Job Hunting

Why Manners Matter

Is etiquette important to your career? Only if you plan on having one.
Lisa YoonNovember 11, 2002

You turned in a superstar resume, aced all the interviews, and left behind a throng of bedazzled headhunters, HR managers, and board members — all hoping you can start on Monday as their new finance chief. Now you have a dinner date with your prospective employer’s chief executive.

Think the job offer’s in the bag? Not quite. You might consider brushing up on your table manners first.

Though statistics are hard to come by, experts in executive etiquette say business has been up in the past several years. They attribute a number of reasons for the increased interest in etiquette, from the need for cultural awareness brought on by globalization to a younger generation of executives who grew up without an emphasis on manners.

Stories abound about business deals that fell through or job opportunities that were lost because of etiquette ignorance. Apparently, they’re not just urban myths. Sue Fox, head of Los Gatos, Calif.-based consultancy Etiquette Survival and co-author of Business Etiquette for Dummies, recalls a phone call from the a software company CEO who wanted to sign his company up for her services. Earlier, he had declined her pitch for his business, but after rejecting a candidate for a senior-executive position because of his raised-by-wolves table manners, he changed his mind.

The highly qualified candidate, who was this close to getting the job, violated even the most basic of table manners, including talking with his mouth full. “He had salad dressing on his chin the whole time, and he didn’t even know!” Fox marvels.

Sound picayune? Hardly. “It made the CEO realize, ‘Would we want to put these people like this front of clients?’” Fox explains. In fact, Fox says many chief executives will not hire senior executives without having a meal with them first.

Top executives are often the most sorely in need of some table manners — but telling them so is itself a study in tact. “People get offended,” says Fox.

What’s more, because of their success and high position, a C-level executive’s ego can get in the way. Says Judy Bowman of Boston-based Protocol Consultants International” “I think some people have a mentality that their expertise exempts them” from minding the finer — or even basic — points of etiquette.

Managers who want to get promoted within their own company are not off the hook from cramming for charm school, either. And among senior managers, those vying for the CFO spot might benefit more than others from brushing up on their p’s and q’s. “CFOs are often not out-going,” notes Fox. “If finance people want to be promoted, they need to work on people skills.”

The etiquette expert recalls the promotion to CFO of a finance executive at a large computer manufacturer. “She was brilliant, but not pulled together,” Fox recalls. “She often wore jeans and sweatshirts.”

When the executive was promoted to CFO, she was sent to a kind of executive finishing school, where she was trained to speak publicly and dress executive-style. “When they announced her appointment and she made her first public presentation, no one could believe the change — it was miraculous.”

An Etiquette Primer

  • When hosting a business dinner, prepare as much as possible before the event. Pay the bill before dinner, and have any receipts faxed to the office.
  • Master your handshake. The web of each person’s thumb must meet. Clasp the person’s entire palm, make eye contact, and smile.
  • At conferences, wear your name tag on your right shoulder. This will place the name tag in the line of sight of the person shaking your hand, providing a discreet reference for those who forget your name. (You, of course, never forget names.)
  • When meeting international colleagues, bear in mind the country or region’s prevailing business-card etiquette. Have cards printed in English on one side and the host’s native language on the other. Present your card with your host’s language facing up.
  • In Asian countries, accept a business card with both hands. Upon receiving it, study the card, and thank the giver. Place the card gingerly in a card holder or brief case. Do not stuff it in your pocket. In China, business cards should be printed in black or gold ink.