Etiquette on the rise

By Will Evans – Sacramento Bee – 09/10/2004 – 12:00am


Experts offer training to help businesses avoid unnecessary faux pas.

When a candidate for a top position at a local university sent his salad back to the cook during a job interview lunch, he violated a rule of business etiquette.

When he sent it back a second time, to get the dressing just right, he had already lost the job.

This picky-eater tale is just one of many horror stories that Carmichael etiquette expert Shirley Willey has heard over the years.

But for Sacramentans who don’t know that “when you’re in a business dining situation, you’re not there to eat” — there’s help, as training in proper business conduct is on the uptick.

Willey, of Etiquette & Company, and several other local trainers help those in the business world succeed by offering tips on everything from how to behave on the golf course to handling e-mail.

Inger Maher, career counselor with UC Davis’ MBA program — one of the first in the nation to offer etiquette training — said there is a backlash against the casual dot-com days of yesterday.

“People have to mind their p’s and q’s, and you can’t dress for interviews in T-shirts and shorts,” Maher said. “The companies that were doing that aren’t in business anymore.”

Sue Fox, author of “Business Etiquette for Dummies,” said she’s seen a rise in interest since Sept. 11, when many were jolted into a sense of civility. Fox said the tragedy raised people’s awareness and interest in acting civilized and graciously.

Fox has taught Sacramento clients like the California State Association of Counties and the JSM Group, a Japanese sports marketing company with local offices.

Now she is training independent etiquette consultants.

Usually, according to Fox, the companies that request instruction are well-established banks, brokerages, law firms and high-tech corporations.

“I have had some companies ask, ‘Could you do a private consultation for our CFO? He’s a big buffoon and he’s embarrassing us,’ ” Fox said. But most companies call in etiquette consultants for routine staff training.

American River Bank does not employ etiquette educators, but CEO Bill Young said proper behavior is integral to its business. The bank hires with an eye to etiquette, and its employees spend a good deal of time on the golf course or at meals with clients.

“In community banking, there’s a lot more one-on-one contact, so that’s something you’d better get a handle on or you’re not going to be successful,” Young said. “If you’re not kind and businesslike … it’ll come back and bite you.”

Proper business decorum can be as simple as showing up on time and as counter-intuitive as spooning soup away from the body instead of toward it.

Some rules follow a certain logic. When dining, think left to right. Sit down from the left side of the chair; get up on the right. Present a dish on the left; remove it from the right. Pass food — again, left to right.

Everyone goofs, though. Willey even wore a brown shoe with a blue shoe to one of her own “dress for success” seminars.

Perhaps most important for many, etiquette is dealing with sticky situations smoothly. When a job candidate flicks salad dressing on the interviewer’s silk tie, it’s time to quickly apologize, try some self-effacing humor — and offer to pay the dry cleaning bill.

Sometimes proper etiquette doesn’t follow strict rules, but rather makes everyone feel comfortable. Willey tells the story of Queen Victoria, who drank the water in her finger bowl to save a guest embarrassment for doing the same.

Since 1992, when UC Davis first invited Willey to run students through a three-course meal booby-trapped with messy foods, interest in college etiquette education has surged.

California State University, Sacramento’s Department of Management whips sloppy students into shape each semester with a series of workshops.

One workshop focuses on golf etiquette, since the sport is often intertwined with business.

When invited to a game of golf, bring a gift, said Professor Craig Kelley, who teaches the seminar. Wear slacks, and don’t swear.

“If you bring up business at all, it’s not until the fourth or fifth hole,” Kelley said. “It’s about building relationships, not closing a deal.”

Judy Eisenhard, president of the Orangevale-based Pinnacle Bay Resource Group, started her telephone training in response to a request from the Sacramento City Unified School District, whose employees were offending parents over the phone.

Eisenhard helps businesses and state agencies manage angry callers and delight the pleasant ones. She starts all of her phone calls with a bright “good morning” or “good afternoon.”

Lower the voice to avoid sounding stressed and smile, Eisenhard said. Smiling loosens facial muscles and “can be heard.”

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