During an important lunch meeting early in his career, a young man attempted to squeeze lemon juice into his iced tea. Instead, he shot it, with laser-beam accuracy, into the eye of his guest, the chief executive of a top corporation.
While the victim was gracious, the mortified perpetrator of this long-ago faux pas was now clearly on the defensive, and didn't get as much out of the meeting as he had hoped. Still, the damage wasn't long-lasting; the lemon squeezer's career has lasted long enough to write this column. But I never again squeezed a lemon without cupping my hands over the glass.
Gaffes like that don't usually unhinge a career unless they're chronic, but they don't help it, either. Joanne Mahanes, career development coordinator at the University of Virginia's College of Arts and Sciences, tells of a student who lost out on a job offer because he salted his food before tasting it at a lunch interview. The recruiter took this as a sign of hasty decisionmaking, says Mahanes, who also offers table manners training to students and corporate employees.
"In climbing the slippery ladder of success, people have to recognize that they will never get promoted if their bosses and customers don't see them as looking and acting the part," said Ann Marie Sabath, founder of At Ease Inc., a Cincinnati company that offers corporate etiquette training.
Issues of etiquette abound in the workplace, from dining habits to meeting protocol to client relations. And new issues continue to surface. Who, until recently, had heard of "netiquette," the rules of behavior governing use of the Internet? No wonder protocol consultants and business-school courses on manners are proliferating. Here are some of today's etiquette flashpoints:
+ Introductions: Craig McDuffee, a Hewlett-Packard sales manager in Chicago, bemoans the first-name informality that has crept into these all-important moments when first impressions are made. He was brought up to refer to people as "sir" or "ma'am" when introduced, and thinks it's still the best course unless you're invited to use first names. "You get set in a bad light immediately over the introduction process," he said.
+ E-mail: Because it's so easy to type and send, e-mail is ripe for breaches of etiquette, says sociologist Jan Yager, a Stamford, Conn., expert on business etiquette. As e-mail increasingly dominates business correspondence, she says, "the rules of formal writing just aren't being observed." Gender-neutral first names and fuzzy new job titles that don't necessarily convey status create awkwardness. Before clicking that send button, she recommends researching the mail recipient and carefully editing messages. Excessive familiarity and informality are two pitfalls to guard against.
+ Discretion: When Linda Tripp blabbed about what Monica Lewinsky had confided to her, it raised concerns about workplace discretion, particularly among women, who tend to seek closer friendships at work than men do, Yager says. "It's important for women to understand that you don't have to spill your guts to be friends," she said.
+ Dining: Employers complain that young managers reared on microwave meals haven't been trained to dine in polite company. "How many times have you sat at a dinner where no one goes for the bread because they don't know which plate it goes on?" asked Patty Streiner, an account executive with Miller's Office Products in Cincinnati. (It's the plate on your left.)
The old rules for business dining still apply: Don't order the most expensive item, don't start eating before your host, don't drink alcohol _ even at dinner _ and don't order food that's likely to splatter, such as soup or pasta. Mahanes recalls with horror the "exploding cherry tomato" that shot across the table during a business meal and, along with a dollop of vinaigrette, plopped into her boss's lap.
+ Culture: As business goes global, rules of cultural protocol take on ever-increasing importance. Jane Segal, a sales director for Marriott International, knows, for example, that when Japanese businessmen check into a hotel, senior executives must be placed on higher floors than lower-level executives. "They take that very seriously," she said. Likewise, At Ease's Sabath says many Americans keep their hands beneath the table at a meeting or a meal. "In every country other than the U.S., that's very rude," she said.
+ Voice mail: There's no quicker way to irritate. "As someone who gets a lot of voice mail, I really appreciate it when someone has all the information ready for you and leaves it in a concise message," said Miller's Streiner. And don't mumble your name and number.
There's also an etiquette to receiving messages. If you screen calls that you don't intend to return, refer callers to someone else in your message or have someone in your office return the call, advises career coach Nella Barkley of Crystal-Barkley Corp. in New York. "Besides the courtesy, which is appreciated, it's very good business," she said. Also, when leaving instructions for callers, "tell me something," Sabath urged _ such as what time you'll return. "Don't tell me you're unavailable; I'm talking to voice mail, I know that."
Well, that about covers it. If you'll excuse me, I have to go change my voice-mail message.