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What does business etiquette mean to you? The word etiquette is, of course, a French word and we use it to describe the manners and courtesy that are deemed desirable in both social and business life. Interestingly, the French don’t use the word etiquette to mean the same thing – they use ‘savoir vivre’ – ‘to know how to live’. Equally interesting, I think, is that the French use of the word etiquette translates as ‘label’. Surely nothing ‘labels’ us so effectively in the eyes and minds of our friends, acquaintances and business associates as the way we conduct ourselves – the manners and courtesy we display in our daily lives.
There is no doubt that non-verbal communication plays a very significant role in inter-personal relationships and, as communication experts, we are constantly dealing with the visual aspects including both appearance and body language. In the last couple of years, however, clients have increasingly asked us to tackle other aspects of behaviour in the workplace, focussing on the many and varied topics that fall within the term ‘business etiquette’.
Popular television shows, both fact and fiction, show just how profoundly powerful this aspect of an individual’s professional conduct can be. You might remember David Brent of ‘The Office’ committing just about every business etiquette crime there is, or you may have squirmed with discomfort as one of the ‘Dragon’s Den’ supplicants reached the top of the stairs and launched into their ‘pitch’ without a handshake or introduction. You’ll remember the relief you felt when, at last, one of them actually walked up to the ‘Dragons’, shook hands, made eye contact and introduced themselves in a friendly and assertive way. The BBC show is still popular now, so watch how all the non-verbal signals persuade or dissuade the ‘Dragons’ to part with their thousands – or not, as the case may be. Equally, ‘The Apprentice’ was a fascinating insight into how people conduct themselves and how it affects their success, or lack of it, in the workplace.
Business Etiquette is a vast subject covering everything from dining to e-mails; meetings to greetings; gestures to chewing gum and, to some extent, it’s what we should know anyway. But in an increasingly casual 21st century Britain, we don’t. A whole generation is entering the workforce (and moving up through it) with gaps in their knowledge of what constitutes acceptable or appropriate behaviour. Whilst today’s emphasis on free expression and creativity in an individual’s early years is doubtless a positive thing, this doesn’t have to mean losing sight of the value of respect in human relationships.
The basic rule of etiquette is to show consideration for the other party. Whether it’s thinking about what’s appropriate to wear to a meeting – the etiquette of appearance – so that you show respect to whoever you’re meeting; conducting yourself properly and positively in a meeting or at a corporate hospitality event; or following simple rules for business e-mails and letters, etiquette is fundamentally about showing respect for others. If you stop and think how the other person is likely to receive your communication or respond to your behaviour, you will go a long way towards preventing misunderstandings and not giving offence. You will also go a long way towards building rapport and strong personal relationships. It’s these personal relationships, within the workplace environment, that are so vital to an individual’s and an organisation’s success.
Most managers are agreed that manners, common courtesy and an understanding of how to ‘do the right thing’ in any situation are all attributes that differentiate great from good when it comes to staff. As ‘soft skills’ are widely recognised to be more vital to an individual’s personal employability than technical skills these days, companies are increasingly asking First Impressions to include Business Etiquette within a range of topics relating to professional profile development. If an individual is going to be able to adapt to the ever-changing needs of the workplace as they work their way up the career ladder, it’s even more important that they understand that how they operate – their ‘professional profile’ – plays a key role in building credibility and is a vital part of their career toolkit.
What are the customs and taboos in your workplace? Are you confident that your etiquette is always spot-on? Do you sometimes wince when a colleague commits a faux pas at a business lunch or corporate hospitality event? Business etiquette affects us all. If your people are your biggest asset, are you confident that their business etiquette will help not hinder your organisation’s success?
Test your Business Etiquette know-how with our quick quiz:
Q1 Where do you put your napkin if you need to leave the dining table during a meal?
Q2 Where do you put your napkin when you leave the table at the end of the meal?
Q3 What are the five most common blunders that office workers admit to when greeting clients and colleagues?
Q4 Should you introduce a colleague to a client or a client to a colleague?
Q5 Is it appropriate to use your laptop, mobile or palm pilot at the table at a business lunch?
Q6 Can you toast yourself? Is it acceptable to raise your glass and drink when you are the one being toasted?
A1 On the back of your chair
A2 On the table
A3 The continental kiss; the bone crusher handshake; offering a handshake when the other person offers a cheek; misjudging a kiss and almost giving a smacker on the lips!; giving an overenthusiastic bear hug
A4 Always introduce a colleague to a client, regardless of the colleague’s age or rank – i.e. deference should be shown to the client.
A5 No – and nor should you spread papers out over the table at a business lunch. It may be a business lunch but the basic rules of dining etiquette still apply.
A6 No – you can raise your glass to acknowledge a toast to you but you should not drink when you are the one being toasted.
Business Etiquette Top Tips
It’s easy to know what to do but much harder to do it. Aim to avoid just paying lip service to business etiquette and ensure you do actually behave as you would like others to. Remember that you’re a role model for other colleagues as well.
Think about times when you have experienced rudeness – you’ve been ignored at a corporate event; someone has kept you hanging on the phone for ages or you haven’t been introduced properly to someone. Learn from your own mistakes and from others and think what you – or they – could have done differently that would have improved the experience.
Respect others’ time – avoid interrupting your colleagues’ meetings, discussions and phone calls if at all possible but if it is unavoidable always apologise and make your point quickly so others can get back to their work.
- Treat everyone with the same courtesy
Don’t differentiate people by their job role or position within the company but treat everyone with the same courtesy and politeness. Treating everyone with the same courtesy will earn you respect and improve your credibility within an organisation.
Be keen to pass on praise and compliments to your team and colleagues and everyone who made a contribution to a project or event.
You will earn respect for delivering work on time and giving realistic deadlines. You will get a reputation for unreliability for over-promising impossible schedules.
- Avoid unintentional rudeness
Ignoring phone calls or neglecting to reply to correspondence or emails is just as bad as face-to-face rudeness. Abruptness or an off-hand manner can cause offence in business environment and, even if you’re really busy, aim to deal with others politely and with courtesy.
- Build good working relationships
The ability to get on with different types of people is an essential business skill. Being able to develop good working relationships with your business associates and fellow team members will help you stand out in your organisation.
Learn as much as possible about how business is conducted abroad. Try and learn some elements of the language and basis courtesies if possible and familiarise yourself with the customs of the country you are visiting.
Remember that good professional business etiquette helps build leadership skills, shows commitment to your company and helps differentiate you in a competitive environment.
First Impressions run a series of open Business Etiquette courses, for anyone who would like to learn more about this vital subject. Courses are held at the First Impressions Training Centre in Warwick. For more information, telephone 01926 623038 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lyn Bromley MFIPI, ACMA – Managing Director, First Impressions
Lyn Bromley is Managing Director of First Impressions Training Ltd and a Master of The Federation of Image Professionals International. (FIPI) She is also Membership Director of FIPI and a leader of Achiever’s Academy for Women.
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