You only have to look at the race for the presidency of the United States and realize that manners are coming in dead last in our society. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the average Joe at work doesn’t always practice the best business etiquette. The question is, are there new rules for manners, and what is the current definition of rudeness? In today’s age, we make plans and cancel them with the ease of a text. If someone doesn’t show for a meeting, is she being rude or do we excuse the behavior with, “Oh, she must be busy”?
Last week, something a client said got my immediate attention. They were passing on the candidate we presented for a director of digital position because she was rude.
“Rude? What do you mean?”
“Well,” said the client, “she answered our questions with questions, and she took over the meeting.”
This brings up a notion — perhaps manners aren’t universal. It’s akin to cultural correctness. In some societies, we eat with our hands. Many of us were brought up to wait until everyone is served before eating. In the case of my client and the “rude” candidate, I’m not convinced that she was behaving rudely. However, I do believe that she was not a cultural fit for my client’s work environment.
Manners in our corporate culture look different today. For instance, in yesteryears, people were always properly “suited” up for work. In tech communities and offices throughout the country, employees dress more and more like they are going to a concert, in jeans and T-shirts, and my personal favorite, flip-flops. The casual work environment, where people play foosball and ping-pong and enjoy free food, all provided by a company that encourages and celebrates innovation, is becoming the norm. As formality falls away in the digital age, perhaps it can be difficult to figure out how to behave, what’s acceptable, what’s culturally polite. Do formal manners and considerate politeness have a place? Or am I a hopeless romantic and a bit old fashioned?
I believe that when you are working with others, in your team or with your clients and vendors, manners not only have a place, but they play a powerful role in business. The small behaviors that indicate respect and kindness make a huge difference in how the people around you feel.
I asked Patrick Lafferty, CEO of North America at BBH, a creative agency, about client behaviors that are unacceptable and the protocol. Lafferty commented, “I don’t accept bad behavior and ill-mannered people within my organization, and when clients are rude to my folks, I have to address the issue. It’s one thing when our clients are being tough, demanding, putting pressure on people, but when it crosses a line and someone is being rude…my guys don’t get paid enough to be abused by folks. So, there is a point when I absolutely have to say something, and I will do that in a respectful manner — one on one with the person. My goal is not to embarrass them, my goal is to fix the situation.”
Consider, for example, being late. When someone is late for a meeting, what’s the underlying message that you are sending? Are you telling those who are waiting that their time is less important. Of course, there is always New York’s famous MTA delays and Chicago’s bumper to bumper traffic, but a person who is repeatedly late is insulting the people around them. It’s also all too easy today to cancel on people at the last minute by simply texting, “Something has come up.”
Recently we had a candidate cancel a phone interview within 10 minutes of the meeting. We advised the client to cut the candidate because unless it’s an emergency, which he should have stated, there is no excuse to cancel in the last minutes. Of course, we are only human and mistakes happen. Lafferty told me that he tries to remind people on a regular basis “to think of positive intent.” Just because they are a no-show doesn’t mean “their intention was to blow off the meeting.” Laffterty said, “Sometimes we put things on the calendar in the wrong time.” He admitted that it happened to him awhile back.
Putting aside mistakes, and of course they do happen, regarding corporate culture manner, what if your company has official working hours and your employees are consistently sauntering in after start time, are they respecti ng your culture? Do they even consider it rude to show up late?
I reached out to Ning Gao-Condon, SVP of strategy and client services at iQuanti, a digital marketing agency, to inquire about corporate manners and if they are important to her agency’s culture. “I don’t think we ever had a company-wide formal conversation about it. However, I think our unique culture is at the heart of a lot of things we do. If I look into the client surveys over the past few years, one thing that’s always on the top of the list is that we’re very easy to work with, we’re good people.” As a leadership team, Gao-Condon goes on to say, “How we behave, around our team, around our clients, carries down to every project and every team. It’s completely recognized and noticed by our clients.”
Twenty years ago, many of the behaviors we use to consider as good manners were gender-specific, such as holding a door open, standing up when a woman enters the room, or paying for her meal. I know that when a client visits my company and walks into our conference room, we welcome him or her and offer to fetch a cup of coffee or tea or glass of water. If you’re anything like me, when walking through a door, it is polite to hold the door open for the next person, regardless of gender or age. If you go out for a meal, the most senior person should pay, or the vendor should pay, or if you are with business peers everyone should offer to chip in. Anything else is just tactless.
During the interviewing process, I usually advise my clients to take the final candidate(s) out to eat or for a drink, I call this phase of the process, “Do they pass the drink test?” I think it’s important to know how they treat the wait staff and if they have table manners. Observe the person if they start eating before your meal arrives or they wait until everyone is served to show respect for the fact that you are sharing a meal together. Saying thank you or sending a small thank-you note when someone has spent time with you or has done a favor for you goes a long way in establishing relationship.
In the end, it does not matter what role you are in, treating the people around you with respect — through your manners — makes a positive impression and will earn you respect. Behaving rudely and disrespecting others with your behavior may not impact whether you are the boss or if someone buys from you, but it does change what people privately think about you, and over time, whether they want to work with you again in the future.