Minding your manners - business etiquette

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Business etiquette applies to a whole range of activities engaged in by small businesses, both internally (i.e. within the organisation), and externally (i.e. in interfacing with customers, suppliers and other external stakeholders). Observing business etiquette is conducive to good relationship management and creating and maintaining professionalism in the workplace.

Small business owners need to have a clear understanding of what they consider appropriate internal and external business etiquette as behaviours can easily become entrenched but can be difficult to reverse. Internally, good manners include treating all co-workers respectfully regardless of rank (in both written and spoken communication), dressing appropriately at all times, and selecting non-invasive alert tones and volume levels for mobile phones.

In an open plan office setting, employees and small business should also be conscious of time spent on private phone calls (and make efforts to take such calls in secluded physical spaces), as well as time spent on gossip and other non-business related chatter.

Externally, business etiquette involves good telephone manners (e.g. answering the phone by the third ring, properly greeting a caller and identifying the business and yourself), promptly replying e-mails, checking all correspondence for spelling and grammatical errors, and remembering people’s names.

In meetings, eye contact and firm handshakes are generally recommended, as is avoiding distractions and focusing fully on the matters at hand (i.e. no fiddling on laptops, mobile phones or other devices). Small business owners can exercise their discretion about the extent to which they are willing to formalise business etiquette through policies and rules. In doing so, small business owners need to display emotional intelligence in recognising and accommodating cultural and social norms applicable to the South African context which may not be valid elsewhere.

Regardless, some level of training is likely to be required to ensure that all employees have a common understanding of the behaviours expected of them internally and externally.

It is dangerous for small business owners to assume it is common sense and not worth reinforcing. As a small business owner, you are the custodian of the business’ vision and values. Your brand and your reputation depend on you providing strategic direction and leadership in all areas, even ones as seemingly mundane as business etiquette.

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11 comments
    When is it okay to yell at someone - be it an employee or even a customer? When is it okay to use profanity in the workplace - be it in communicating with an employee or with a customer? Is there such a thing as business etiquette when it comes to communication? Or is it more about reading the situation underrstanding the relationship you have with the person you are communicating to understanding what kind of communication will reach home with them and adapting to make sure you use the most effective communication method to connect- which might include yelling or use of profanity in certain circumstances?
    There is a never an acceptable in any circumstance to yell or use profanity when dealing with colleagues or customers. There is a level of self-control that one needs to exercise in a workplace. This comes with a level of maturity and modulation. If you are angry rather walk away and not engage until you have cooled down. I used to work for one of the top Investment Banks in the country and it had become acceptable to use profanity in the workplace. The CEO himself has a reputation of having a potty mouth. The use of profanity has entrenched itself within the business. It became so because it was coming from the top. So you as the business owner sets the tone of the business etiquette and professibalism within the organisation. Needless to say that I did not last very long within that enviroment because it didnt line up with me as an individual...
    The very basis and foundation of business etiquette is respect. Also the level of the professional and the tyupe of engagements acceptable within a business flow from the company values. If the values are well entrenched within the organisation it should flow through the behaviour of the employees. For example a common value that companies' tend to have is excellence. However it remain as value that is put up in a boardroom somewhere but is not lived day in and day out by the employees. So you as the leader or manager within the business need to assist the employees when the join your company to know what the values are and how they translate to behaviour and business etiquette.
    While I agree that business etiquette and business communication need to be grounded on a foundation of respect I am not sure I agree htat it is NEVER acceptable to use profanity in the workplace. Across my businesses (investment banking two wine cellars and other private investments) I find that the use of a swear word can be used strategically for several purposes. First can drive home a point. Second it can show you are comfortable enough with the person that you are talking to to use a swear word - whch communicates to that person that you believe you have enough trust enough of a bond enough of a relationship to use a swear word in their presence. Third I think it can be used as a very important summary. For exmaple you could say to a colleage that you know well something like 'What the F@%$ was that person thinking? ' or perhaps if you are dealing with a bad debt agree with your accounts officerr that 'the client is sure acting like an Ass%$^&.' Or perhaps something is being explained to you and you simply retort by saying that 'it sounds like Bull%$% to me.' I would agree wholeheartedly that it is always inappropriate to use use profanity to swear AT someone. I would also agree that it is generally and very often inappropriate to use profanity. But I do think a sprinkling of profanity can be used strategically and be useful to show that you are human to show you have a bond with the people that you are using it with and in those circumstances to accurately summarize a situation. I have fond that profanity can used strategically bring people and a team closer together.
    The word etiquette gets a bad rap. For one thing it sounds stodgy and pretentious. And rules that are socially or morally prescribed seem intrusive to our sense of individuality and freedom. But the concept of etiquette is still essential especially now—and particularly in business. New communication platforms like Facebook and Linked In have blurred the lines of appropriateness and we're all left wondering how to navigate unchartered social territory. Boil it down and etiquette is really all about making people feel good. It's not about rules or telling people what to do or not to do it's about ensuring some basic social comforts.
    I feel the rules have changed or at least shiftedin the past 10 years. Whilst I agree with GameChanger17in that Ettiquette and attitudecomefrom the top and the owner will set the tone for how people interact within his business I also agree with DrDavidBate that things are less formal nowdays and whatever the method used the intention is to bring a bit of comraderie or recognise people as people not just a clients or a business deal. Does anyone have any experiences that highlight this?
    What about speaking in different languages in front of someone whom you know does not speak that language? If your boss only speaks Afrikaans and English can you speak Zulu or Xhosa in front of him? I know when some of my people are overseas they speak Afrikaans Zulu or Xhosa in front of Chinese when they do not want them to know what they are saying (and the Chinese freely speak Mandarin in front of them unaware that maybe one of them speaks Mandarin). Is it rude to speak a different language in an audience where you know some or all do not speak the same language being spoken?
    I find that absolutely rude and yet it is so common! If you feel that you need to have a side bar then do just that excuse yourself for a minute. However to simply burst into another language as a way of ensuring the other party doesn't unsderstand (which hopefully they don't lest you say something compromising)does not evoke much trust. A common language should be agreed upon in order to conduct business that all parties understand and are comfortable communicating in. This definately helps to eliminateany misunderstandings.
    I also struggle with a dress code. When I first started out in business it was always jacket and tie often a three piece suit. I still follow those customs but I am finding more and more often I need to take the tie and jacket off because everyone else is so casual. You don't want to seem that you over-dressed for the occasion or that you are trying to show off or intimidate anyone but I still like a crisp suit and tie. Certaintly for investment banking I feel that conveys professionalism. A three piece suit was the uniform of investment bankers - and I reget that it is going away as things get more and more casual. For both men and women.
    I mentioned earlier that things have changed in the business world and there are new rules...One of my pet hates however which boils down to lack of respect is being on any sort of digital device during a meeting (unless is is you showing a client a presentation or similar) Nothing makes me feel more like you don't have the time of day or are simly not interested in me or what I have to say than this...does anyone else feel the same way? And I know it's hard not to be distracted these days. We have a plethora of devices to keep us occupied; emails and phone calls come through at all hours; and we all think we have to multitask to feel efficient and productive. But that's not true: When you're in a meeting or listening to someone speak turn off the phone. Don't check your email. Pay attention and be present. What this is likely to do is not only automatically endear you to the person you are interacting with they will feel that you respect their time and opinion and will be more receptive to what you have to say. Trust me in a world where this in the exception to the rule you will stand out if you simply switch it all off and bepresent.
    I agree David it is a pity that the dress code has relaxed so much. I find myself feeling more confident and professional when dressed for the occasion a suit of armour as such. I take people more saeriously when I see them drssed formally and I can only presume that people looking at me feel the same way when walking in.