Why Etiquette Is So Much More Than Saying Please

It’s been said that the test of good manners is the ability to put up pleasantly with bad ones. But in a world where in-your-face behavior is sometimes mistaken as a strength, it’s often hard to understand the rules of etiquette.

Etiquette. It’s a fussy word that almost defies definition. I grew up at a time when I’d get extra homework if I dared say “Yeah” to a teacher rather than “Yes, sir.” Men stood when a lady entered the room. I never referred to my parents’ friends by their first names. I asked to be excused before leaving the dinner table.

Those “Leave It to Beaver” days seem very distant now. But I still want to behave in ways that show respect for others without coming across as an antique from another era.

I’m apparently not alone. And thanks to a fine book by “professional presence” consultant Rosanne Thomas, there’s guidance on everything from first impression management to social media savvy. The book is Excuse Me: The Survival Guide to Modern Business Etiquette.

I talked with Thomas to explore some of the more pressing “etiquette” concerns borne of blended generations, mixed cultures, omnipresent technology, and gender issues. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced professional, her advice is well worth considering.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Most people would agree that a respectful workplace is a more pleasant workplace. What are some of the measurable bottom-line advantages that accrue to organizations that insist on respect and civility?

Rosanne Thomas: Unreturned phone calls, condescending remarks, public reprimands, angry emails—just some of the countless ways in which incivility rears its head—come at an enormous cost to employers.

Unlike bullying, which is a coordinated, persistent effort to cause someone physical or emotional harm, incivility is often played down as relatively harmless. In fact, it’s estimated that workplace incivility costs companies an average of $14,000 in lost productivity per employee, per year. Organizations also face exposure to increased legal, medical, and hiring costs because of incivility.

And it’s contagious. Employees subjected to incivility often act in the same manner toward coworkers and customers, resulting in fractious relationships and increased customer service issues. Incivility also negatively affects co-workers who witness it, causing them stress and job insecurity. Conversely, organizations that insist on respect and civility see teamwork fostered, morale improved, problems solved, and productivity increased. Their reputations are burnished, enabling them to recruit the best and the brightest talent. An enhanced bottom-line is virtually inevitable, and happy shareholders are the ultimate result.

Duncan: You rightfully say the foundation of civility is respect, which is the outward expression of esteem or deference. Yet social media, political discourse, the diatribes on talk shows and virtually every other public example of human interaction is rife with disrespect and put-downs. With that as a backdrop, what can an organization do to promote a culture of civility and respect?

Thomas: An organization can remember that incivility as a model for life or work is unsustainable. It threatens the well-being and existence of what we need most in order to survive: other people.

The abuse of power—incivility at its core—works only as long as individuals are captive audiences. Once choice is restored—where to work, what establishments to patronize, with whom to associate—incivility, along with the individuals and organizations that tolerate it, will be rejected. Savvy organizations know this. And they clearly communicate their Codes of Conduct. They invest in civility training to reinforce best behaviors. They hire for attitude over experience, recognizing it’s much easier to teach technical skills than it is to instill qualities of empathy and consideration. They provide safe channels for the reporting of disrespect, and when it’s reported they take swift and appropriate action.

Duncan: The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate. What can people do when the leader tolerates behavior that violates the organization’s professed standards?

Thomas: When a leader tolerates or engages in bad behavior, especially when it runs counter to the organization’s avowed standards, credibility is lost. A confused and demoralized staff is left wondering exactly what is expected of them. Is it really okay to cut others off in the middle of sentences, openly criticize their intelligence and abilities, and engage in baseless, reputation-ruining gossip?

Employees have choices to make. While adapting to one’s corporate culture is generally recommended, emulating a leader’s bad behavior is not. Instead, employees need to think about their own reputations and personal standards of conduct. They can become role models themselves by extending simple courtesies such as listening attentively and valuing others’ opinions. They can challenge and report disrespect when they experience it or witness it. They can and must take responsibility for their actions. And if the culture becomes just too toxic, they can leave and find a respectful work environment. They do exist.

Duncan: It’s widely agreed that people don’t leave jobs, they leave people. In light of this obvious truism, why do so many organizations tolerate disrespectful behaviors?

Thomas: Presumably recognizing the harsh prospective consequences, it’s difficult to imagine why an organization would tolerate disrespectful behavior. But some do. It might be because they are under pressure and feel there’s no time for niceties. It could be because they view politeness as a weakness and want to be seen as aggressive and strong. They could be testing employees to see how they respond to incivility and whether they brush it off, defend themselves, retaliate, complain, or sulk. They might be trying to evaluate an employee’s trustworthiness and loyalty or they could be encouraging rivalries. It could be a power play or they may just delight in disharmony. They might be unaware of the consequences of disrespect or they simply might not care.

Creating a safe, civil workplace takes deliberation and resolve on the part of management. Respect always starts at the top.

Duncan: What are some specific practices you’ve seen that encourage (and reward) respectful behavior in the workplace?

Thomas: It’s not dissatisfaction with money, benefits, or workloads that cause people to leave organizations. Lack of appreciation is the reason 79% of employees give for quitting their jobs. Given the high costs of turnover and its effect on productivity, why showing appreciation is not at the top of every boss’s list is inexplicable. Thanking someone in a company newsletter or at weekly or quarterly meeting costs nothing. Yet, it reaps exponential returns in terms of morale and goodwill.

Zappos, the online retailer, rewards good behavior with “Zollars” (Zappos dollars) and peer-to-peer “Wow” awards from coworkers. Anything from holding a door open, to smiling, offering help, volunteering, or tidying a common area might qualify someone for a $50 reward. Rewards are getting creative. Among the available options are professional development opportunities, charitable donations, travel subsidies, memberships, VIP parking, house-cleaning, meal deliveries, and the always popular time.

Simple is often better. A handwritten note of thanks from the company president is still the most sought-after and valued recognition of all. (See “Close Encounters: Leadership and Handwritten Notes.”)

Duncan: Professional reputation—or personal brand—is vitally important. As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” In today’s workplace, what are the three or four most important ingredients of a positive personal brand?

Thomas: “Personal branding” is not new. One’s reputation and all of the things that contribute to it have always mattered. The internet is what makes the concept of personal branding so topical today.

Today we are all under a magnifying glass with our personal brands visible to the entire world. While all elements of a personal brand are significant, some are of even greater importance because other elements derive from them.

First up is attitude. It’s estimated that attitude accounts for 85% of success. Treating everyone with respect and dignity, maintaining a can-do approach, and offering help, congratulations, thanks, and apologies are just some of the ways our positive attitudes come through.

Attire is also critically important. It conveys competence, judgment, and respect, or the lack thereof. Appropriate attire is always dictated by the culture of the organization that employs us. Whether in a buttoned-up suit, a uniform, or a hoodie, we dress to meet expectations, not to defy them.

Work ethic is certainly among the top three. Are we team players who meet deadlines or do we make excuses? Is the quality of our work exemplary or is it incomplete and error-ridden? Do we give credit when due, or keep it all to ourselves?

Paying attention to attitude, attire and work ethic practically guarantees a brand that reflects well upon the individual, vital in an increasingly competitive global workplace.

Duncan: Ignoring relatively benign disrespect can send the unintended signal that increasingly boorish behavior might be tolerated. Without coming across as haughty or unapproachable, what can a person do to set boundaries on behavior that is acceptable to him or her?

Thomas: Disrespectful behavior is rampant, but it’s not always intended. Any combination of stress, fatigue, and fear can get the better of an otherwise amiable coworker. To make sure you don’t personalize what is not meant personally, try to understand and empathize with the person. (This is a good strategy because you may need someone’s understanding in the future.)

Next, consider the environment. If you recently joined a corporate culture where profane language and ribald humor are the norm with no particular harm intended, any attempt to change it may label you prudish or judgmental. Do not lecture or complain. Instead, avoid uncomfortable situations or ignore them as much as you can. Choose battles and approach them carefully. If someone makes a remark that sounds disrespectful there’s a chance it was misheard or taken out context. Approach the person privately to clarify what was meant. Then share the impact of the words and ask if she could use different words in the future. If the behavior continues, let the person know your concentration and productivity are being affected, and your ability to work with her compromised. Communicate that you plan to seek a new team/position/location within the organization and to enlist the help of management to do so.

Being civil does not require that we accept legitimately unacceptable behavior, only that we confront it in a civil way.

Duncan: Many people seem to be almost anatomically attached to their cell phones. What is some of the cell phone etiquette you recommend?

Thomas: Statista.com estimates that by 2019, 67% of the world’s population, or more than five billion people, will be mobile phone users. And it’s not just millennials who are glued to their phones. People of all ages use their phones constantly, and in every setting imaginable. Weddings, funerals, churches, synagogues, doctors’ offices, locker rooms—apparently no place is off limits. This non-stop usage takes a huge toll upon relationships, safety, and sleep.

To keep in touch and keep relationships intact, use good judgment. Even if the culture of a group condones it, don’t be the first to use your phone because a domino effect will rapidly take hold. Generally, do not use a phone at a family, business, or social meal, in others’ homes, or without permission. Certainly do not use a phone in serious or somber settings where someone’s concentration or sensibilities may be affected. If you must use a phone while walking or driving, be keenly aware of pedestrians, objects, and traffic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, each day nine people die from distracted driving and more than 1,000 are injured. Remember that the person physically in front of you takes precedence over any incoming or outgoing text or call. Yes, you may need to respond to an emergency message, but most communication is not worth the risk of damage to a relationship.

Duncan: Social media have created a broad panorama of challenges and opportunities. What advice do you offer professional people regarding their digital footprints?

Thomas: The current conversation about enhanced internet privacy notwithstanding, we should understand that anything we share in cyberspace is viewable, or at least accessible, to anyone else—forever.

It remains to be seen whether, when, or how internet service providers improve their protection of users’ privacy. Even Google’s new “Confidential mode,” which prevents an email from being printed or forwarded, doesn’t actually delete email. It merely revokes a recipient’s access to it after a designated period of time.

Our “digital footprints” are growing bigger by the second. With every post, share, tag, snap, or like, we leave traces of digital DNA that cannot be expunged. And we jeopardize safety, reputations, and finances—ours and others’—in the process.

But we can take some control. Start by conducting an online audit and deleting any questionable posts. Ask friends to do the same. Share nothing that could possibly be deemed racist or sexist. Always use good taste—no photos of risqué clothing, offensive gestures, drunken revelry, or other less-than-discreet activities. Avoid venting anger, arguing, or over-sharing online. Treat others with respect, be accountable, and strive to post relevant, useful information that you would be comfortable with anyone seeing, future employers and grandmothers alike.

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.

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