A handful of action is worth more than a bushel of theory.
In this section, we'll take a look at some etiquette problems from the "front lines" - real, live readers of my weekly newspaper column who took the time to contact me about their own real, live etiquette problems at work. The answers to these questions will offer you insight into dealing with some of the more interesting variations on day-to-day business etiquette.
And, by the way, as I mentioned in the Introduction, if you have an etiquette question you'd like me to address, feel free to contact me! I realize that the advice offered in this resource can't supply detailed responses to every possible business etiquette challenge you may face on the job. Let me know about the issues you're facing at work - and I'll do my best to find possible solutions.
Question: How can I encourage new acquaintances to be more sensitive about the use of insider jargon in social situations? The other day, I was at a professional organization meeting. Several of the people were talking about what was going on in their industry. It was difficult to get involved in the conversation because they all seemed to be speaking their own language - using acronyms that meant a lot to them and nothing to me and the other people at our table.
Answer: While some people may assume that everyone understands their particular abbreviations and industry jargon, others may actually perceive it as a "foreign language." The next time you find yourself in this type of situation, simply take the plunge and ask the people to assist you by clarifying what the acronyms mean. By requesting clarification, you may heighten their awareness and they may either ask if everyone knows what certain abbreviations or insider talk refers to or refrain from using exclusionary talk during gatherings that include "outsiders."
Question: Some women just don't seem to get it! A company bathroom mirror should not be used for curling hair, plucking eyebrows, admiring oneself, or reapplying perfume. A company bathroom mirror is for freshening up, washing hands, and reapplying lipstick. Where do people get the idea that others who are also using the facility don't notice these actions? Isn't this a breach of workplace etiquette?
Answer: Long-term monopolization of public facilities is a breach of etiquette, and don't let anyone tell you differently. Business and social manners dictate that you avoid excessive primping in public locations. That includes using perfume as though it were insecticide, taking over a sink when others may need the space, brushing or flossing teeth in a conspicuous location, etc. These matters should be attended to in a private area, rather than a frequently visited public bathroom.
Question: Before I began working for my present company, I thought that all men were taught to respect the "one over rule" when using public rest rooms. In other words, when entering a rest room with three urinals, the first man should use either the first or the third urinal. The second man stepping up should use the urinal that is one over - or two urinals away from the one being used. The only time the center urinal should be used is if it is the only vacant one. Some men seem to have skipped this lesson - and the one dictating that eyes should be kept straight ahead or down. Although this is a rather raw topic, I would be most appreciative if you would address it. Do the rules I mention still apply?
Answer: They certainly sound sensible enough. Everyone needs dignity and privacy. Our private space should be respected - even (perhaps especially) in a public restroom. Until a better set of guidelines comes my way, I'll wholeheartedly endorse yours. You may have helped to educate a new generation of men on bathroom etiquette!
Question: At a recent client conference, one of my best clients and I went to dinner. This person threw me for a loop when he expressed his interest in doing more with me than business. He expressed a romantic interest in me! (I'm engaged.)
How does one handle such a situation?
Answer: I hope that you let this person know that, although you value him as a client, you are already involved in a healthy personal relationship, and you don't believe in mixing business with personal matters. Setting limits gently but firmly is your best approach in this sensitive situation.
How does that old saying go? "You don't get your meat where you get your potatoes." That's a colorful way of saying that lots of things can go wrong when people put romance where it doesn't belong. You can jeopardize your career, start gossip, lose the trust of important higher-ups, cause political problems, or if one of you is married, earn the wrath of a wronged spouse.
One way to avoid being confronted with the awkward situation you describe is to arrange to have a minimum of three people in attendance at future dinner get-togethers. If you had done this, the unwelcome advance almost certainly would never have been made.
Question: I attend many company functions at which the spouses of my clients and colleagues are invited. One of my best clients actually chose to leave our firm and do business with a competitor because he perceived me as flirting with his spouse at our holiday gathering! (In fact, I wasn't flirting with anyone.) How could I have avoided this?
Answer: Natural, enthusiastic, outgoing behavior can be misconstrued as romantic interest in another person. The situation you describe is not at all uncommon. People at parties often try to throw the limelight on the persons they know the least well. This is a fine instinct, but in situations such as the one you describe, it's not a good idea to pay as much (or more) attention to a spouse when there's the potential for misinterpretation.
Question: Two unmarried colleagues in our office began a romance. On most fronts, they handled their personal relationship in a very discreet manner. However, they recently committed a faux pas that has made their relationship known to everyone in the company. One of them decided to woo and coo the other by sending a love note on the company e-mail system. The message was mistakenly transmitted to an entire address group! Any thoughts on how this could have been handled better?
Answer: Sure - save the company e-mail system for business use only. Unless you're looking forward to a dressing down from the CEO, save the wooing and cooing for personal time. And remember, many e-mail systems keep track of every message sent, whether or not the message is regarded as confidential in nature. If you don't want Mr. or Ms. Bigshot reading the message, don't send it out on the company e-mail system.
Use business tools for business. Save love letters for after-hours!
Question: When talking to someone who is confined to a wheelchair, is it appropriate to bend or kneel down to the person's level?
Answer: No. You shouldn't bend down to talk to a person who is confined to wheelchair, any more than you would stoop down to talk to someone who is shorter than you.
While we're on the subject, avoid talking in a demeaning or condescending manner to people who are confined to wheelchairs or who suffer any other disabilities. Physical limitations do not imply reduced mental capacity.
Question: What, exactly, should I do when someone hands me his or her business card?
Answer: When receiving a business card, look at it for a few seconds. When appropriate, a complimentary word should be said about the person's title, logo, business card design, etc. The card should be placed either on a table where business is being conducted or in a planner or portfolio. A business card should not be placed in a wallet that is then put in your back pocket.
By the way, anyone who has business cards should not leave home (or the office) without them. Make sure the cards are clean and crisp, without even the slightest smudge or crease. Business contacts can be initiated, and cards exchanged, in some of the most unlikely places. Be prepared!
Question: How can I make the best impression when picking up a VIP at the airport?
Answer: For starters, make sure your car is immaculately clean - everywhere. Don't make the mistake one of the readers of my weekly newspaper column made. She was assigned to pick up her boss's boss at the airport. Recognizing that her car was an "extended office" - and a reflection of herself - she washed it inside and out. Then she made the faux pas: She threw everything from her backseat into the trunk. When it came time to pick up the big boss, it turned out the only place the oversized luggage would fit was (you guessed it) the trunk of the car. She was mortified. Let's just say this executive's impression about this lady's neatness wasn't as positive as it could have been. An unfinished car cleaning is not enough!
Question: What is it with some receptionists? When I show up for appointments and give them my name, they inevitably ask, "What was your name again?" Shouldn't these front-line people be groomed to make better first impressions than that?
Answer: They probably should, however, bear in mind that the receptionist's job is a difficult and thankless one.
A good receptionist will write down both a caller's name and a visitor's name the moment it is said (even if an unconventional name means setting down a phonetic transcription). This strategy allows the receptionist to announce the caller/visitor to the person in the office. It also allows her to be in control of the situation by using the appropriate name.
One way to assist a receptionist in properly announcing you is to have your business card in hand when you approach the reception area. I can assure you that this gesture will be much appreciated by these individuals who must juggle telephone calls and visitors at the same time.
Question: When a woman announces herself for an appointment, should she do so using her marital status? And while we're on the subject, what do I do when I'm introduced to a female client who is of the same generation as my mother? Should I use the person's first name if the person who introduced us is doing so, or should I refer to her by her last name? If I should use the last name, what do I put in front of it, "Mrs." or "Ms."?
Answer: The answer to the first question is a resounding no! It's tacky for a woman to refer to herself as "Mrs. Jane Smith," just as it would be inappropriate for a man to announce himself as "Mr. William Jones." Titles should be used by others, rather than by the person introducing or announcing himself or herself.
When meeting a client who is significantly older than you, address the person by his or her last name even if your colleague is on a first-name basis with the person. (In the situation you describe, you should use "Ms." before the last name unless you're instructed to do otherwise.) If the person wants you to address him or her using a first name, you will be told. Remember, you can never get into trouble for being too formal, but you can for being too informal.