Workplace P's and Q's

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2004

Your manager may not have worn pantyhose since she left New Jersey, but don't be fooled into thinking Casual Friday has become a state of mind. In the business world, says manners maven Peggy Post, great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, good manners never go out of style. And corporate America agrees with her, judging from her busy career juggling etiquette lectures to businesses around the country with writing books and columns.

Post, who lives in Southwest Florida with her family and co-wrote The Etiquette Advantage in Business, says the onus of proper behavior on the job rests with both the boss and the employee. One of the first visible indicators of etiquette is dress. Employers should set clear guidelines. "I call it situational dressing," says Post. Floridians have some leeway because of the heat, but dressing for the job always calls for a certain amount of decorum and understanding of the client and the environment, she says.

The business lunch can waver between a friendly meal and a formal meeting. To stay on the safe side, suggests Post, always think of it as a meeting. "Definitely, definitely be on time," she says. Hosts should pick a familiar restaurant and offer the guest the best seat at the table. Arrange payment ahead of time to save the embarrassment of confusion when the bill is presented, although Post's rule of thumb is that whoever invites, pays. Guests should brush up on table manners before the event-"get comfortable with basic table manners so you don't have to think about it"-and follow their hosts' lead when it comes to gray areas such as ordering alcohol. Order food that is easy to eat: Pasta and lobster can be tough to manage while taking notes or negotiating. "Think of it as a business meeting, not a gourmet meal," she says. "If you need to take notes, try not to have work things dominate the table. If there's something confidential being discussed, be discreet."

Then there's the networking event. "Don't stand around with people you already know," advises Post. Wait until there is a lull in conversation between two people before introducing yourself with a firm handshake, somewhere between limp fish and bone cruncher. "Introduce people to each other," Post encourages. "Don't focus on one person and don't monopolize someone."

The cardinal sin: glazing over as you stare over the shoulder of the person you're talking to while looking for more interesting people. "Try to be interested in the person," says Post. "And make a graceful exit. Say, 'It was nice chatting with you.' Hand them a card. Ask them, 'May I follow up?' Smile."

Consideration for others should guide all etiquette, even new frontiers such as cyberspace. Keep cellular phone usage to a minimum in meetings or at meals, and set the ringer to vibrate mode or turn it off in a quiet office. Do not send personal information through instant messaging and e-mail. It's like sending confidential information by postcard-everything is visible. Check spelling and grammar, and avoid writing in capitals and using emoticons. "How you communicate is a big reflection of you and your company," Post says. "Don't hide behind e-mails: Deliver bad news personally. And respond to e-mail within 24 hours."

Don't overload your co-workers with attachments unless they are necessary, and "don't go crazy copying the world," says Post. Of course, jokes and chain letters are a no-no at work, and if you use instant messaging, make sure your co-worker doesn't mind-a barrage of messages can be a real interruption. Not everyone wants their e-mail address made public, so check before divulging them to a third party. And bear in mind that some people are not comfortable with technology, so ask if e-mail is the best option.

"One of the biggest changes in the business world is the entry of women into the workforce," says Post. "The workplace is gender neutral; there are so many women in management positions. The courtesies are important, but some that are used in the social world can be adjusted for the business world." So while it's still polite to stand when meeting someone for the first time, there's no need to rise every time a woman enters the room. And of course, a man no longer needs to wait for a woman to offer her hand before offering his for a handshake. To stay on the safe side in a changing world, there's one simple rule: "Always be respectful."

For more tips, books and articles and information about her seminars, visit

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