Etiquette for the 21st Century

By Lain Ehmann

You call your boss and your customers by their first names, you dress down not only on Fridays but most of the time, and you’ve closed more than one deal while watching your daughter’s soccer game. While things in the workplace have gotten more casual than ever, that doesn’t mean that manners no longer count. In fact, says Roz Usheroff, author of Customize Your Career: How to Develop a Winning Strategy to Move Up, Move Ahead or Move On (McGraw-Hill, 2003), there’s never been a time when manners have been more important.

“The whole idea of business protocol has gone by the wayside,” says Usheroff. “Being able to resurrect it today allows someone to have a competitive edge.” Here is Usheroff’s list of top behaviors to adopt – or eliminate:

  • Do remember that gatekeepers count. Be polite to the secretaries, receptionists, administrative assistants and other gatekeepers, recommends Usheroff. Treat them like “real” people; often they have the ability to ease your path to the decision maker, or make your life a living hell.
  • Don’t treat someone’s office as your home turf. Wait until you’re invited to sit down, and then ask the other person where they prefer for you sit. Don’t fiddle with things on their desks, and watch where you put yourself and your belongings. “If you’re going into someone’s space, you really need to be respectful,” Usheroff cautions.
  • Do put cell phones, pagers, and BlackBerries on hold. Checking messages, taking calls or checking e-mail are all no-no’s, says Usheroff. “How are you going to solidify relationships or build business if you’re giving the impression that everything in the world is more important?” she asks. If you are expecting an urgent call, alert your companion to the fact beforehand, ask them for their permission to handle the call, and then excuse yourself when the call comes in.
  • Don’t overstay your welcome. Ask at the beginning of a telephone or in-person call how much time the person has, and then limit yourself to that timeframe. Even if they seem interested in the conversation, ask if you can set up another call or meeting to continue with the conversation.
  • Do learn proper table manners. Usheroff says that dining out for business can sink people fast. Things to remember: If you ask, you pay. Match your guest in terms of courses; don’t order a big steak if all they opt for is a light entrée or salad. Don’t talk with food in your mouth, and stop all business talk while you are eating. “If you’re entertaining clients, you need to realize you’re hosting,” she says.
  • Don’t abuse voice mail. Make your messages short and to the point, and avoid leaving too much detail and too many instructions about how to get in touch with you. Instead, tell them you’ll call back at a certain time – and then do it, says Usheroff.
  • Do remember the golden rule of sales. Your prospect may not have read the same etiquette guides you have, so be prepared to adapt. “The customer’s never wrong,” says Usheroff. “If you make them wrong, you lose.”
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