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The rules of business etiquette have changed: How to avoid a blunder

Lately, I've had a few business lunches and I noticed something on a regular basis: people have their cellphones out during lunch. They even pick them up while in the middle of a conversation and answer a text or surf the web. I might have been offended in the past, but it just seems so normal today.

The rules of business etiquette are changing. 

Today, in my Miami Herald column, I was able to take my etiquette questions to Miss Manners, whose real name is Judith Martin. I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you consider rude in the modern workplace.

In business, manners still matter


Etiquette and Protocol Consultant Maryline Coirin runs the Miami Protocol Centre. Coirin says it's bad etiquette to have your phone on the table during a business lunch.
Etiquette and Protocol Consultant Maryline Coirin runs the Miami Protocol Centre. Coirin says it's bad etiquette to have your phone on the table during a business lunch. AL DIAZ/MIAMI HERALD STAFF



While recently lunching with lawyers, I noticed that some mobile devices were out on the table. It prompted me to raise an etiquette question to the attorneys: Is it bad manners to keep your cellphone out during lunch or completely acceptable?

Today’s workplace etiquette is tricky, and most of us still are trying to figure out the rules. Between relaxed dress codes, use of technology and blurred boundaries, navigating the crucial distinctions between professional and social courtesies has become complicated.

Once I put the question out there, each of the lawyers chimed in with differing views. Some cited possible family emergencies as a reason to keep the phone in sight; others cited client expectations of quick response. Overall, the consensus was that putting your cell on the table and checking it during the meal is acceptable when lunching with colleagues or friends, not with clients or potential customers.

“Workplace etiquette does change and adjust,” says nationally syndicated etiquette columnist Judith Martin, also known as Miss Manners. Martin has partnered with her son, Nicholas Ivor Martin, to help us navigate the new workplace etiquette pitfalls in her new book, Miss Manners Minds Your Business. They will appear at the Miami Book Fair International on Sunday.

“Today, some of the etiquette rules are different. Others just are disobeyed more flagrantly,” she explained to me.

Because the rules change over time, many of us don’t intend to offend. Yet, there are high costs with even seemingly inconsequential actions: Our etiquette breaches create bad impressions with clients, ruin job prospects or cause us setbacks in our careers.

Young workers often step into a minefield on the job after years of parents and teachers encouraging them to “be themselves,” Martin explains. At work, they might interpret that to mean posting their emotions on social networks, neglecting to wash the coffee pot or writing an email in text speak. “When entering the business world, you need to learn to be someone else. It is called having a professional identity,” she says.

For all workers, staying professional even as the workplace becomes more casual requires reading cues. You don’t want to address the boss by his first name if the rest of the staff calls him Mr. Smith. Marc Cenedella, CEO and founder of TheLadders.com, an online marketplace for $100,000-plus jobs, warns that in every office – even those with a collegial culture — there exists an invisible line between professional and unprofessional behavior. A survey by TheLadders.com found managers often draw the line at cussing at work, wearing revealing clothing and having repeated loud personal conversations. A Ladders survey found 36 percent of U.S. bosses have issued a formal warning, and 6 percent have fired an employee for swearing, deeming a foul mouth the most punishable of all workplace faux pas.

Most workers will confirm that the big slips that create most resentment arise from our being more distracted than ever by technology. Leslie Harris says she was aghast when her physician took a call on his cellphone while examining her. “I could hear the conversation and I’m pretty sure he was speaking to a friend,” says Harris, a marketing executive. She since has found another physician.

Of course, the smartphone addict typically doesn’t think he or she is being rude by staring at a screen or zipping off an email during a team meeting or one-on-one interaction, and may actually consider himself being responsive to customers’ needs in real time.

Miss Manners says that’s no excuse: “Not paying attention to human beings who are there to be with you is rude.” Sometimes, prefacing a meeting by announcing you are expecting an urgent call helps buffer the interpretation of bad manners. Regardless, she says, “You are sending the message that the person or people you are with are not worth your attention.”

In a survey conducted earlier this year, 64 percent of 1,718 chief information officers said higher use of mobile gadgets has led to more breaches in workplace etiquette over the last three years. That’s up from 51 percent who said the same thing in a survey conducted three years ago by Robert Half Finance & Accounting staffing firm.

In a business setting, if you can’t give others your full attention, don’t go to the meeting or shut your door, Martin advises. Greenberg Traurig business litigator Michele Stocker recently found a client upset when she didn’t answer repeated calls on her cell in a two-hour span. Stocker explained that it would be bad manners to not give the client she was with her full attention during a legal proceeding. “When I ask, ‘how would you like it if I took a call during a meeting with you?’ they admitted they would be offended and said that I made a fair point.”

Most of us strive to be responsive, but we are entitled to a peaceful private life. That may mean delaying an email response or returning a call. Answering in up to 24 hours is acceptable, etiquette experts say.

Maryline Coirin, a Miami business etiquette consultant, says most of the questions she gets involve dining. Even today, the old business luncheon still is an expected part of a successful professional life — and rife with land mines. “When you sit down at the dining table, everything you do is being judged,” she says.

If you salt your food before you taste it, you could be viewed as impulsive. If you hold your wine glass by the stem, you would be considered well cultured, Coirin explains. In agreement with Miss Manners, Coirin says one of the most important dining etiquette rules is to keep your phone in your pocket or purse, even if you are just peeking at the time. “During a meal, it has no business being out or on the table,” she convincingly asserts.

When confronting a colleague about an etiquette blunder, ask him or her to view the actions from other people’s perspective, suggest experts.

“Were you aware that your loud personal conversations are distracting your co-workers?” You might even suggest other ways of handling a situation.

Experts say most workers don’t intentionally want to be rude to their co-workers and office hierarchies typically reward those who use common courtesy. Martin says she sees a positive in the evolution of etiquette: “Tolerance for bad behavior has disappeared.”


 Click here to find out about Miss Manner's appearance at the Miami Book Fair International