The central problem of our age is how to act decisively in the absence of certainty.
- Bertrand Russell
Ours, of course, is not a world of certainty, and acting decisively within it can definitely be a challenge. Even so, some situations may appear to be considerably less certain than others - if only because we face those situations infrequently, and have not built up a series of habitual reactions for dealing with them.
Job interviews. Personal crises. Grooming emergencies. Questions about medication in the workplace. Announcements concerning pregnancies. These are not the types of problems that show up on our typical morning's to-do list. All the same, they are challenges that, despite their rarity, can be disastrous if mishandled. How, then, should we approach them?
In the following pages, you'll find advice for dealing with these and other unusual etiquette problems. By preparing yourself ahead of time, you'll stand a much better chance of responding appropriately when an unusual behavior question arises. On the other hand, if you rely on your "gut instincts" when faced with an off-the-beaten-path etiquette problem, you may come to regret your choice!
Sooner or later, most of us find it necessary to take medication for some health problem or other. It might be as simple as an allergy or as complex as a life-threatening illness. Diabetics may need insulin, while those with a chronic condition may have to take certain pills at certain times of the day.
Whatever the medication-related problem may be, it is best to avoid making a display of it in front of others, especially clients. After all, discussions of your health are likely to make others feel uncomfortable. Bear in mind that clients spend time with you to seek information or to gain your assistance. They are not meeting with you so that they can keep up with your health problems.
If the time to take your medication happens to coincide with the time of a meeting, you have several options. One is to take the medication either immediately before or after the meeting. If this is not possible, you should excuse yourself when there is an appropriate break in the conversation or meeting, and go to a discreet location - perhaps the bathroom - to take your medication in private.
Making a pill or injection the main thing a client (or anyone else) remembers from your meeting is a huge etiquette blunder!
Not long ago, a reader of my column wrote me a letter asking: "Is it appropriate to shave at work or is it possible my manager or colleagues would see that as being a bit tacky if they walked in on me in the rest room?"
The best answer is that virtually anything is acceptable, if it's handled discreetly. If a man has a five o'clock shadow and would like to look as fresh for his 4 p.m. sales call as he did for his 8 a.m. strategy meeting, it's acceptable to take an electric razor to work. Rather than using it in the most high-traffic public rest room, however, he should choose one that's off the beaten path - or better yet, a private room. (He may also want to consult a cosmetologist for recommendations about daily facial care.)
A few more observations on facial hair are in order here. Rare is the company that would ban beards, mustaches, or sideburns. However, a man should take care that his facial hair is neat and presentable. Beards and mustaches should be kept trimmed, rather than assuming the long, scraggly, caveman look. Sideburns should be mid-ear in length or shorter.
Many people call our hotline about unprecedented situations. One of the thorniest of these is the question of how to show you care when someone in your professional life is involved in a personal crisis.
My recommendation is to emphasize the personal touch - without coming on too strong - and leave the other person in a position to determine what the next step ought to be. Rather than leaving a voice mail (too impersonal) or showing up at the person's doorstep unannounced (too forward), send the person a handwritten note. Let your acquaintance know that he or she and his or her family are in your thoughts at this time, and write that you're there to help if the need arises. This small gesture tells others that there is a real person to talk to, someone who cares and who is available to listen.
Talk about a touchy subject! One of your colleagues has a serious hygiene problem. We're not talking about minor mussed-hair issues or five o'clock shadow here, we're talking about persistent, impossible-to-ignore problems to which everyone, including important customers and potential clients, reacts negatively.
My recommendation: Approach the person on this issue only if you've established significant personal rapport with him or her. (If you aren't at this level, find someone who is, or talk to the person's supervisor.) Find a private setting where you can say something along the following lines: "As someone who has a great deal of respect for you, I'd like to share a sensitive story with you that someone brought to my attention about me a few years ago..." Then share a relevant incident from your own past. By focusing on yourself and allowing the other person to draw the obvious conclusion about his or her own situation, you'll be perceived as sharing, rather than as accusatory.
Say your company has a bagel club, consisting of 12 members. Each member of the club takes turns buying bagels on a rotation basis. Each member also has a choice of bagel flavors, but one person prefers onion and another one chooses garlic. You then must contend with "fragrant" breath for the rest of the day.
Another scenario: You are at lunch with some colleagues and someone orders a dish that is heavily laced with curry. You know that this person is scheduled to meet with an important client later in the day. Do you stop him from ordering a dish that will bear, shall we say, olfactory consequences and may well repel that big client?
Unfortunately, many people are unaware when their breath is affecting others and make poor decisions about the food that they eat. After all, they can't smell it themselves, and unless someone speaks up and tells them, they will continue to indulge in these odorous foods. If the person is a colleague, someone you are close to, you may be brave enough to point out the trouble to them and discretely suggest that they make other choices. However, if the offender is someone you don't know all that well, you may try another, more subtle route. Try to carry a small supply of breath mints at all times. You may then offer one to the other person while in the act of taking one yourself. In this way you are taking discreet steps to at least temporarily resolve the problem. If the offender is even slightly astute, he or she will realize the providential nature of your offer of breath mints - and perhaps refrain from eating foods that provoke potentially career-threatening bouts of halitosis in the future.
Apply this same principle to your own eating habits. When making food choices, think about who you are with and (just as important) who you will be with. You won't want to walk into a big meeting reeking of garlic. Make wise food choices that take into account the people around you. If it's possible, take a trip to the bathroom to brush your teeth or rinse with mouthwash. And always keep the breath mints handy!
Incredible as it may sound, there is a sneezing etiquette! Etiquette, after all, means "what to do and when." In the case of sneezing, this means always making a conscious effort to cover your mouth with your left hand when you feel a sneeze approaching. By doing so, you will have allowed your right hand to be germ-free when shaking hands or for offering an object to another person, assuming you're right-handed. (An interesting side note: If you interact with clients from the Middle East or India, you should know that they will especially appreciate that you have used your left hand to cover a sneeze. Both Middle Eastern and Indian etiquette dictates that you use only your right hand when offering something or taking something from someone else, and that the left hand be used for personal hygiene.)
Sneezing etiquette also dictates that you sneeze in a direction away from people. If this can't be done, then choose a direction where others are more than half an arm's length away from you. If you are still too close, then at least face away from the people you are talking to, or isolate the sneeze so that it is in front of you.
The same principle usually holds true for coughing. Cough into your left hand and direct it away from people as much as possible.
Women may have a special bias to contend with when they become pregnant, especially if they are working in a company whose management is primarily or exclusively male. Rather than spreading the word immediately, take the time you need to develop a plan that will make sense for you within the context of your organization.
Eventually, of course, a pregnancy becomes hard to hide. Let your manager know before your new status becomes obvious and your style in clothes begins to change. For some women, that may be three to five months into the pregnancy.
It is important to be well-prepared when you inform your boss of your pregnancy. Know what you want! You should have a master plan prepared regarding how long you intend to continue working, the amount of time you intend to take off, when you plan on returning, and so forth. Also, familiarize yourself with your company's policy regarding maternity leaves, and talk to women who have been in the same situation. You may be able to learn some important pointers from these women about the organizational and mindset obstacles you may face.
There is, unfortunately, still a strong bias against homosexuals in our country. Although many would prefer that it be otherwise, it is usually best to keep your personal life personal, rather than advertising your sexual preferences in the workplace. If you work for a company with an open attitude about gays, so much the better. You may feel free to refer to your partner and bring him or her to business functions with you. However, if you are uncertain about what the corporate mentality may be or you feel the least bit uncomfortable with the effect your coming out of the closet may have on your co-workers, then it is probably best to attend company functions alone.
First impressions may never count more than when you are interviewing for a job. What the interviewer thinks of you upon the initial meeting can (and usually does) have an immense impact on the success or failure of your candidacy.
Here are some ideas to help get you through those all-important ice-breaking moments:
Once the job interview has begun, bear the following tips in mind.
One final note on interview strategy:
Assertiveness is fine, however, avoid coming across as though you're taking over an interview. Recognize that you will have the upper hand during the interview (or during any meeting for that matter) if you ask as many questions as you answer. Rather than taking the risk of coming across as arrogant or self-absorbed, your aim should be to demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in what the interviewer is asking or sharing with you.
For more information on this topic, see the excellent book Your First Interview, 5th Edition, by Ron Fry.
Sometimes how you go about your job search can adversely affect you and the people around you. Be careful - and courteous! Here are some guidelines that will help you through two of the most common and challenging situations:
Situation: You've been offered a job with one company and have an interview pending with another company for a position that interests you more. Is it acceptable to delay your decision on the first offer?
You bet! Such a situation can be used to your advantage in getting the best job at the best salary. When interviewing for the second position, let the interviewer know about the offer already received, and honestly, tactfully, and confidently outline what it would take for you to accept a different position (for example, a higher salary or specific "perks"). Whatever is then offered to you, be sure to get it in writing. Think twice before accepting the first offer that comes along for fear that the second one won't come through. The fact is, you are a valuable asset to any company that hires you, and you should present yourself as such.
Situation: You currently are employed but are looking elsewhere. Is it acceptable for you to give potential employers your work phone number or pager number?
No. When you are on company time, 100 percent of your attention should be dedicated to your employer. When scheduling interviews or making follow-up calls, do so before or after work or off-site during lunch. This is not only the right thing to do, but it also displays your high code of ethics to individuals who may become your superiors in the future. By showing respect for your current employer's time, potential employers will know what sort of conscientious employee they will be getting.