Beware of your Bad Business Manners

Prague Leaders Magazine, September 2010

Prior to the advent of the Internet and email, business followed a traditional hierarchical structure: a manager was in charge of a team who reported to him only, he was in charge of communicating to his boss, who then did the same to his own boss etc. Everyone had one direct supervisor who usually worked on the same premises.

Today, an IT programmer based in Prague more often than not reports to a manager who might be located in a different city or country. This manager may, in turn, be reporting up the line to someone in a third city or country. And all three of these employees might be from different cultures and speak different native languages.

While this challenging work environment might be daunting for many people, most employees manage to adapt to new organizational structures and, with some communication and cross-cultural training, have learned to relate to each other in a positive and productive manner.

And as long as the IT programmer operates behind his computer screen and communicates via email, confe- rence call and occasional face-to-face meeting with his manager, he is okay. The emphasis is more on his skill set and his ability to work within his assigned team than on his social manners and business etiquette.

But what happens when the board of directors based in the company headquarters in London (or Frankfurt, or Paris) asks him to attend one of their board meetings to present the new software program he has been develop- ing for the company. Will the programmer be able to adapt his look and communication style to succeed in this situation?

Today, business etiquette and social manners have become critical elements required for employees in all global companies. As these companies continue to ex- pand and bring diverse workforces together, some basic and common rules of what is appropriate are expected in a western professional environment.

One size does not fit all

Etiquette has its roots in the practices of nobility during the reign of the French King Louis XIV and, over the years, those practices became what is perceived as the accept- able standard of behavior throughout much of Western society.

The word etiquette itself is French and its literal meaning is “ticket”, implying that proper application of etiquette and social manners were an individual’s ticket or entrance to higher social status. In today’s professional world, adherence to proper business eti- quette can also be a ticket to elevated status, to recogni- tion, a raise, or a promotion.

While some of the earlier rules are now perceived as old fashioned and too formal for our modern taste, appropriate business etiquette and social manners are the building blocks for social relations and interactions in our professional life as well as in our daily life.

But manners involve a wide range of interactions within cultural norms, and mistakes can be made right from the first meeting. How does one properly greet a person one has not previously met? That can depend on several factors, including the gender, the generation, the relative position to each other, and the cultural norms of the respective parties.

Germans usually shake hands at first introduction, and would never think of using first names, no matter if they had done so by phone or email. Americans also tend toward handshakes, but they often use first names. Japanese are well known for bowing and extending their calling cards, with extreme deference paid to perceived superiors. The French, on the other hand, are likely to kiss, even at first meeting. Imagine the scene if all these people came together at once!

“No shoes, no shirt, no service”

If you have been to a warm climate in Europe or North America, you have seen the signs. Though casual, there is still a code of dress that must be adhered to in order to conduct business in the store displaying the sign.

This is not much different than dress codes in schools, or the unwritten code of dress at finer restaurants or country clubs, which may require men to wear a jacket and tie to dinner, and women to wear dresses. Standards are set and the expectation is that they will be met.

At work, standards vary when it comes to dress codes. Some businesses have very high standards for their employees and set strict guidelines for office attire, while others maintain a more relaxed attitude. No matter what the company attitude is regarding what you wear, though, when working in a business environment it is judicious to dress appropriately.

But in our modern world, it seems that to succeed one must attract as much attention as possible. The challenge is to learn how to attract attention in a positive way, not in a way that jeopardizes one’s reputation and credibility. Attire should reflect both the environment and the posi- tion. An IT programmer who doesn’t interact with the cus- tomers has a different image to maintain than the sales director, or the concierge of a 4-star hotel. Like it or not, you are being evaluated by your personal appearance.

This is never more apparent than on the “casual Friday” or “dress-down days” when what people wear says more about who they are than any business attire ever could. As a rule, make sure that your physical appearance commu- nicates what you want others to know about you, and at work, make sure it says that you mean business.

Treat others as they would like to be treated

At the age of 16, George Washington copied by hand a list of 110 rules on civility, rules which were compiled by 16th century Jesuits priests. While the story belongs to the mythology surrounding the first President of the United States, it proves insightful to illustrate that Washington was universally recognized by his contem- poraries for his civility.

In Europe, the unprecedented array of cultural differ- ences requires us to be clear and explicit about what we mean by civility. We are constantly reminded of the need to follow not the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” but instead to follow the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have done unto them.”

To simplify, the rule is to treat people the way they would like to be treated. This rule presents us with the challenge of paying attention to others’ needs and expectations, suppressing our desire to impose our own view of the world.

For example, the French like to debate and expect participants involved in business meetings to speak their minds and even interrupt their counterparts when they disagree. But for most Czech, interrupting someone be- fore they have a chance to finish expressing their thoughts is very rude and a sure sign of uncivilized manners.

The word manners, which derives from the Latin word “hand”, refers to how we handle relationships. Manners exist because they are instrumental in our interactions with others. They encourage us to cultivate mutual respect by paying attention to people’s needs, desires and hopes.

To a large extent, the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our relationships, and the quality of our relationships depends on our degree of civility toward each other. By exemplifying mutual respect and reinforc- ing polite behaviors in our lives we can also create and cultivate workplaces which express civility.

Though modern society has tried to dispose of formal conventions, certain forms of social manners really do make life easier. They help us navigate societal waters by providing guidelines for a variety of business and social interactions. And they help us get the job done.