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MIss Manners?

Etiquette in the interview and on the job remain firmly in vogue.

By Jean Ann Cantore

Gone are the days of curtsying or bowing when you meet people, but basic etiquette in the workplace remains important. Advisers say niceties such as saying “please” and “thank you” and using good table manners will never go out of style.

“The more cordial the workplace is, the easier it is to get the job done,” comments Dan Guaglianone, corporate director of university relations and recruiting for Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa. “Everyone is part of a team in today’s workplace. In an office and in meetings, interpersonal skills are very important.”

The Golden Rule of treating others the way you’d like to be treated serves one well in the business world. People will respond to you better if you’re pleasant to be around, and showing respect for your co-workers will encourage them to treat you the same way. When co-workers are considerate of each other, the workplace is a more pleasant place to be. Most people spend more time with their co-workers than with their families, so it makes sense to create an environment at work where people are comfortable.

First Impressions

Professional etiquette should become part of your life even before your first day on the job.

Think of a job interview as a dress rehearsal for a play. During the interview, prospective employers get a chance to see how you look and act in a business situation. From this short encounter, they will have a pretty good idea of how you would behave in a day-to-day office setting.

“A job interview is probably the most important place to display professionalism,” notes Eric J. Irick, manager of engineering for Adhesive Services Co. in Houston. “This is where the employer sizes up candidates, seeing not only if they have the proper qualifications, but also their demeanor, manner and personality. Employers are interested in whether or not candidates will fit into the existing social environment at the office. Etiquette plays a large role in the interview—poor manners can end the candidate’s chances of obtaining a particular position.”

Although most people recognize the importance of using good manners in a business situation, it’s easy to forget the basics when you get nervous. “In general, the important things are those that we should have learned as kids—‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous,’” explains Russ Oechsel, director of staffing and the Equal Employment Opportunity Valuing All People Program at Conoco in Houston. “Those are common courtesies we tend to forget.”

The most noticeable faux pas include being late or not showing up for an interview. “Punctuality jumps to the forefront for me,” Guaglianone adds. “When students come out of school, they may be used to being late for class, but a recruiter on campus may have thirteen 30-minute interviews in one day, so every minute counts. I have seen interview candidates be late and not be very apologetic. That sort of behavior leads an interviewer to think, ‘Is this person always late?’”

Also important is being prepared. Not being knowledgeable about the company tells a recruiter that you’re not really interested in working there. It’s smart to do a little homework before your interview—at least visit the company Web site. That way, you don’t waste your time or the interviewer’s by asking questions that you could find the answers to yourself.

Not paying attention to the interviewer can also cost you points. Fidgeting, playing with your pencil or bouncing your legs are distractions for the interviewer and may give the impression that you lack self-confidence. “One guy I interviewed kept staring out the window,” Irick notes. “I wondered if there was a fire out there that I’d missed!”

Using common sense in an interview setting is also wise. For example, it’s inappropriate to ask about salary unless the interviewer brings it up to you. Even if the topic comes up, an initial job interview is not the time to offer a counter-proposal.

“You wouldn’t want to ask nuts-and-bolts types of questions about topics such as transfer assistance in an initial job interview,” Oechsel says. On the other hand, it would be fine to inquire in general about a company’s various locations or obvious benefits, such as the company cafeteria.

Once the interview is over, you can complement a good impression by sending the recruiter a thank you letter. The letter doesn’t have to be long; it just needs to express your appreciation to the person who took time to talk to you. If the recruiter spent extra time with you, took you to dinner or gave you a tour of the company facility, mention it.

Dressing the Part

Some offices require employees to wear traditional business attire, while others allow people to wear jeans or shorts. When you’re hired to work at a company, you will probably go through an orientation session during which you’ll learn about the company’s dress code. You can also take cues from how people were dressed when you went in for the job interview.

It’s best to wear what you would wear on your first day of work to a job interview. If you’re unsure of what to wear when interviewing for engineering positions, stick with business attire—jackets, slacks and ties for men, and a jacket and skirt or dress for women.

Good grooming involves more than wearing nice clothes. Clean, combed hair is important for both men and women. Your fingernails should be clean. Jewelry needs to be kept to a minimum, as does perfume or cologne. Revealing clothing or clothing that is too tight, torn or missing buttons are definite taboos, and scuffed shoes won’t help your image.

For women, cosmetics should enhance your appearance but not be distracting. For men, facial hair can pose a problem. “A lot of older interviewers don’t like beards and goatees,” Irick advises. “Find out who your interviewer will be and go from there.”

Dinner Dates

Business lunches or dinners are common in corporate America. Whether you’re having a meeting with your boss over lunch or trying to win a new business account by entertaining clients at dinner, good table manners will come in handy. You frequently have a chance to put those manners to use when you interview for a job. Some companies routinely take candidates out to eat as a courtesy and to see how they conduct themselves in a more formal setting.

“People are willing to overlook the fact that you used the wrong fork at dinner if you’re polite and courteous,” Guaglianone says. “It’s always a good choice to avoid alcohol. Also, when looking at the menu, don’t pick the most expensive thing—pick something you’re comfortable eating. If you’re unsure of what to order, follow the lead of your host. Ask what he or she would recommend.”

If a recruiter takes you to dinner, that person will pick up the tab. It’s unnecessary to offer to pay for the meal, but be sure to thank your host. Also, when you write your host a thank you note for the interview, specifically thank the person for taking you out to eat.

There are books and even training courses that can help you learn which utensil goes with which course, as well as the finer points of dining. Although you may be knowledgeable about table manners, a little review can make you feel more confident about business meals. However, common sense should rule when you eat dinner with a prospective employer, a colleague or a client. Foods that are messy to eat, such as spaghetti or crab legs, are not good choices for business meals. Also, “Don’t eat faster than anyone else at the table,” Irick says. “It’s bad form.”


The basic rules of behavior for life in general also apply at the office. For example, no one enjoys being the topic of office gossip. It’s not much fun to be publicly criticized either. And you wouldn’t want someone snooping through your files or desk drawers, would you? Although you want to make friends with your co-workers, be sure to respect their boundaries. Asking personal questions about salary, sexual preferences or other potentially controversial topics is a no-no in any business setting.

“Overstepping authority is one of the most common mistakes people make in the workplace,” Irick says. “The people around you are your co-workers, not peasants or slaves.” It’s especially important for new employees to observe the workings of an office before trying to assert their authority.

Being part of a team means that you have to help others look good. When you promise to meet a deadline, be sure you do, so that your co-workers don’t have to wait for you. Try to return phone calls and answer e-mail messages the same day you receive them. Be careful not to step on anyone’s toes at work by misusing equipment, leaving your work area a mess or not respecting privacy.

Oechsel explains that showing courtesy toward others involves not only interacting well with them, but also being dependable. If you follow through on projects and complete them on time, you will earn a reputation as being responsible. Being discreet by not gossiping about others or sharing private company information will help you to be thought of as trustworthy.

The Bottom Line

Earning a reputation as undependable or rude can harm your career, no doubt. But your behavior can also affect your company. After all, when you work for a company, you are part of the business. When you interview for a job, you are, in essence, auditioning for the role of company representative, and recruiters only want to hire people they feel can make a good impression on others.

“In dealing with clients as well as with suppliers, professionalism and the etiquette that goes along with being a professional affect how these people react to you and the company,” Irick notes. “If a supplier finds you rude or offensive, it may affect his or her dealings with your company. Also, if your etiquette is improper, disrespect creeps in.”

Most people recognize the importance of professional etiquette—they may just need a refresher course in one or two basic points from time to time. “It’s a fundamental item—treat everyone with dignity and respect,” Guaglianone concludes. “Everyone deserves that. Come to work with the attitude, ‘I’m part of a team, and together we’ll win or lose.’”

Contrary to the belief that manners don’t matter at work, employers really do notice nice manners and courtesy; in turn they also make note of bad behavior and lack of proper etiquette. Being polite during a job interview and on the job is as important as performing your duties well.

Jean Ann Cantore is a free-lance writer based in Lubbock, Texas, and the editor of the Texas Techsan magazine.


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