In an ideal world, we’d all be judged on merit, and managers, co-workers and clients would take the time to get to know us before formulating an opinion. Unfortunately, in the time-crunched real world, we don’t always have that luxury. People often make flash assessments based on limited interactions, or piece together opinions about our ability and professionalism from disparate impressions gleaned from superficial encounters. Alas, when it comes to others’ perceptions of us, the devil is in the details, providing us limitless opportunities to make a bad impression.
That’s where etiquette can help. Whether you’re collaborating with co-workers, schmoozing potential clients, or trying to impress the boss, relationships are critical to your career success. The diversity of the modern workplace and the hurried pace of business provides ample room for social missteps, but adhering to the basic tenants of business etiquette can insulate you from the most egregious offenses.
Stick to the Basics
While tomes have been written on the subject, the essence of etiquette is being courteous and thoughtful to those around you. A few basic pointers can go a long way. In general, try and promote your ideas and opinions as diplomatically as possible. Listen to what others are saying and don’t interrupt. If conflicts arise, treat them as situational rather than personal. Don’t raise your voice or use insults or derogatory language, as it will only earn you animosity and distrust. Be sure to apologize if you offend somebody or “step on toes.”
People Are Key
Incorporate relationship-building into your routine. Arrive 15-20 minutes early each day to talk and visit with others around you. If you don’t know someone, introduce yourself. Talk a little about yourself, to get them to open up. Make a note of spouses and children, and recognize birthdays, engagements, weddings, anniversaries and promotions as they occur. Don’t differentiate based on status, department or title. Administrative staff, doormen and facilities personnel all have the power to help or impede your ability to get things done.
Observe Workplace Decorum
With workplaces becoming increasingly less formal and more and more business transactions and deal-making taking place outside traditional office settings, the line that separates business from personal can be blurred. To help keep the distinction clear, observe the following pointers:
Be considerate of others’ time. If a particular subject warrants a conference call or meeting, be sure to communicate the purpose, the expected duration, and the items to be discussed in advance. Thank attendees for their participation, and demonstrate your appreciation by promptly circulating a recap or minutes that document their contribution. Never assign an action item to anyone not present, until you have had an opportunity to negotiate it with them. If you are attending another person's meeting, be respectful and resist the urge to multi-task. If you are waiting for an important phone call, turn your cell to vibrate, and excuse yourself before answering. Otherwise turn cellphones and PDAs off.
On the Phone
Answer the phone with warmth and enthusiasm, and identify yourself and your department. When initiating a call, be sure to introduce yourself and explain why you are calling. This will help ensure that you are reaching the right person or department, and allow a secretary or receptionist to better assist you if the person you are trying to contact is out of the office.
Always return calls within 24 hours, and don’t screen your calls if you don’t have an answer for someone. Pick-up the phone and tell them what you are doing to address their need. If they would be better served by someone else, point them in the right direction. If you receive phone solicitations or sales calls, make sure to understand the purpose of the call before politely excusing yourself.
Email can be an extremely efficient communication tool, but it is not always the best choice. Know when it is appropriate to email, and when it’s better to pick-up the phone. If a topic is so complex that you can’t sum it up in three paragraphs or less, it probably warrants a phone call. Email communications should be concise and to the point, with a subject line that adequately describes the content of the message. When replying to an email, don’t default to “Reply All.” Weigh whether or not you really need to copy all recipients of the original distribution. Often times, only the sender requires your response.
When composing emails, be sure that your name and contact information is included in a signature line. Be cognizant of who you are corresponding with. Use complete sentences and avoid the use of slang, dialects, abbreviations or emoticons, unless you are certain they will be appreciated by the person receiving the email. The brief, to-the-point nature of email can is often misinterpreted, so steer away from sarcasm or off-beat humor. When emailing a boss, executive or someone else of stature, it is often a good idea to let someone else read the message before sending it. They might catch something that you overlooked. If no one is around to help, read your email aloud and listen carefully to the tone to ensure that you are not leaving room for misinterpretation.
Dress and Appearance
Showing a lack of concern for your personal appearance can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect to clients or co-workers. Clothing that is wrinkled or worn, an unshaven face, and greasy or unkempt hair conveys that you don't care about the situation or the people present, or lack professionalism. When dressing for work or a business function, always err on the conservative side. In general, business casual requires men to wear dress shoes, slacks and a collared shirt, and for woman, dress shoes, a nice blouse, dress pants or a skirt.
Impressions made during a cocktail party, dinner or reception can make or break a business deal. Always bring business cards, and be sure to arrive on time. Do some work ahead of time to familiarize yourself with who will be in attendance, and provide introductions where appropriate. If you forget or are unaware of someone’s name, introduce the person you know first, and the unknown person may introduce themselves. If not, excuse yourself, and admit you are having a mental block, rather than fumbling around.
At mealtime, remember that your drink is to your right and your bread plate is to the left. If you are served before everyone else, don't start eating until the others around you have been served. If you are served last, encourage others not to wait. Don't reach in front of others. If you would like an item that is not in front of you, ask a neighbor.
It's About Relationships
Remember that etiquette is about relationships. While volumes have been written about what is and what is not proper in this or that situation, the important thing is to be considerate, respectful and sincere. If you strive always to make others around you feel comfortable, you will be successful regardless of whether or not you follow every rule to the letter.