Gone are the days when business etiquette meant having good table manners at lunch and not drinking too much at the holiday party (though those are still good rules too). But these days, with business changing as much as it has, the rules of business etiquette need some updating.
Interestingly, whenever I write about the changing workplace, I often hear from readers about the lack of etiquette. I’m not sure why it seems to be such a sore subject for so many people, except that, sadly, business etiquette seems to be fading away.
And that’s too bad.
It may be a reflection of, not only a more lax workplace generally, but a decline in civility and manners more broadly. To some people, manners seem to be an old-fashioned concept — some stuffy idea from when people were not allowed to wear flip flops to work. I don’t think people should disregard their manners and, based on what I’ve seen, neither do a lot of other people. Manners and etiquette are nothing more than society’s rules for a common way to respect and treat each other in public.
Here are the most common workplace etiquette mistakes I hear about and see most often:
Cubicle intrusion: With people today either working in fairly public cubicles, or no cubicle at all, too many people feel like what space they do have is not safe from intruders. Even though a person works in an open area, it does not mean that they don’t deserve some privacy and respect. Leave their stuff alone. Don’t peer over their wall. Knock before entering.
Speakerphones gone wild: An adjunct to the cubicle issue above, in a shared workspace, people can hear your phone calls. Take private calls in private. You also might want to reconsider putting your calls on speaker, as it could result in the whole office getting to hear what a big shot you are trying to be.
Email faux pas: Email is the dominant form of business communication now and it needs to be treated as such. That means, for instance, leaving the emoticons at home. It means understanding that grammar counts – “i” is not the same as “I”. Spell check. Grammar check.
As the old commercial goes – people judge you by the words you use, even if they are via email, so use yours smartly.
Phone manners, or lack thereof. While we are on this subject, your receptionist is often someone’s first contact with your business. I recently went into an office and the male receptionist said, “What’s up, bro?” Look, I am all for the new casualness (well, mostly, see below), but there has to be a limit. Business is still business. Teach your receptionist to say “please” and “thank you.” Teach them to say, “Hello, how may I help you?” He or she should not drop calls or argue with customers or act bored.
Missed manners: In fact, “please,” “thank you” “pardon me” and “you’re welcome” often need to be taught to all staff, and then reinforced.
And it’s OK to do so.
John Wooden used to start the first practice with the freshman on his UCLA basketball teams teaching how to properly tie a shoe. Why? Because it was not only fundamental (you play on your feet after all), and not only necessary apparently, but it was also a good lesson: Do the little things right and the big things tend to go right. This rule also applies in business.
Customer casualness: Your customers who come in or call are not a pain in the rear or a bother — they are your bread and butter and should be treated as such.
Business too-casual: Business casual is not the same as business sloppy.
Kitchen confidential: If you put something in the refrigerator, you need to eat it or remove it before it goes bad. Leaving it there beyond that (and sometime long beyond that) is not only wrong, but gross. Clean up after yourself. Don’t eat other people’s food. And pay people back when they lend you a buck to buy a soda.
Maxed-out multi-tasking: When speaking to someone in person, no texting, emailing, game playing, or talking on the phone should be tolerated. What does it say when you do that? It says that playing Angry Birds is more important than paying attention to you.
Do you have some business etiquette horror stories? Please share.
About Steve Strauss
Steve Strauss is one of the world’s leading small business experts. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. Steve is also the author of the Small Business Bible and his latest book is Get Your Business Funded: Creative Methods for Getting the Money You Need. A popular media guest, Steve is a regular contributor to ABC News Now and frequently appears on television and radio. His business, The Strauss Group, creates unique, actionable, entertaining, and informative multi-media small business content.