As a millennial, I know that plenty of the work advice I was given growing up is outdated now, and I also know that school didn’t really prep me for work like that guidance counselor said it would. I think it’s hard to say things apply to every job because the business world has gotten so very diverse in office culture that it’s just not possible anymore, but there are a few corporate etiquette rules that I always follow, and they’ve served me well in a variety of industries.
Seriously, this is my number one pet peeve. Do not be late. Ever. Don’t be late to work, don’t be late to a meeting. Show up early. Show up really early. When I work in an office setting, I tend to show up at least half an hour before I have to be there and then read in my car for a bit. Once, I had a job interview, and I was running some errands before it, so I left extra time. So much extra time that I ended up being an hour and a half early. I picked up some Starbucks and chilled around the corner. Then I pulled into their parking lot 20 minutes early, killed time for another 10 minutes, and walked through their door 10 minutes before my interview. They’d seen me park – they knew I was there. Showing up so early showed that I took the interview seriously, waiting to walk in showed I respected their schedule. But if you plan to be just on time or only a little early, you will be late. You will hit traffic, or run low on gas, or something, and you will be late. Or you’ll walk in on time, having forgotten something important. Plan to be early, take a moment to gather yourself, and walk in 10 minutes before you have to be somewhere.
If you’re working from home, the same rule applies. Have everything you need ready to go before your start time, and begin just a minute or two ahead of time. It makes a huge impression on your supervisor – and gives you some leverage if lunch runs a bit long one day.
Make Small Talk.
I’m not great at small talk, particularly with strangers. In general, I find it annoying and a waste of time. Do it anyway. The reason is twofold. One, small talk can help build a connection to the other party, which can lead to smoother interactions. Ask how their weekend was before you tell them what you need them to do. If you pass by in the break room, ask how their day is going or what book they’re reading. It’s quick and can make work just a bit easier. The second reason is it can be useful. I don’t know how many times I slide into my normal small talk, and the other person (clients, particularly) say something that I need to know that may not have come up otherwise. Small talk isn’t just questions, though. You also need to have some canned answers. You don’t ever want to be controversial at work, so having a series of pre-prepared answers that you can just whip out is good. “How was your weekend?” Good, I went to the Saturday Market and spent way too much money *self-deprecating chuckle*. ~or~ It was fine, I was just really lazy all weekend. I strongly recommend you include the self-deprecating remark. Everyone thinks they spent too much or was lazy, so it’s automatically bonding.
That small talk, those connections, can also lead to new opportunities. If one client remembers you as always being friendly, they may want to hire you at their own business. A coworker who enjoys working with you may take you with them to bigger and better things when they move to their next role.
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Do A Proper Handshake.
Eye contact, firm grip. It’s not that hard. I favor two pumps, as one is abrupt and three seems like overkill. I really don’t know why it is, but a good handshake can gain you a lot of respect. Use it when you meet people, and when you say goodbye – and always thank them for their time.
Update: Post-COVID, handshakes are a bit more taboo. You still should know how to do a good one, but keep a little bottle of hand sanitizer in your bag and read the room. Don’t be offended if they want to forego physical contact.
Don’t interrupt people and listen to what they’re saying. When they finish a thought, wait a second or two before speaking. This gives them time to continue if they only intended to take a breath, gives you a moment to gather your thoughts, and, if you’re negotiating, puts a bit of pressure on them to give you a better deal. When you do respond, use active listening to make them feel heard – just summarize what they just said, and then add onto it. Seriously, if you stay quiet, you can get really far. People should always be waiting to hear what you say next, not wondering when you’ll shut up.
Use Proper English.
I am not a very formal person, so I use slang when I’m talking to friends and family, but in a professional setting, never. Whip out everything you learned in English class, and make sure you speak properly. This goes for emails, too. Avoid acronyms, make sure you use proper punctuation, and proofread everything you type. It makes you look smarter.
Follow The Chain Of Command.
If you have questions or complaints, follow the chain of command. It’s rude to skip to the top when someone on a lower rung could handle it. When I was an executive assistant, I could go straight to upper management, but often I worked with the lower-level managers. This also means don’t skip people, even if you can. Again, I was working for the top dog, and I could have authorized plenty on my own, but it’s better to avoid stepping on toes. Ask the person lowest on the totem pole who has the required authority and only move up the ladder if they refuse your request. If you have a complaint about a coworker or company policy, you could go straight to HR, but your supervisor will appreciate you going to them first.
Another benefit to this – the bottom is where stuff gets done. In most offices, there is no one more valuable than the receptionist, the assistants, and the worker bees. Make friends with them!
Underpromise and Overpromise.
Contradicting statements, right? My rule of thumb is underpromise on specifics, overpromise on generalities. Can you solve this problem? Absolutely, I’ll have it taken care of right away, it isn’t an issue at all. Can you learn this program? Yes, I can, despite the fact I’ve never done anything like this before. How will you solve this problem? Well, I can make x happen, and possibly y, but z…I can see, but there’s pretty much no chance. (Then you make z happen.) Overpromising on generalities is a go-getter attitude, and is seen as efficient and hard-working. Underpromising on specifics makes it look like you went above and beyond. I’ve used this in every job I have held, and it’s never failed me.
Meeting Agendas Are Gold.
Most business meeting etiquette is covered in other sections, but there’s one tip that will make you stand out. So often, people forget about meeting agendas. It’s a lovely little paper (or email) that you send/receive in advance that tells you what topics will be covered at the meeting. That’s it, they are just that simple. But here’s the thing – you can prepare. If you’re hosting the meeting, sending one of these out, lets people prepare in advance, which means the meeting will be more efficient, and also helps you avoid getting off topic, which, again, efficient. And if you receive one, actually use it. Read what will be happening in the meeting, do your research on the topic, and write a few questions in advance. On that note, take notes during the meeting, and if you hosted the meeting, email the notes to all attendees afterward as follow-up. Doing so shows you were listening and ensures no one missed anything.
Details show that you’re on top of things or that you’re a mess. If you’re having a video meeting, make sure the area behind you is clear and neat. If you’re ordering lunch for a meeting, make sure you consider any dietary restrictions (I generally made sure I had at least two vegetarian meals, and two things that were gluten free). Keep dossiers on people you work with (that sounds stalker-ish, but you have no idea how handy it is to know someone’s coffee order, or that they have three kids). If you’re handing in a report, put it in a binder or report cover first. These are all small details, but they build your reputation.
Are there any of these that you disagree with? Did I miss something important? Let me know in the comments!