It's no surprise that etiquette in the workplace has undergone fundamental changes in reaction to new technology and shifting attitudes. Knowing the right way to manage things such as casual Fridays and round-the-clock electronic communications has left many workers stressed and overwhelmed. To provide a roadmap through this confusing terrain, Nicholas Ivor Martin has co-authored Miss Manners Minds Your Business with his mother Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners. Their syndicated column appears three times a week in more than 200 newspapers in the United States and abroad. Business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Martin about how to behave professionally in today's evolving business environment.
RL: You make a distinction between manners and etiquette. How would you define them?
NM: Basically, manners are the underlying rules and meanings, and etiquette is the specifics [or the rules that apply to a particular situation]. These things evolve depending on time, circumstance, history, and culture.
RL: The lines between personal and professional behavior are more blurred than ever, due in large part to modern technology. What are some ways to manage these tenuous boundaries?
NM: We are not looking to invent new things. We try to take the meanings that underlay old principles and find a way to apply them when new technology comes along. The way to draw the distinction is to think first about what the underlying principles are—but also to respect what each realm is trying to accomplish. When you're at work, you're there to work. One shouldn't be embarrassed about that. In the modern world, the distinction between personal and professional has exactly reversed the underlying point.
RL: How so?
NM: There was a time when one showed respect for certain people in the office, such as other executives or professionals, but you could call the secretary by her first name rather than with an honorific. We recognized that there were things that were really very wrong about that behavior. But instead of applying the underlying rule—which was, let's respect everyone—[the workplace adopted] the rule of not respecting anyone. The same thing happened with personal and professional behavior.
RL: You write that "the misleading thing about workplace friendships is that they almost never are.…that they're inflated by daily proximity and shared experience." What is your advice for maintaining cordial but professional relationships with co-workers?
NM: The issue is sort of all of the fake socializing that gets added on. Do we really need to be on each other's Facebook friend pages? Do we really need to do all of the enforced outside socializing? We're not saying that there are not friendships at work. I have many, my mother has many, everyone does. It's just the assumption that we're friends first or that we're even friends at all. You can be polite and professional without being best friends.
RL: You also believe that open-plan offices have more drawbacks than benefits. Why?
NM: I think the significant benefit is that you can get more people into less space. The benefit to the employer is fairly clear. There is also an impression that everybody keeps an eye on each other, such as if someone is goofing off. Those are, of course, not necessarily benefits to the employee, but they also turn out not to be true. A significant number of letters we get are about the smell from food because people are eating lunch at their desk. Or [the distraction of] personal calls, or sneezing and coughing—the sort of normal human behaviors that do sometimes prevent one from getting work done.
RL: Is there a real world example that comes to mind?
NM: We have a letter in the book from a lawyer who was disturbed by a new secretary in the hallway outside his office. She was constantly talking on her phone through the entire day and laughing so loudly that he couldn't get any work done. He asked us: 'How do I complain [in a professional manner]?’ Rather than believe that he himself had a legitimate basis for concern, he went from the assumption that she should be able to do this. We ask: why? Isn't she there to work? Our advice was that her supervisor should inform her that her behavior was a distraction and that personal calls should not be made on company time.
RL: You're not a fan of relaxed dress codes. What do you object to?
NM: That no one knows what the codes are. If the rules were understood and agreed and reasonably accomplished the goal, of course we have no concern with it. The purpose of professional dress is to dress the part—to look like you are serious about what you are doing both for your colleagues and for your customers. How that is accomplished depends on time and location.
RL: Email and other electronic messaging are both efficient and a great time drain. What's your advice for managing this unstoppable torrent of communication?
NM: As managers we too often ignore the consequences of the added convenience. If you had asked me 10 years ago if I thought it was reasonable to call up an employee of mine at three in the morning and ask them a question that could just as well wait until morning, my answer would have been, 'No, that's ridiculous.' And yet we too often consider that to be a legitimate thing to do with email. So we need to think about not just what's possible but what's reasonable.
RL: If you're on the receiving end of these 3 a.m. emails from a customer, for example, what's the best way of handling the situation without potentially harming the relationship?
NM: I don't mean to suggest that sending an email—and also expecting a response—at 3 in the morning is now reasonable or expected except in unusual cases, such as emergency services. Email is a faster version of the postal mail, and while you expect prompt replies to letters, you don't expect instantaneous ones. Unless there is some reason why a customer should expect—and you are willing to provide—24-hour service, the email sent at three can reasonably be returned your next business day.
RL: What's one change in behavior you would like to see every small business institute tomorrow?
NM: My fundamental point is to respect one another's colleagues and co-workers. But I don't want to say that's a change because I think that's done to an enormous degree in a lot of the world. We deal with the cases where it isn't happening and so I would like those to change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.