Miss Manners Would Be Appalled

By Amie Parnes, NEW YORK TIMES – 02/07/2001 – 12:00am


One would think he would have had more sense. The chief executive of a Fortune 500 company, posing for a photo with executives of a Japanese corporation at the end of arduous negotiations in Tokyo to seal a business deal, stuck his hand behind one of his colleagues’ heads and made rabbit ears. Funny in America, maybe. Not at all amusing in Japan. The deal later fell through. ”You don’t really know the effect your behavior might have” said Sue Fox, President of Etiquette Survival, Los Gatos, Calif., and author of ”Business Etiquette for Dummies,” and “Etiquette For Dummies,” who tells the story.

That may be an extreme example, but business consultants say the American workplace is suffering an epidemic of bad manners these days. Some blame the Internet culture of casual dress and pizza-on-the-run, others the general decline in civility. Whatever the cause, though, they warn, even minor lapses in etiquette can crimp an otherwise promising career. That insight came to Arlene Chien in a Santa Clara, Calif. restaurant after work. Ms. Chien, a senior sales trainer for the Guidant Corporation, a maker of medical devices, and several colleagues had just given their orders when the waitress arrived with a basket of fresh bread. Before she could help herself to a slice, the bread was gone. Ms. Chien remembers watching her table mates devour every last crumb and thinking how impolite they were, when suddenly she realized she had been guilty of the same behavior in the past. Then she had a disquieting thought. ”What if we were out with clients?” she recalled wondering. ”What would they think of us? We didn’t really know what the proper rules were when dining.” They decided to find out by taking a course in table manners.

Ravi Singh, 26, a materials analyst at Applied Materials, a San Jose, Calif., maker of semiconductor equipment, is also aware of the connection between job security and workplace etiquette. But it was no sudden revelation. ”I always thought about the movie ‘Pretty Woman,’ ” Mr. Singh said. ”The character Julia Roberts played didn’t have a clue about holding a fork and a knife. I never wanted that to be me.” Besides, he said, he has seen any number of colleagues lose out on promotions or flunk job interviews because of some social gaffe or another. He did not want to suffer a similar fate, he said, so he routinely takes lessons in proper protocol and encourages his colleagues to do the same. Mr. Singh thinks that training helped him win two promotions at Applied Materials the last year and a half. In one lunch interview with a future boss, he was able to concentrate on what he said because he did not have to worry about what he was doing, and thus made a better impression, he said. ”I was able to ask good questions and really inquire about the job because I wasn’t focused on my dining skills,” Mr. Singh said. Knowing how to act has become even more important today than just six months ago, he says, as mass layoffs at dot-coms and a weakening economy are making job seekers more desperate and employers more discerning. ”Before now, all you had to do was basically show up to work and produce and sooner or later you’d get promoted,” he said. ”Now every little thing helps. Having etiquette skills makes me a better candidate than the next guy who doesn’t.” Aware of the negative impact that loutish behavior can have in business, more companies of all sizes are hiring etiquette consultants to give crash courses in decorum to their employees, career counselors say.

”People are becoming more and more aware of the need for professionalism,” said Michael J. Gage, director of the University of Miami’s Toppel Career Placement Center, which holds classes twice a semester on workplace etiquette. ”We’ve increased the number of courses we offer here because of the high demand. We’ve received dozens and dozens of requests.” In recent months, the message that good manners can bolster one’s career has become a trendy topic in books. In 1999, HarperCollins released ”The Etiquette Advantage in Business,” by Peggy and Peter Post. And this year, IDG Books, the Dummies book series, published Ms. Fox’s tome. The message is simple, if exacting. ”What you really want to do is make sure you, the employee, are perfect in everything that you do. Don’t give the boss any reason to give you the pink slip,” Ms. Fox said. To that end, the experts teach the proper way to do everything from holding a fork to eating soup to dressing down on casual Friday. Some important do’s: sitting upright at business meetings with both feet planted firmly on the floor; knowing how to order a good wine at a business meal; being a good listener; and mentioning the names of people you talk to at business meetings. And some equally important don’ts: handing business cards out like candy; answering a cellular phone in the middle of a business lunch or dinner; and eating hot, spicy foods in an office cubicle where colleagues are forced to breathe the aromas. Also, body contact is out. ”The corporate kiss on the cheek is dead,” said Audrey Kardon, a corporate etiquette specialist in Palm Beach. ”And the good ol’ boy slap on the back has been dead for years.” In most cases, you do not really have to take a course. You just have to show common courtesy and use common sense. For example, it helps to stay alert.

Ms. Fox relates the tale of an executive whose attention apparently wandered at a business meeting when a woman with a male first name was introduced. She was the other company’s president, but the executive assumed the man sitting next to her was in charge, and addressed him rather than her throughout the negotiations. Annoyed at his ignorance, one of her top aides urged her to scuttle the talks. Ms. Chien says most people understand the basics of etiquette, like not eating with their mouth full at a lunch with potential clients. But a little study is probably necessary to master the finer points, she said. ”Many people don’t know that you’re not supposed to talk about business until you get to the dessert part of the meal,” Ms. Chien said. ”When you know this, that’s when you know you’ve taken your business to a higher level.”

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