The Dos and Don'ts of Business Etiquette

By: Bryan Ochalla

If you're wondering what to do in a boardroom when your phone rings or when to accept a member's Facebook friend request, you need a crash course in business etiquette. Take it from the etiquette experts: Having manners goes beyond keeping your elbows off the dining-room table.

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word "etiquette"? If you're like most people, your answer probably has something to do with knowing which fork to use while dining with someone stuffy. But good etiquette can also be useful in business situations outside the dining room.

Peter Post, coauthor of The Etiquette Advantage In Business, says, "Relationships are a key part of achieving success in the business world, and a key part of etiquette is building better relationships ... You build those relationships by being considerate, respectful, and honest."

Looking for ways to deal with 9-to-5 nuisances (or necessities, depending on how you look at them) like cell phones and social media in an elegant manner? Post can wax poetic about those topics, too—as can two other etiquette experts: Sue Fox, author of Business Etiquette for Dummies, and Mary Mitchell, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Etiquette. All three agreed to share some of their words of wisdom in this special edition of "Ask the Etiquette Experts," an advice column related to workplace etiquette (made up by yours truly).

Dear Etiquette Experts: I know this sounds silly, but I freak out every time I have to send an email to someone who isn't a friend. It seems like I have to write in one way when I send an email to the executive director, another when I send one to my coworkers, and yet another when I send one to a member. Are there CliffsNotes for this kind of situation? Am I driving myself crazy over nothing?—Confused Over Email

Fox: If you're responding to a coworker about going to lunch together, clearly, a quick, informal note back is all that's required. However, if you're sending an email to your boss, an executive in your association, or a client or member, there are a number of important factors to remember. Stick to normal conversational language. Be judicious in your use of slang, dialects, and other unusual forms of expression unless you know the person appreciates such things. (For example, I often read [and hear] "you guys," which is not an appropriate greeting or reference in business.) Also, watch the abbreviations and emoticons. Use complete words and sentences. It's not a text message!

"One of the backbones of good etiquette is to be conscious about what you're doing and then make the choice that's best for everyone—even if it's not the best for you."—Peter Post

Mitchell: Email is not a license to be sloppy, yet I think a lot of people get quite sloppy when they write and send emails. They don't take time to reread what they're sending, and that can create a lot of problems in the workplace.

Post: You have to think about who you're sending the email to and why you're sending it. If you're sending the email to the CEO, for instance, you want to be more formal. You probably want to avoid using abbreviations and jargon, and you definitely want to avoid being sarcastic. If you're sending the email to a colleague you know well, you can be more casual and staccato.

Before you send an email to someone inside or even outside of your organization, have one of your coworkers read it first. That's important because you hear your voice differently than other people do—and in business, what matters most is how the other person views you, not how you view yourself.

If you can't or don't want to do that, step into a quiet room where you'll be alone and read the email out loud to yourself. Listen to how your voice sounds. Are you angry? Are you bored? You can hear all of those things if you read your email out loud to yourself, but you may not hear them if you read it to yourself silently.

Dear Etiquette Experts: What is the proper etiquette when a member tries to connect with me on Facebook or LinkedIn or some other social networking site? I mean, I'm happy to help members, and I love my job, but I don't really feel like I'm friends with every member. That said, I also feel like I can't say yes to one member without saying yes to all of them. Help!—Too Many Requests

Mitchell: First of all, I don't think you should connect with people that you don't know—or don't know well. Second, there's a reason there's a button that allows you to ignore or decline such requests. Third, it's a whole lot more gracious to ignore or decline someone's friend request than it is to accept it and unfriend them later.

"It's up to the person chairing a meeting to establish the ground rules—and one of those rules ought to be, 'I'm turning off my BlackBerry, and I'd like everyone else to do the same.'"—Mary Mitchell

Post: I think the first thing you have to do is ask yourself why you're on Facebook. What is your goal? For instance, if you see your Facebook page as a part of your business, accepting members' friend requests might be worthwhile. If you're on Facebook for purely personal reasons, though, you might not want to accept those requests.

You could decline them and then send those members an email that says something like, "I saw that you wanted me to add you as a friend on Facebook, but I really want to keep it for personal use and not for business use. I just wanted you to know why I declined your request."Or, rather than hitting decline, you could let the requests sit; leave them unanswered. That's one way to do it without making a statement one way or another to the person.

If you feel really bad about declining Facebook requests, you could always create a profile on LinkedIn or some other social-networking site that allows you to connect with people who aren't close friends. Then you can use one site for personal connections and one for professional connections. A lot of people do that.

Dear Etiquette Experts: I've just about had it with cell phones. It seems I can't go an hour, let alone an entire day, without someone's cell phone ringing during a meeting, an interview, or even a conference! How am I supposed to react during these situations—other than grabbing the person's phone and throwing it out the nearest window? And how can I convince my employees and members to turn off their phones, or at least set them to vibrate in the future?—Fed Up With Phones

Fox: The problem isn't the technologies; it's the way they're being used and abused. One telling symptom of the need for new etiquette rules in this area is that newspapers, magazines, the internet, and business conversations are liberally dosed with the latest funny or outrageous story about what someone has done with this technology.

How many articles or letters to the editor have you read that describe the outrage someone feels when a cell phone starts to ring at the worst time? How many times has someone told you about something hilarious someone else did with a cell phone? Pretty clearly, a lot of us need some help with cell-phone etiquette.

Mitchell: It's up to the person chairing a meeting to establish the ground rules—and one of those rules ought to be, "We're going to be meeting from 11 to 11:45 a.m. today. I'm turning off my BlackBerry, and I'd like everyone else to do the same."

Or you can address the situation with some humor: "I'm pretty good at what I do, but I'm not so good that I can run a meeting and respond to phone calls and texts at the same time, so I'm turning off my BlackBerry. I'm hoping you'll humor me and do the same."

It's exceedingly rude to text [during a conference, interview or meeting]. Actually, in some instances it's tantamount to stealing! If you're being paid to participate in a meeting, for instance, but you're checking your email or texting your friends instead, you're basically stealing from your employer.

Even if that wasn't the case, the person in front of you should take precedence over a person at a distance—unless there's some sort of pressing emergency.

Post: I think it's important to remember that someone's always going to forget to turn off their cell phone. I've even been guilty of that faux pas from time to time! The real question, then, is how are you going to handle that situation when it happens?

If I was running a meeting and someone's cell phone went off, I'd wait and see how they handled the situation before calling them on it, so to speak. If they didn't react appropriately—by turning off the phone or excusing themselves to answer it—I wouldn't point out their faux pas in front of everyone. I'd probably talk to them about it later and ask them to turn off their cell phones during meetings from now on. Now, if we've had that conversation and they continue to leave their phone on when they come to a meeting, then I might say or do something about it in the middle of the meeting.

Of course, you could avoid that kind of situation completely by asking people to turn off their cell phones at the start of a meeting. I've also heard of executives who stand in the doorway of a meeting room with a basket and ask everyone going into the meeting to put their cell phones in the basket. The basket is then taken away and it isn't brought back until the end of the meeting.

Some people know they shouldn't use their cell phones during meetings or interviews or conferences, but they don't always realize they shouldn't use their BlackBerries or PDAs during those situations either.

They think it's less distracting or rude to text during a meeting, for instance, than it is to pick up their phone and actually talk to someone else, but I consider them equally disruptive. Both actions disrespect the person or people in front of you at that moment.

Dear Etiquette Experts: Our association has quite a few members. That's wonderful, of course, but it can become a bit of a problem when I'm at one of our conferences and one of our members runs up and says, "Hey, it's Joe Smith! How are you?" Meanwhile, I'm desperately trying to remember how I know him—when in fact I answered one email of his nine months ago. What do I do?—Member Memory Loss

Mitchell: In this kind of situation, honesty really is the best policy—because I don't think a single human being hasn't forgotten a name or an association at one point or other.

So, I'd go directly to the solution and not focus on the problem. I wouldn't say to the person, "I can't remember you," or, "Who are you again?" Instead, I'd say something along the lines of, "Please remind me how we know each other?"

Post: I like to practice what I call self-effacing honesty. I think if you're honest about it up front, everyone will get over it really quickly. We've all been there. We all know how awkward we feel when we don't remember someone's name or a previous interaction with them. You can try to slide by without asking about those things directly, but you're risking being embarrassed by doing that. So why not just start with honesty?

It goes back to what I consider to be one of the backbones of good etiquette: Be conscious about what you're doing and then make the choice that's best for everyone—even if it's not the best for you. It may not be the best or easiest thing for you to admit that you don't remember someone's name or how you met them, but it is the best thing for that person and all of the people around you. 

Bryan Ochalla is a freelance writer in the Seattle, Washington, area. Email: [email protected]

Bryan Ochalla

Bryan Ochalla is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle.