Business Etiquette

They’re the co-workers everyone dreads – the self-appointed Mr. or Ms. Manners of the office. They’re the staff who wield the office protocol book like a club.

They delight in pointing out the tiniest slipups to colleagues and, of course, to the boss.

While annoying, the office nag is a reality of working life. And in the high-tech offices of today, fodder for this type of employee abounds. There are sloppily written emails to criticize, incoherent voicemails, tardiness, lack of explanation for absences, documents that don’t follow company format – the list goes on. And with a click of the send button, the entire office can know when you’ve been targeted by the office nag.

The office nag uses the slightest of gaffes as ammunition to bad mouth the company or other staff, fire off self-righteous memos to the boss and generally humiliate colleagues. And while there are complex competency-related reasons for why the office nag feels it necessary to show up the mistakes of others (mainly to do with personal insecurities), the result can be an increase in workplace demoralization.

The best defense against the office nag is good business etiquette. Good business manners improve relations, put people at ease, increase a sense of inclusion and help people feel special. Knowing how to create a comfortable business setting not only paves the way for advancement, but can affect the bottom line. People like doing business with polite, interpersonally competent staff.

Here are a few tips to help increase respect, promote considerate behaviour in the workplace and avoid the curse of the office know-it- all.

Use surnames and titles and people’s last names. It may seem old fashioned, but when meeting someone for the first time, use Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Dr., until invited to use the first name. This is especially important over the telephone or when using email. An overly familiar approach can signal disrespect or untrustworthiness. Never ask someone if you can use his or her first name.

Dress for success. Conservative business dress is the safest way to avoid being singled out – negatively. Your attire doesn’t have to be devoid of style but beach or party-wear on casual dress days doesn’t cut it. It is important to find out what your company’s dress code is and follow it. It may be tempting to wear clothes that might land you a modeling gig – but wait for a more fitting occasion if you’re interested in climbing the corporate ladder.

Beware of email. It is NOT confidential. You may as well send a post card for all the privacy it affords. While email feels synonymous with water cooler gossip, it certainly isn’t, and can be used against an employee in legal cases. When composing emails, keep them brief, include a subject in the subject heading and never use capitals. (People feel SHOUTED AT! when they see capital letters in an email.) Re-read your email before sending it as you will be judged on the style, spelling and grammar by the recipient. Make sure any attempts at humour won’t be misinterpreted. Your best bet is to keep sarcasm out of emails altogether. Avoid chain letter emails. Keep business email just that: businesslike.

Provide a polite salutation to begin the first sentence – “Mr. Rose, (or Doug if you are on first name basis) the meeting is confirmed”, or use, “Dear” and the correct title and name. Make sure you have an electronic signature (your boilerplate at the end of an email containing your full name, company, title, and contact information). People tend to be suspicious when receiving apparently anonymous email. Providing all the details is respectful and makes it easier for recipients to reply.

Convey professionalism on the telephone. When using the phone, plan your calls before you make them. Know what questions you would like to ask and the information you wish to impart. Make sure you have all the supporting materials (files, day timer, a copy of the letter you received or sent) on hand before you make the call.

Always ask permission to put someone on a speakerphone and explain why it is necessary. It can intimidate customers or colleagues to find them selves speaking to a room full of people they can’t see. Try not to call people on the first day back from their vacation or at times you know they may be overwhelmed. Be sure to identify yourself, state the reason for your call and ask if the person has time to talk when you reach them.

Let your voicemail pick up calls you can’t take. People would rather leave a message than speak to you if you are distracted, rushed or harried. When leaving a message make it brief, include your phone number and leave details about the purpose of your call.

Return calls promptly according to your industry standard (e.g., real estate agents have a tighter turnaround time on calls than bankers, who have more latitude).

In this day and age, don’t flirt at work. Just don’t. Don’t comment effusively on people’s dress, hair or appearance, stand too close for too long or touch when it’s uncalled for. Don’t engage in sexual innuendo or tease with intimate overtones. Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted sexual attention ranging from unwanted flirting, touching or grabbing, to lewd comments, or, far more seriously, an offer of advancement for sexual favours. Posting sexually graphic material around the office or by email also constitutes harassment. In many offices this is a firing offence.

Employees, even the most socially sophisticated, sometimes slip up. So, when you feel you’ve been inappropriate, apologize immediately. Well-mannered people are good at handling faux pas and they forgive when mistakes are made. But if you make the same mistake routinely you will suffer. Being chronically late, continuing to write rude emails or flirt will cost you. So analyze why you are repeating your mistakes and get help to change.

That will ensure Mr. or Ms. Manners picks on someone other than you.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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