7 business etiquette rules to know
Following proper protocol can not only make you well liked, but also well positioned for advancement.
What's the difference between the rising star whose career is picking up speed and his counterpart who can't seem to get the engine to turn over? Often, the star has mastered the nuances of business etiquette—the subtle but critical behaviors that can make or break an important meeting, influence a first impression, or impress a potential client.
To succeed in today’s workplace, you need to know proper business etiquette—and we’re not just talking about having a firm handshake or quashing office gossip (though those are important skills!). Understanding what is and is not customary in a professional environment can improve your relations across the company.
Some business etiquette rules are timeless, while others can change as technology and behavioral norms evolve. Here are seven common business situations that require special attention.
Usually, the person with the lesser title is introduced to the person with the higher title, not vice versa. For example, you would introduce an entry-level employee to the VP.
Now, let’s say you walk into the elevator and the VP is standing there. Don’t let your nerves get the better of you, tempting you to uncontrollably blither your admiration (that’s embarrassing) or start yammering your life story (that’s just unnecessary).
“This is not the time to deliver a long bio,” says Barbara Pachter, author of The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success.
Your best approach is to extend your hand and briefly explain who you are, while also mentioning something about the VP to personalize the conversation, recommends business etiquette expert Arden Clise. Something short and sweet will do the trick: “Hi, Ms. Smith. I’m John Marks. I’m new to the marketing department. I know you’ve been with the company for a long time, and I really respect your work.” Ms. Smith is an experience professional and will take it from there. That’s all there is to it.
The physical connection you make when shaking hands with someone can leave a powerful impression. A firm handshake, made with direct eye contact, sets the stage for a positive encounter, says Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in executive leadership and business etiquette training. Also, remember: Men and women are equals in the workplace, so use the same handshake regardless of the person’s gender.
Let’s keep this simple. You’ll want to follow meeting etiquette 101: Arrive on time and put away your phone and turn it on silent. If there’s a meeting agenda, make sure you’ve read it ahead of time—“You don’t want to ask redundant questions,” Clise warns—and show your interest by participating.
Though a recent survey by Bospar PR found that 76% of American workers said they “hate open offices,” open offices aren’t going away. In fact, around 70% of American office workers now have desks with either low partitions or no partitions at all, the International Facility Management Association reports.
“Above all, you need to respect other people’s need to get work done,” says Karen Litzinger, a business etiquette and career coach in Pittsburgh. “This means minimizing distractions for your peers by not taking loud phone calls at your desk or listening to music without headphones.” Need to take a private phone call? Step outside or into an empty conference room, says Clise. These rules apply whether you’re working in a company office or in a co-working space.
Other good open-office rules to follow: “Avoid wearing perfume or cologne, and don’t eat strong-smelling food at your desk,” Litzinger advises. Also, stay home when you’re really sick to avoid passing it along to your co-workers. Random stat: More than two in five employed adults (44%) reported contracting the flu last year, and 45% of those respondents blamed their colleagues, according to Staples Business Advantage's 2018 cold and flu survey.
Senior managers surveyed recently by staffing firm Accountemps said that not responding to calls or emails in a timely manner is the second-biggest etiquette breach employees can make. (The number-one breach is running late to or missing meetings.) Litzinger recommends replying to emails within 24 hours. Another mistake a lot of employees make is abusing the “reply all” button. “Don’t use ‘reply all’ unless you really need to reply to everyone,” says Pachter.
Additionally, email subject lines should be succinct and specific, “Vague headings, such as ‘touching base,’ don’t tell the recipient what you are contacting them about or why they should open your message,” says Gottsman. If it’s an urgent matter, “communicate that in the subject line along with the general topic. Unclear subject lines can make that particular email more challenging to locate later.”
How you sign your emails is also important. “Your signature is an integral part of a professional-looking email,” says Gottsman. “If your company doesn’t provide you with a formatted e-signature with the corporate logo, create your own by including the basics: your name, title, company name, and contact info with your main office number, your direct number, cell number, and email address. Set it to appear at the end of every email you send automatically.”
Complaining about your job on your personal social media accounts can be risky. Even if you’re not Facebook friends with your boss, you never know what could get back to your manager. That being said, Pachter says it’s OK to talk about work on social media, but stick to posting positive things about your job. Social media can also be a great place to praise a co-worker.
You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating that you need to dress professionally at the office. Even if your office has a relaxed dress code, make sure you don’t look like you rolled out of bed and threw on whatever was at the bottom of your laundry hamper. Neatness counts.
Also, think carefully about how you look when you meet with clients. Remember, you’re representing the company. Gottsman recommends employees always dress one step above their clients. “Your client may be a shorts-and-tennis-shoe kind of person, but if you're their accountant, your dress code will be different,” she says. “You could easily get by with casual slacks and a cotton shirt, but your ultimate goal is to project an appearance that will put your client at ease regarding your skills.”
Make the right moves
Look, nobody is perfect. There will be times when you make a blunder. Apologize sincerely without gushing or being too effusive. State your apology like you mean it, and then move on. Making too big an issue of your mistake only magnifies the damage and makes the recipient more uncomfortable.
Want to know some more tips that will endear you to your colleagues, rather than make them run in the other direction? Join Monster for free today. As a member, you’ll get workplace trends, career advice, and jobs search tips sent right to your inbox. Though there’s no such thing as shortcuts, there are definitely ways to make your rise to the top a lot smoother.