Add etiquette to employee expectations, please

business etiquetteThe rush of the modern—business-casual dress codes, virtual job interviews, using text messages to confirm business appointments—is turning corporate training departments into charm schools. More organizations are sending employees to business etiquette classes (or hiring personal coaches) to put some polish on everything from business correspondence and conversational skills to personal hygiene.

At stake: Professionalism and credibility. Enrollment is booming at business etiquette schools.

The reason, agree workplace coaches and Emily Post types: So many people rely on text messages, email and Face­­book to communicate with each other that they haven’t developed the skills necessary to conduct face-to-face business, get along with colleagues or im­­press the boss or a board member.

“The good news is that these skills can be taught,” says management coach and trainer JoAnn Corley. “It’s mostly a matter of teaching employees to be­­come more aware that they are alienating people with their behavior, even if they are talented and work hard.”

Making the most of manners

If you worry that the personal habits and behavior of your employees—particularly new hires, fresh out of school—might be holding them back (and re­­flect­­ing poorly on your organization) try these tips for reinforcing business etiquette.

Difficult People D

1. Enforce a dress code. Your company policy might embrace business casual all week, but some employees hear only the “casual” part of that dress code. Don’t blame your Gen Y em­­ployees if they show up for work wearing jeans, flip-flops, or filthy or revealing clothes. Maybe no one ever told them “business casual” is more about khakis than comfort.

Tips: Your dress code should outline pre­­cise do’s and don’ts for workplace attire. Address whether jeans, shorts, gym clothes, miniskirts, halter tops and other casual attire are appropriate. Provide photos of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Pinpoint the necessities. Examples: Are socks and stockings required? How about shirt sleeves, jackets or closed-toe shoes?

Don’t assume everyone will read the policy. In­­cor­­po­­rate dress code rules into new-hire orientations. 

2. Encourage face-to-face conversations. They’re essential for conducting business. Yet too often, it seems easier to send an email, even to a colleague sitting in the cube next door than to stand up and speak to the person. Actually speaking to someone minimizes misunderstanding.

Tips: Instruct employees to quietly approach any co-worker within walking distance for a face-to-face conversation about anything that requires a response. Teach listening skills so employees know how to ask clarifying questions and allow others to talk without interrupting. Spend time explaining that eye contact is an important way to show interest in another person and to gauge that colleague’s understanding of what you are saying.

3. Outlaw personal use of social media during office hours. Office workers were three times more active on Facebook and seven times more active on Twitter in 2011 than in 2010, reports Palo Alto Networks, a network security organization.

Employees who spend time keeping up with pals via social media sites rob your company of productivity. And posting messages, sending texts and reading emails during meetings and conversations is rude and impedes communication from the person who is trying to talk.

4. Gauge civility and etiquette during interviews. It’s becoming common for recruiters and hiring managers to conduct interviews over lunch, where it’s easy to determine whether the job candidate is courteous to waiters and displays good table manners—like waiting until everyone is served before eating and swallowing before speaking.

Dining out can be a barometer for good judgment, too—like ordering a moderately priced meal instead of the most expensive item on the menu. It may reveal whether an applicant can engage in conversation and resist picking up a cellphone in the course of an hour.

5. Don’t assume workplace civility and etiquette are givens. Pamela Eyring, president of the Protocol School of Wash­­ington, notes that elementary and high schools no longer incorporate lessons in manners or socializing into their over­­crowded curriculums. Too many busy parents no longer enforce rules about table manners, respect for elders and even saying “please” and “thank you.”

Poor manners, rude behavior and sub­­par communication skills, notes Eyring, are a reflection on the company.

“Everything speaks,” she says, “the way employees dress, the way they be­­have, the way they eat, the way they text. They’re so used to texting with abbreviations and using casual language, but it’s turning off clients.”

HR can play a role in bolstering an organization’s orientation and training programs so they include the most basic skills of workplace civility, from personal hygiene to G-rated language.

Newcomers to the workforce need to be taught how to dress, act, write business correspondence and show respect, say the experts.

The 10 worst workplace faux pas

In social settings, swearing may be acceptable among certain friends, but it’s almost never OK at work. In fact, it tops a list of unprofessional behaviors in surveys of workplace etiquette.

According to the etiquette experts at the Protocol School of Washington, which trains diplomats and international executives, the top 10 business etiquette missteps are:

  1. Using swear words.
  2. Neglecting to greet co-workers when you arrive at work.
  3. Shouting to others across the room.
  4. Declining to offer guests a beverage.
  5. Taking calls on speakerphone when others are within hearing range.
  6. Wearing unprofessional attire.
  7. Offering a weak handshake.
  8. Failing to make eye contact.
  9. Displaying poor dining skills.
  10. Answering cellphones or texts during conversations, meetings and meals.

Source: The Protocol School of Washington (

How to build a culture of better business etiquette

Tips for business etiquette training, whether you do it in-house or send employees to outside coaches or classes:

•    Enlist your employee assistance program. Its mental health professionals can help employees identify their feelings of anger, boredom, grief or joy, for example, and teach them how to manage those emotions. Help employees become accountable for how they express their feelings and learn how to rein them in so their behavior is appropriate for the workplace.

•    Get buy-in from the highest levels of your organization to build a companywide culture that no longer tolerates anti-social and unprofessional behavior, appearance and attitudes in the workplace.

•    Mix it up. Combine informal training—like quick webinars and email tips—with face-to-face group training and one-on-one coaching so the message is repeated constantly.

•    Make business etiquette a measure in every employee’s performance appraisal. Tie part of managers’ evaluations, pay raises and bonuses to the professionalism their teams display.