Etiquette for Business

By Lindy Earl

          Sadly, etiquette and manners, especially in the business world, have been fading over the past few generations.  I believe a lot of the decrease on manners is tied to electronic media, but that’s not even the point.  While manners decrease, the importance of them increases. Good etiquette is an opportunity for you to absolutely shine and stand out in a crowd.  People will remember you and want to work with you because of your attention to social graces.

          Think about it.  Do you want to eat with someone with poor manners?  Do business with someone who doesn’t return calls?  Give a lead to someone who never gets your name right?

          First, know what to do.  If you don’t realize it’s impolite to be late to a meeting, you need to learn this absolute truth.  Don’t just rely on what you believe to be true, take time to ask others, read a book, or research any questions you might have.

          When meeting someone, use both eyes and ears to learn who the person is—their name, company, and title.  Introductions can be made by a third party, and the senior person, either by job title or age, should be introduced first.  Correct pronunciations, company, title, and a little bit of information about the person should be offered when known.  Be quick to speak up if you didn’t hear any the information imparted, because you are now responsible for knowing it. You will greatly impress others, too, when you convey the information correctly to the next person in line for introductions, even if it’s a month later.

          When you’re speaking with someone, appropriate eye contact is important.  Don’t stare at anyone, like a Patrolman stopping you to give you a speeding ticket.  I asked a patrolman once (in a social situation) if they give a class on staring in officer training, and he told me they don’t, but I still wonder.  And NEVER look past the person with whom you’re speaking.  Listen carefully to your conversation, and be an active listener, repeating what they say to ensure comprehension.  Think the entire time of what you can do for them, not what they might do for you.  Use people’s names while you speak to them, and pronounce the name correctly.

          Give other people time to speak.  It’s inappropriate and rude to not do so and your mama would be giving you a stern look if she were in the room with you.

          Posture is important in etiquette.  I’m not saying you have to sit so ramrod straight in your chair that your back never touches the chair, but sit up.  Your posture shows your interest in others.  Somebody slumping with poor posture not only goes home with a backache, but looks disinterested and, somehow, not as intelligent. Acknowledge and allow for personal space, especially if you are a tall person.  Don’t crowd people and don’t walk them across the room backwards as you keep moving in. 

          Your stance, like your posture, is important in etiquette.  If you’re standing on one foot, looking bored, it can be seen from across the room.  If your feet are together, like you’re at attention, you may be seen as weak. Try a casual stance in front of the mirror to see what kind of message you’re sending.

          Another rule has to be, be on time!  Very few of us will ever lose a job due to incompetence.  We will, however, lose jobs based on attitudes, even though we may not even realize we’re showing an attitude problem.  But, chronic tardiness is wrong and is sufficient cause for dismissal.  Further, consistently being late to meetings suggests a lack of respect for others, and fails the first rule of etiquette—considering others before yourself.

          Phone calls and emails should be returned promptly, even if you don’t have an answer.  Return the call to say that it has been received, you’re aware of the caller’s question or need, and you’re looking for the information.  You are allowed to call when you know the other party is out, so you can just leave a message and not get caught in a long conversation.

          Be crystal clear when setting meetings—repeat days, dates, times, and locations.  Put the information in writing and feel free to confirm a week before and again a day before if you believe there’s any possibility for miscommunication.

          Networking is becoming more and more important in every industry and at every level.  Manners are hugely important in a networking situation, because when you’re in front of dozens or even hundreds of people, you’re very much on stage. While you may be speaking to one or two people, others may be listening and coming to conclusions about you and your company.

          It is important, therefore, when someone approaches your group, to move over and invite them in.  This is no different than in a social gathering, but amazingly, I don’t see it done.  It’s very hard for a single person to approach a group of two or three, so if you’re quick to invite them to join you, you will be a hero to the shy people in the business world.

          Don’t ask for a card if you’re not going to use it, and likewise, don’t offer a card unless it’s requested.  There is nothing more discouraging than handing out a card to find it on the floor after your new contact has walked away.

          As has been said above, I’m continually amazed at the lack of manners in social as well as business settings.  In truth, I’ve found table manners are better at business functions than social events, but I’m unsure why.  Some basic rules:     

* Never eat until everyone is served.  This means you sit with your food untouched on your plate.  The caveat to this is if not everyone at the table is being served the same meal, then those who are served soup or appetizers may eat once all the food for that course is served.  So once all the salads that will be served are on the table, pick up the correct fork and begin.  You may, of course, request an appetizer be served with the entrée to avoid any discomfort.

*Use utensils correctly.  Know how to set a table when hosting an event, and know which fork and spoon to use when.  If unsure, watch those around you.

*Take small portions.  Please note to take a reasonable portion size in a buffet line.  You do not want to go through the buffet line and clean out half the food, to leave those at the end of the line nibbling on carrots, because that’s all that’s left.  It makes your host/ess look bad, and you look worse.  Seconds are perfectly acceptable after everyone has been through the line once.

*Small bites, chew with mouth closed, don’t talk with food in mouth.

* Know how to butter a roll.  If the Queen of England has to follow the rule, so do you.

* Thank the servers.  Even as people are putting plates down or picking up plates from in front of you, and you’re in a discussion, take a breath for a quick thank you or nod of your head to acknowledge the work of the servers.  It acknowledges you as a kind and mannerly person.

          Every generation has brought its own look to the Business world.  While for quite a few generations every new look was slightly more casual, after the Casual Friday era, there has been a slight return to more business-like attire.  Still, rules apply.  Learn ahead of time, simply by making a phone call, what the dress code is.  You need to adhere to the rules you hear, even if you don’t like them, or you think others won’t comply.  Doing the right thing is the correct answer in business etiquette.  In general, conservative is better in the business world. 

Lindy is a Business Consultant and Speaker. Please contact her at