Business Etiquette: It’s Not Ancient History If You Want a Future

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Although ''Etiquette 101'' probably wasn't included in your college course catalogue, it's a prerequisite for moving ahead in the real world of business. Regardless of the career a new graduate may pursue, good old-fashioned manners can make the difference between success and failure. Beyond the basics of ''please'' and ''thank you'' are myriad other considerate gestures and actions that can set you apart from the post-collegiate pack. In fact, mastering the art of proper decorum can propel a rookie right up the corporate ladder. There are many specific behaviors employees should exhibit as they enter the business world, from avoiding the office gossip grapevine to adhering to proper dining etiquette. The following are a few essential tips to set the newcomer on the right path:

Cheers for Volunteers

It's one thing to do what's asked of you on the job and call it a workday. It's another thing to frequently approach your manager in a positive, upbeat fashion and ask if you can help out with additional assignments, no matter how mundane or tedious the tasks may initially appear. Companies are always impressed with junior staffers who are willing to "pay their dues," roll up their sleeves, and stay late to pitch in and help. By exhibiting this "can do" attitude and leaving your ego at the doorstep, you will show management that you are committed to hard work, advancement, and team effort. It's a huge mistake to act as if you are above performing routine, basic office tasks. It's the volunteer who is ready and willing to do whatever is required who will be most respected and valued by the boss, and in turn thought of first when more exciting, challenging work comes up.

Body Language Speaks Volumes

Consistently conveying that you are mature and at ease in a business setting may take practice for some new grads, so be sure to work on honing the following skills. An impressive young professional smiles, maintains eye contact, sits up straight, and leans forward in his or her chair at conference tables or deskside meetings. Work to avoid nail biting, tapping your fingers or feet, swiveling in your chair, and playing with your hair as these habits demonstrate nervousness and unprofessionalism. An effective handshake is also necessary, finding the right middle ground between too floppy and too tight of a grip.

Get an "A" for Appreciation

It's important to remember that your manager, like you, needs to feel appreciated. If your manager treats you to lunch; gives you a gift, bonus, or raise; or even hosts a company party, you should reply with a heartfelt thank you. While an email note will suffice, it's far more effective to send a personal, handwritten note in addition to thanking the person verbally at the time the gesture is extended. When a boss is genuinely appreciated, he or she will be more inclined to continue to do generous things. Unappreciative recipients of raises can leave managers feeling disinterested in dipping into their pocketbooks in the future.

Keep It Professional, Not Personal

Always remember that as friendly as your manager may be, this is a professional relationship, so don't cross the line. It's appropriate to ask your manager if he or she had a nice weekend or vacation but don't delve further than that. Keep all non-business conversations to "safe" topics such as discussing recent movies you've seen, books you've read, restaurants you've liked, etc. If there's a special occasion in your boss' life — e.g., a birthday, a wedding, the birth of a baby — it's perfectly appropriate to send a card unless you have been invited to attend a special festivity, in which case a small gift is appropriate. Also, remember that a present exceeding $50 appears excessive.

Table Manners Tell All

It's essential that you master both the obvious and subtle details of fine dining. Whether you're attending a formal business dinner or just having sandwiches in the conference room, no one likes to see people chewing with their mouths open or speaking with a mouthful of food. To help keep your eating habits in check, remember to cut food into smaller pieces as you progress through the meal. Break a dinner roll into bite-sized pieces before buttering. It is worth your time to locate an image of a formally set dining table to study it carefully and learn which piece of cutlery is used for which course. Remember that your bread plate is placed to your left and your glass to the right so that you never grab your boss's or client's by mistake. As far as alcoholic beverages are concerned, you should consult your organization's rules for company functions. When in doubt, just order a soft drink.

Dress to Impress

Always dress for success and expect the unexpected. You never know when you might be called upon to attend an important impromptu meeting or event, and no one wants to enter a room of colleagues or clients dressed in conservative business suits while their own attire is casual. Dress and personal appearance speak to the quality of one's work ethic. If you are dressed in a sloppy fashion, people will assume that your work is sloppy. Don't forget: iron your shirt and polish your shoes.

About the Author

Susan Stern is president of Stern + Associates, a public relations and marketing communications firm specializing in cost-effective, results-oriented programs that support client objectives. With offices in Cranford, NJ, and Cambridge, MA, the company develops programs targeted to reach consumer, business-to-business, and trade audiences, increasing the awareness of client products, services, and issues. For additional information, visit
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