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By Rachel Sobel, CMA Today – 03/01/2004 – 12:00am

A little goes a long way

“Peoplc just don’t feel they get respect in the workplace,” says Joli Andre, owner of Polished Professionals, a business etiquette consulting firm based in San Diego, Calif. She explains that respect is at the heart of business etiquette and emphasizes that to get respect, you have to consistently give it.

Respecting roles

A common complaint of Certified Medical Assistants (CMAs) is that no one seems to understand the job you do. “Doctors will call the CMA ‘nurse’ to the patient. Or sometimes people think that because you are standing next to the doctor, you are a nurse,” says Laura Durham, CMA, BS, medical assisting program coordinator at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston Salem, NC. She suggests using moments like this to politely explain your role. “The more they know about your role as a CMA, the more they know what to expect from you.”

On the flip side of this, it is important to be respectful to every member of the staff in your office. They, like you, have worked hard to get the credentials they hold. Nurses who feel you are intruding on their job will be less resentful when you show that you appreciate what they do and how their role is different from yours. Your supervisor will also appreciate and reward you for your respect, no matter what his or lier professional background.

Physicians deserve particular attention to business etiquette in your dealings with them. “Let the doctor set the tone,” says Andre. Always introduce the physician to others, in and out of the work setting, as “Dr. so-and-so.” This holds true even if you are on a first-name basis with him or her (and that should happen only at the physician’s request).

Durham advocates keeping an open relationship with physicians while showing them the utmost respect. “Always be honest, If you are not comfortable doing a procedure, tell the doctor you need more experience observing it. Everyone in the office is there for the patient,” she says. But keep it brief. “There is a lot of stress in doctors’ careers, so make sure you are clear and concise and you don’t waste their time.”

Know when to defer to the physician’s expertiseeven if you already know the answer the physician will have. Norma Bell, CMA, who provides financial counseling to patients in a Las Vegas radiation clinic, encountered a situation in which a patient’s spouse wanted to delay treatment until a change in insurance kicked in a few months later. “I told him I would speak to the doctor about it, and it was the doctor who persuaded him to begin treatment immediately. It would not have been my place to tell him the risks ot waiting from a medical standpoint, even though I knew about them,” says Bell. “He needed to hear it from the doctor.”

Stand behind policies and procedures

Every workplace has a multitude of policies and procedures, especially medical offices. If you are asked to have a hand in creating office procedure, by all means, share your ideas. But as soon as one is set into place, keep any negative opinions to yourself. This shows respect for your superiors-from the person you report directly to, to the people at the top. It also demonstrates that you are a good team player.

“Don’t go badmouthing your company, even if you don’t agree with the policy. Make sure everyone understands the policies and how they can work with them. You can’t fault people for not knowing,” says Andre. In situations where others are having issues with policies, simply state that you understand their frustration and tell them what you can do for them. Do not use this as an opportunity to state your own views on policies.

But while you stand behind policies in principle, don’t hide behind them to avoid going the extra mile for someone. be flexible, if you can. “Without compromising the policy, see what you can do to accommodate them ‘just this one time’ while being honest about what this will take,” says Andre.

Meeting skills: Listen before you leap

Office meetings are a good place to communicate. And communicating starts with listening. Bell suggests the following strategies:

* Sit back and listen to gain perspective. You may learn something.

* Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Technology changes constantly and no one expects you to know everything.

* Contribute to the meeting only if what you have to say is worthwhile. Even though you may have an opinion on something, you may not have the knowledge to make a beneficial comment.

“You don’t want to come across as a know-it-all or a schlub who doesn’t know anything,” says Bell. “Don’t just jump in with both feet and hope you can swim to the top.” It takes confidence to admit what you don’t know. “I go to meetings where I don’t know what people are talking about,” Bell says. “I’ll say, ‘I think I missed a turn back there and I need a little clarification.’ Mostly you get respect for that.”

Handle criticism with grace and courtesy

How you handle criticism (both giving and receiving it) says a lot about your business etiquette savvy. It can also be one of the toughest workplace challenges to get through with grace. Author Sue Fox, in Business Etiquette for Dummies, offers the following tips:

When giving criticism…

* Avoid anger and irrelevant detail.

* Criticize only when necessary to improve performance.

* Criticize privately, politely, precisely and promptly.

When receiving criticism…

* Be professional and accept responsibility.

* Respond politely.

* Keep your response to criticism positive and appropriate.1

Avoid questioning others in front of third parties. Doing so makes them look bad and puts them on the defensive. Instead, Andre suggests you take them aside and broach the subject gently. A good comment might be, “T noticed X and I have a couple of thoughts I would like to share with you about how a similar situation was handled that might help you.” Conversely, if your supervisor criticizes you in front of others, calmly ask if you both could continue the conversation in a specific place at a specific time.

When facing criticism, just like any situation that tests your business etiquette skills, Andre says, “Just put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” With that strategy, you can’t go wrong.


1. Fox, S. Business Etiquette for Dummies. New York, NY: Wiley Publishing; 2001.

Rachel Sobel is a Chicago-area writer specializing in heath care topics. She has written for Chicago Parent magazine and produced member education materials for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois.

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