Business Etiquette 101: How to Do the Right Thing at the Office

If you’ve just joined a company, perhaps starting a new position or on a temp-to-hire basis, it’s hard to know exactly what is acceptable behavior in the office. Additionally, rules of business etiquette evolve over time, with some going completely out of vogue — like starting a letter with “Dear Sir.”

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If confused or hesitant about a certain policy or practice, it never hurts to ask your supervisor or manager. But, in general, you’ll do well to pattern your workday life by following the Golden Rule. With a few tweaks relevant to modern technology, here are some common business etiquette guidelines you should consider.

Extend courtesy in communications

Respond to phone calls and emails within 24 hours, even if only to say you will be following up with requested information, advises Columbia University’s Center for Career Education. Also, ask before putting someone on speakerphone, and never type in an email anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. Additionally, with regard to email, think about who is included on distribution lists. Not everyone needs to be apprised on all aspects of every project. “If someone on the chain might not appreciate a barrage of emails, leave them off and only send updates when necessary,” suggests Business Insider.

Back off the distractions

There’s a common misperception in the workplace that you have to multitask to be efficient and productive. Even though smartphones make it convenient to track emails, texts and alerts from just about anywhere, it’s poor form to check your device during meetings or during in-person conversations. Pay attention and avoid distraction by keeping your eyes focused on the speaker or meeting partner.

Keep conference calls on track

Have you noticed that virtual meetings tend to start late, without full participation from all attendees? To a certain extent, that’s understandable, particularly when people are juggling other meetings or calling in during breaks in business travel. Nonetheless, it’s best to connect a few minutes early — especially if you’re the host — to help keep the proceedings on schedule. If you know that you’re going to be delayed, send an email to the group so other attendees know your status.

Respect boundaries

Offices set up with open workspaces or cubicles may seem to indicate that workers can be interrupted at any time. After all, that type of design is intended to increase employee interaction. However, you shouldn’t be tempted to barge in another’s area, explains career consultant Vicky Oliver. “Announce yourself by saying ‘excuse me’ or ‘knock-knock’ and pause before entering,” she says. “Try to approach from within your colleague’s sight line.” Another good habit is to call or email in advance and ask if you can drop by at the appointed time.

Make your point without pointing

Hand gestures can be effective when emphasizing important elements of a business presentation, but they can send the wrong message when used incorrectly. “Point with an open palm, and keep your fingers together,” writes author Barbara Pachter in her book The Essentials of Business Etiquette. “If you point with your index finger, it appears aggressive.” She notes that women have a tendency to point more often than men.

Double your thanks

“At the end of a meeting, business meal or [other] interaction, verbally thank the person with whom you met,” recommends the Emily Post Institute. Reinforce your appreciation by sending a personal note the next day. A handwritten note can have powerful impact, adds business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, who maintains that email lacks the effect of a carefully composed letter. Writing a personal note boosts your visibility and forces you to focus on the intended message before committing it to paper.

Click here to learn more about the do’s and don’ts of office culture.

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