The trouble is that in the heat of a business negotiation, an important meeting or a difficult conversation, it can be easy to forget to say “please” or “thank you”.

More and more, proper business etiquette is viewed as an important part of making a good impression – especially during the early part of business relationships. Business etiquette provides visible “signals” that are essential to your professional success.

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