Is etiquette dead? Mind employees’ manners

For today’s e-generation, the impersonal tools of email, texting and Face­­book have replaced the handshake deal and paper business card. The result, say many HR professionals, is millions of employees who have failed to develop the people skills necessary to conduct face-to-face business, get along with colleagues or impress the boss or board member.

To combat this trend, more corporate training departments are turning into pseudo charm schools. They’re sending employees to business etiquette classes (or hiring personal coaches) to put 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 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.”

5 key steps for HR

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:

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1. Encourage face-to-face interaction

It’s 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: Encourage employees to ap­­proach co-workers within walking distance for face-to-face conversations about anything that requires a quick response. Explain that eye contact is an important way to show interest in another person and gauge the colleague’s understanding of what you say.

Also, teach listening skills so employees know how to ask clarifying questions and allow others to talk.

Online resource: Download a free Memo to Managers handout on listening at

2. Enforce a dress code

Your company policy might embrace business casual all week, but some employees hear only the “casual” part.

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.

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

Online resource: For more details on dress codes and to access a free sample policy, go to

3. Set stricter social media rules

Workers were three times more active on Facebook and seven times more active on Twitter in 2011 than in 2010.

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.

Online resource: Find advice on creating a social media company policy at

4. Gauge civility during interviews

Encourage hiring managers to make note of etiquette during candidate interviews. Ask receptionists how they were treated by the applicant.

Also, it’s becoming more common for recruiters and hiring managers to conduct second interviews over lunch, where it’s easy to determine whether the candidate is courteous to waitstaff and displays good table manners.

Dining out can be a barometer for good judgment, too, like whether a person can en­­gage in conversation and resist picking up a cellphone for an hour.

Online resource: Read our Memo to Managers training handout on how to measure the intangible traits of an employee or applicant at

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. Busy parents often no longer en­­force table manners, respect for elders or 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 should be taught how to dress, act, write business correspondence and show respect.

How to build a culture of better business etiquette

Here are tips for business etiquette training, whether you do it in-house or send em­­ployees to outside classes:

√    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.

    Measure business etiquette in every performance appraisal. Tie part of managers’ evaluations, pay raises and bonuses to the professionalism displayed by their teams.

   Enlist your employee assistance program. Your EAP’s 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.

Top workplace mistakes

The Protocol School of Washington, which trains diplomats and international execs, cites these among the top business etiquette missteps:

  • Using swear words
  • Shouting to others across the room
  • Talking on a speakerphone when ­others are nearby
  • Wearing unprofessional attire
  • Offering a weak handshake
  • Failing to make eye contact
  • Displaying poor dining skills
  • Answering calls or texts during conversations and meetings