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Mind Your Manners

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Politeness pays off by boosting productivity — and the bottom line.

Though corporate America hasn’t paid much attention to manners, that’s starting to change. More companies are sending employees to etiquette training, and universities such as MIT have added "good deportment" to its business curriculum.

Chalk it up partly to a growing global economy. Besides being fierce competitors, the Japanese are incredibly polite. They believe good manners impact the bottom line.

American businesses are just beginning to recognize this. Whether your company is high-tech or low-tech, good manners indicate self-control — you’re willing to control your behavior for the benefit of others.

The polite payoff: Good manners promote a better corporate culture — one that reduces employee turnover and increases productivity. It’s also an investment in respect — others will regard you more highly, and you’ll like yourself better.

Since executives function like parents, it’s crucial they set a good example. An arrogant boss who makes sexist or racist comments can set off a domino effect among employees. If he isn’t considerate, why should they be?

Some common managerial mistakes:

  • Being late for meetings.
  • Forgetting names or correct titles.
  • Mistreating your staff and administrative people. ("Please" and "thank you" have amazing impact.)

Think you don’t have time to be polite? Actually you don’t have time not to. Rude behavior can alienate employees and customers — and it takes time and energy to clean up after those messes.

Granted, everyone is late on occasion, but chronic tardiness is just like saying: "My time is more important than yours." Ditto for looking at your watch, staring out the window when others are talking or interrupting them constantly.

Entertaining: At home, you may get away with stuffing a napkin in your shirt and shoveling food into your mouth while talking, but that behavior will backfire in business entertainment situations.

And etiquette is not merely a matter of knowing which fork to pick up. If you’re hosting a dinner, check to see if guests have special needs. Example: Visitors from India would be insulted if you served them beef, as cows are sacred in their country. Think like a Boy Scout and be prepared.

Personal appearance is an extension of etiquette. That includes how you dress, sit and walk. If you’re gracious in behavior, but have lint all over your shirt, you’re still sending the wrong message.

High-Tech Twists

Technology introduces the need for some new rules.

Cell phones. There’s a time and place for cell phones, but if you’re in a social situation, leave it at home. Or, at least, get one with a vibrating function, so the ringer doesn’t disturb others.

If you’re expecting an important call, tell your companions. When the call comes, excuse yourself and seek a quiet alcove. Do not remain at the table. Like whiny children, cell phones should be taken outside.

E-mail: Be careful what you write. You don’t know where the e-mail will end up.

Acknowledge e-mail within 24 hours. Even though you may not have the requested information, let the sender know that the message arrived and when you’ll get back with details. If you’re out of town, set your auto-response function.

Don’t inflame (writing in all capitals); that’s like yelling at someone. Do write something in the subject line; it’s helpful when people receive numerous e-mails.

It’s okay to send greeting cards via e-mail, but not a sympathy card. Likewise, don’t thank someone for a job interview through e-mail. It’s more meaningful to type or write a note.

Remember: Etiquette boils down to making other people feel comfortable and respecting their differences.

Writer: TJ Becker interviewed Sue Fox, founder of Etiquette Survival, a training and consulting firm in Los Gatos, Calif. Fox is the author of "Etiquette for Dummies" (IDG Books Worldwide, February 2000) and "Business Etiquette for Dummies" to be released this fall. She also writes a weekly column for OfficeClick.com. Contact Fox by e-mail at: info@etiquettesurvival.com

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