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The Mannerly Side of Business

Sadly, in an effort to become more efficient, many working people have left behind some of the niceties that make the day-to-day grind more bearable.

By Jean Ann Cantore

Getting paid for the job you do is great, but what do you get for a job well done? Burnout is a common ailment among the working public, and its cause may be partly due to feeling unappreciated. Sadly, in an effort to become more efficient, many working people have left behind some of the niceties that make the day-to-day grind more bearable.

Another reason business manners have fallen by the wayside is that the workplace has become a more relaxed environment. With so many organizations trying to promote a friendly, homey atmosphere for their employees, it's no wonder people often feel right at home in their offices. The downside to being too comfortable at work is that co-workers often forget their professional manners.

"We are afraid of too many manners," observes Ann Chadwell Humphries, owner of Eticon Inc. Etiquette Consultants for Business, a Columbia, S.C., company specializing in etiquette and image training. "Too many manners are viewed as stiff or superficial and dishonest. Rules about which fork to use to eat fish ARE superficial, but who deals in fish forks? Manners are about appreciation."

Common Courtesy

"Manners are a general polish and attitude," explains Nancy Prochaska, professor of management communications at Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Ga. "The ability of people to perform and move up in a company is partially based on whether or not others like them and are comfortable with them."

Although manners may seem to have been a lost art in recent years, people are beginning to rediscover the value of being cordial. In fact, sales of etiquette books and courses are at an all-time high. People are concerned with the impression they make on others—especially in business dealings.

Most jobs are deadline-driven, which means people need to be punctual in getting to work and meetings as well as in completing projects. Basics such as paying attention to what others have to say, respecting privacy and being honest all make the workplace more pleasant. However, simply being nice to your co-workers also can yield good results. Employees often expend all their energies being nice to customers or people outside the workplace, but being courteous to co-workers is perhaps an even more valuable investment.

"I know a woman who runs a large company that sells franchises across the country," Prochaska explains. "She looks upon her employees as 'hidden customers.' She has to keep her franchisees happy so they in turn can keep the customers happy. To keep good people, you have to be good to them."

But just putting on a happy face and saying "thanks" isn't enough. Sincerity is a key component of graciousness. "Compliment people for one thing at a time," Humphries advises. "When you praise people for multiple things, it sounds like groveling." On the other hand, manners should not be used to manipulate others either. It's fine to ask your assistant politely to make copies for you, for example, but don't act as if she's doing you a huge favor—she's just doing her job.

Another aspect of manners is giving credit where it's due. "People sometimes pass on blame and take credit, but it's important to pass on credit," Prochaska says. Unfortunately, the best praise people receive often is behind their backs An individual may not hear that her customers think she has a nice telephone personality, but if her boss hears such praise, he should tell her.

Offering encouragement is a sideline to giving credit where it's due. Humphries recalls how a pat on the back strengthened the working relationships in one company. When Coleman Research of Charleston, S.C., first began using total quality management (TQM), team leader Bessie Simmons wasn't sure how successful they were. "When Bessie's boss, Worth Roberts, saw her sitting at her desk, shaking her head, he knew she was worried about the new program. 'Bessie, you are doing extraordinarily well,' Worth said. 'We're moving along so much better than I ever expected!'" Humphries recalls. "Other people would just have said, 'Oh, it's going fine.' Bessie's boss was vigilant enough to answer her concerns sympathetically. It was obvious he understood how she felt."

Personal Touches

People often overlook the value of simply saying "please" and "thank you." "Uttering these words costs nothing," Prochaska says. "People seem to soak them up—they're hungry for legitimate praise." There are times when actions speak louder than words, but gift-giving doesn't have to be extravagant to be appreciated.

Gifts of food are a good way to express gratitude to co-workers because they're neither too personal nor too costly, plus, they can be shared. The electronic age has made is easy to show appreciation. A quick telephone call, voice mail message or e-mail note can be enough to acknowledge someone's hard work, but there are times when nothing but a handwritten personal note will do.

"Jackie Onassis always went out of her way to write personal thank you notes for parties, but she did not just write 'thank you'—she also commented on things at the party, such as the flowers and the music," says Laura Lopata, owner of the New York City company Accent on Image.

For people who are not good with words, many companies, including Hallmark Cards Inc., have created greeting cards for the workplace. Hallmark's "Out of the Blue" line features office-appropriate messages such as "When work got crazy and I needed to vent... thanks for the ear you so kindly lent."

Electronic Manners

It's one thing to be able to stand up and shake hands with a client or co-worker at the beginning of a meeting. But what happens when you can't even see each other while you conduct business? Technology has made it easy for people to hold meetings while they're across the country from each other. Although the face-to-face interaction may be missing from such interactions, they still can be handled courteously and effectively.

"A business is often judged by how its employees use the telephone. Sometimes the only contact the public ever has with a company is a telephone call, so anyone answering the phone or placing a call contributes to that company's image," states The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. Telephone courtesy also applies to calls within a company.

Many companies hold meetings via telephone conference calls. When more than one party need to talk to people in another location, using a speakerphone can be great. However, some people are uncomfortable talking on a speakerphone, knowing that a room full of people on the other end will hear everything they say. For this reason, always make sure everyone participating in such a phone call is agreeable to it. In addition, taking notes and not interrupting each other during the discussion will make the meeting go more efficiently.

E-mail is another common way to communicate in today's office. Whether you are answering a colleague's question about a project or offering instructions for completing a task, remember to keep your e-mail message professional and to the point. If you want to "chat" about something other than business, pick another time to send a message to a colleague—just as you would if you were using the phone. One thing to remember about e-mail is it can be printed out and kept on file, and it also can be forwarded to other parties.

It's almost ironic that in today's high-tech business world, something as traditional as etiquette has made a comeback. But think about it—the world is more pleasant when people are considerate of each other. No one expects Sir Galahad to surface at the office, but wouldn't it be nice if all employees were as courteous as that fabled knight?

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