Business etiquette is changing—and you need to follow suit
The rules have evolved, says Diane Gottsman, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life,” and keeping up takes more than knowing which fork to use.
What comes to mind when you hear the word “etiquette”?
If it’s a dusty old list of rules, like keeping your elbows off of the table and not talking with your mouth full, you may be forgetting a few other key professional courtesies that apply in the modern workplace—even if you’ve been in the business world for a while.
“Millennials thrive on learning about correct behavior in work situations because, in many cases, they’ve just never had any training on this at home or school,” says Diane Gottsman, head of The Protocol School of Texas in Austin and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life. “But executives need it, too. Sometimes, after we’ve been successful for a while, we stop paying attention.”
That’s a mistake, especially because the definition of good manners keeps changing.
“It’s not just about remembering to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ It’s about making other people comfortable, putting them at ease,” she explains. “Etiquette, now, is focused on being authentic and relatable. You want people to choose to be around you and do business with you—and, quite simply, people want to do business with people they like.”
Organized in short chapters, Modern Etiquette is “kind of a CliffsNotes for living,” Gottsman says. “Hardly anybody gets through life without experiencing a myriad of potentially awkward moments, but these tips are designed to let you fit in anywhere.”
Monster recently spoke with Gottsman about how business etiquette has evolved, and how to make it work for you.
Q. What is an example (or two) of the subtle ways that polite behavior has changed in the past few years?
A. One of the most interesting changes has been in the way men and women interact in the workplace, including job interviews. The old way, which many of us learned or noticed growing up, was that a man always stood when being introduced to a woman, but women stayed seated. Now, a better approach is, always stand up when you’re being introduced to someone, whether you’re male or female—especially in a job interview. It’s mark of respect and genuine interest in the other person.
Likewise, years ago, men were supposed to wait for a woman to offer her hand before shaking hands with her. But again, that’s old-school. Being the first to hold out your hand, whether you’re male or female, conveys confidence, and it tells the other person, “I’m here for you.”
Q. Even someone who minds their manners carefully may be overlooking some of the tips in your book. What do you find tends to surprise people?
A. Probably the best example, and the most important for job seekers, is knowing when to hand out your business card. At networking events, for instance, always wait for someone who is senior to you to give you his or her card before you offer yours. Otherwise, you risk coming across as needy and desperate.
Or to take another situation, let’s say you arrive for a job interview and give your name to the interviewer’s receptionist or assistant. Do you hand that person a business card? Most people don’t think of it, but absolutely yes! The first person you meet is often the “gatekeeper” for the manager who’s interviewing you, so it’s smart to show some respect. You also want to make sure he or she knows how to spell your name.
Q. What do you think is the worst etiquette faux pas at work?
A. My pet peeve is someone coming in when they’re sick. I saw one survey recently that said the majority of U.S. employees admit they go to work when they have a cold or the flu, and that is just not respectful of other people.
Often people hesitate to reschedule a job interview when they’re ill. But the interviewer will understand if you explain that you’re under the weather. On the other hand, if you show up anyway, he or she will be distracted by your coughing and sneezing—and, even worse, will probably have serious doubts about your judgment.
Q. Any advice for starting a new job on the right foot?
A. Three quick tips: First, arrive early. It may sound obvious, but you want to be sitting at your desk right on time, not microwaving your oatmeal. Then, don’t wait to be introduced to your co-workers. Introduce yourself, and always give both your first and last names.
Third, and maybe most important, if you have any spare time during the day, offer to help other people. You’ll learn a lot—and you’ll avoid getting a reputation as Mr. or Ms. “That’s Not My Job.”
Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics for Fortune and other publications since 1996. She is the author of If My Career’s On the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?