Now that you have established the basic rules of professionalism with regard to interacting with others, let's look at specific topics that frequently come up while building professional relationships.
Small talk, chitchat, shooting the breeze - whatever you want to call it -- idle conversation actually serves an important purpose and function in our lives, both personally and professionally. Of course, the way that we approach this topic personally should be very different from how we approach it professionally. There are a number of things to consider any time that small talk may be necessary or natural:
- Consider the person to whom you're talking. Not everyone has the same boundaries as everyone else. If the person you're talking to shares more about themselves than you would normally do, that's okay. You may feel mildly uncomfortable, but as long as they are sharing their information (and not necessarily asking for the same level of disclosure from you), treat it as a "no harm, no foul" difference of personality. However, it is wise to be conservative in the amount of information you share personally. There are almost always going to be situations where you have a limited knowledge of the experiences, thoughts, and expectations of the person with whom you're talking, so it is better to keep the conversation light and impersonal. You don't want to make the other person uncomfortable, you don't want to share something that could come back to bite you, and you don't want to provide any fodder for office gossip or tattling to the boss.
- It is also very important not to put the person with whom you're speaking on the spot with a question that could be uncomfortably personal. Questions regarding race, nationality, sexual preference, religion, political beliefs, and so on, are not only deeply personal, but could potentially prompt a disclosure of information that might be negative for the person with whom you are conversing. While you may feel comfortable asking if someone has a boyfriend or girlfriend, they may not feel comfortable answering that question, either based on their own feelings on the subject, or the likely response based on the organizational culture in which they are operating. Put simply, you don't want to virtually "out" someone, or make them feel on the spot.
- Consider others who are within earshot. If you're speaking with a co-worker, a client, or anyone else with whom you share a close relationship, and are comfortable discussing virtually any topic, remember that not everyone in the room may be as comfortable with it as you are. Even if the personal conversation seems to relate to your profession or industry, don't assume that everyone still extends that knowledge or principles or behaviors to their personal life. If you work for Child Protective Services, for example, doesn't mean that everyone in the room is comfortable learning about your own experience as an abused child, especially during a time of chitchat, rather then team-building, or for educational purposes.
- Consider the potential benefit. When contemplating small talk, and feeling as though it is better not to share anything personal with others to prevent slips of the tongue, remember that small talk does serve an important social function. By sharing some information about your personal life, you are able to establish a rapport with the person with whom you're speaking, strengthen professional relationships, and overall establish yourself as someone people can respect, like, and trust. You simply need to put some thought in ahead of time and have your "go-to" topics that provide some personal information without prompting an uncomfortable result.
One of the most commonly asked questions regarding business etiquette relates to written communication. The fact is, there is no one right way to write a business letter. It doesn't really matter that much if you put the contact information on the top left of the page or the top right of the page. It doesn't matter if the date is in the middle of the page. It doesn't even really matter if the text has a justified alignment (although it does give a nice polished look). The pertinent rules of business etiquette and professionalism with regard to written communication are as follows:
- Don't make assumptions. You were told not to make assumptions during resume submission; don't start making assumptions now. Address your letter as appropriately as possible.
- Thank the recipient for their time. Particularly in a letter (as opposed to a memo), it is important that you demonstrates your appreciation for the time and consideration they are giving to you.
- Always address and sign the letter. Whether a typed letter or an email, direct your message to the appropriate person. When a letter goes in a file, or an email gets passed around, it can rapidly become confusing if everyone isn't clear on who the letter was meant for and who the letter was from.
- Make a direct request, if what you want is a specific action. No one in the business world has the time to pussyfoot around, so be direct. Certainly, include a nicety or acknowledge something positive, but then get to the point and ask for what you want.
- Include prior correspondence, if necessary. With email, follow up messages, forwards, and other uses of information means that it can sometimes be tricky or confusing so include previous messages, as appropriate.
- Use your "carbon copy," "blind carbon copy," and "reply all" buttons with care. It is appropriate to carbon copy an individual's supervisor, for example, if you are making a request outside of your normal dealings with the original recipient. But unless someone requests otherwise, they probably don't need to be copied on perfectly normal everyday correspondence. Similarly, using a blind copy can make a person feel betrayed, or as though you were being secretive or manipulative; this doesn't mean it's always a bad choice, it simply means that you should make careful decisions as to when to use it. The "reply all" button has been known to literally shut down servers when used irresponsibly; it also really annoys co-workers who absolutely don't need to know your individual response to a question, for example.
- Appreciate that written communication does not always convey the same tone or context that verbal communication can convey. Consequently, sarcasm (which is always unprofessional), as well as dry humor, almost never goes over well. A lack of niceties can make a message seemed abrupt or rude. Most of your communication, especially via email or instant messenger, can be brief, if it is directed toward someone with whom you communicate on a daily basis. But if it is likely to become a bigger conversation involving other co-workers or supervisors, put an extra minute or two into the message and add a compliment or pleasing phrase.
Some of the people with whom you interact within your professional capacity may not only be a member of a different organizational culture, but may be of an entirely different general culture as well.
Technology has really enabled people all around the world to form business relationships with each other. Of course, if the general culture of one country is significantly different than another, it stands to reason that the organizational culture of a particular business is going to be significantly different, as well. In this way, you have to understand you are looking at both general culture rules, as well as individual organizational rules. The upside of using technology to engage with these other cultures is that it limits how many of their cultural norms you need to be aware of. Put simply, you don't have to worry about eating customs, shaking hands, and other physical activities. Rather, it is important that you understand how they would interact via phone, email, and video chat, such as Skype.
When dealing with concepts of business etiquette and professionalism, there are likely to be times when you have to interact not only with your co-workers and those in other companies or industries, or even with your customers or clients, but also in groups that represent a variety of these types of people. How you treat the person in the next cubicle will be different from how you treat a supplier at another company, which will be different from how you treat an individual who walks into your store; all of these will be different than how you treat a mix of these same individuals. While respect is still the ultimate rule, these types of situations do require a certain level of finesse.
Any number of networking events you attend will be ones wherein you are there as a representative of only yourself (although you may be representing yourself on multiple levels). Other times, you may find yourself at networking events representing your company, your boss, your clients, or your cause. The truth is that at virtually any networking opportunity, you will find a wide range of people who represent a wide range of backgrounds and innumerable different perspectives. There are a few things you can do to successfully navigate these tricky waters:
Just as you wouldn't want to potentially embarrass another professional who was sitting in your office, you don't want to create an uncomfortable situation for anyone at a networking function. If your company is hosting the event, you want to behave like a gracious host and ensure the comfort of your guests. If you are not hosting the event, you want to behave like a gracious guest, which means respecting not only your hosts, but also the other guests. Be polite, be professional, and do not broach any topics that could mean potential disaster.
· Be prepared to introduce yourself. Most business professionals are familiar with what is termed "the elevator speech" - a 10- to 30-second introduction to who you are and what you do that would be able to be shared with someone in the span of time it takes for an elevator to arrive at your destination floor. If you're at a professional networking event representing a company, you should integrate what your company does into your elevator speech. Of course, most times that you deliver your speech, it will actually be less of a speech and more of a brief conversation; but if you have prepared your bullet points, so to speak, you will be prepared to comfortably express to someone what you and your company are about. Alternatively, if you're in a networking function as a representative of yourself, depending on the type of function, you may want to integrate some personal information. For example, at a job fair, you'll want to make a couple of points about your experience and education, whereas, at the opening of an art gallery, you will want to know how to explain your artistic aesthetic in a sentence or two.
· Ask people about themselves. Networking functions are designed to provide opportunities to interact with other professionals; even if you prefer not to be social, if you have to be there, you may as well get some benefit out of it. In fact, if you don't like to talk, asking someone about themselves or their work is a great tactic, because they are likely to do the lion's share of the talking. Moreover, even if you're uncomfortable in social situations, it's important to remember that it's rude not to show an interest in someone else, especially if they have shown an interest in you. Of course, this interest is in a purely professional way.
· Hopefully, it should go without saying that at any networking opportunity, you need to behave as professionally as you would during normal work hours at a normal work function. If someone with whom you interact is out of line, sexually aggressive, rude or dismissive, or in any other way offensive or abusive, excuse yourself from the situation, but try to avoid causing a scene (unless, of course, it's a safety issue). Then, at an appropriate time, let your supervisor know what occurred if you were acting in a professional capacity at the event, or if you were interacting with someone of prominence, or who interacts with your company, even if you are at the event as an individual.
· Of course, some networking opportunities are not exactly the same as being at a work meeting. Depending on the setting, it may be appropriate to dress differently, such as at a cocktail hour, or even to have a drink at the event. However, if you want to ensure that you stay professional, limit yourself to one or two drinks as your system allows; never drink enough that you become tipsy or are in any way incapacitated or unsafe to drive.
· Lastly, if you attend a conference, all of these same rules apply. Although many people behave questionably at conferences, be professional enough not to do so, and courteous enough not to point out when someone else makes unprofessional decisions.
Networking isn't the only time that you may interact with people from many different companies, or on many different levels. Multidisciplinary teams or coalitions are becoming more and more common, particularly in certain industries. Likewise, any meeting you attend may have a wide variety of other attendees, even if it occurs at your regular place of work. Wherever a meeting might occur, and regardless of who is or isn't there, there are certain standards of etiquette and professionalism you should uphold:
· Separate yourself from your cell phone, tablet, or any other device. Obviously, you may have to reference your calendar for a reason, or perhaps you are on call. In these cases, make sure the ringer is off and the phone is out of sight. Someone who is constantly checking their phone, no matter how valid the reason, is treating others at that meeting with disrespect.
· When hosting a meeting, have a written agenda that is handed out to those attending. It is helpful for attendees to know what will be discussed, and in what order, so that if there is any reason they may have to step out, they can choose the best time to do so. Also, if they are unable to stay for the entire meeting, they have a reference guide as to what was being discussed; they can hopefully get the information from you or from another attendee at some point in the future.
· Stay on topic. Whether you're hosting the meeting or simply participating in a discussion, staying on the topic at hand. If there is a Q&A session, you can ask your questions then. If you have a concern or topic to discuss, ask the host ahead of time if it can be added to the agenda. If not, see that it is added to the next meeting's agenda, or speak privately with the individuals directly involved.
· Follow up any meeting with appropriate emails, as necessary. If a decision is made that affects the way you do your job, check back with the person requesting the change to ensure that your understanding is the same as their understanding. This is particularly necessary if your supervisor was not present at the meeting. Likewise, if you're counting on other people to do something you asked of them at a meeting, follow the request up with an email confirming their agreement and reminding them of any due dates or other necessary information.
Any time you are dealing with members of the public, other businesses, other professionals, and sometimes even within your own company, confidentiality is extremely important. Violating confidentiality is one of the most unprofessional things anyone can do. This type of issue can easily get you fired, ruin your professional reputation, and in some cases completely end your career.
Depending on your individual field, standards of confidentiality can vary widely. In some cases, confidentiality refers primarily to any kind of trade secrets, while in other situations it is primarily a matter of protecting someone's personal information. This kind of information can vary from a birth date or social security number, to medical records or illegal activities. Most people know that attorneys, doctors, and religious leaders keep information confidential, but they may not be aware or the number of other professionals who keep tremendously important information confidential: social workers, bank tellers, security alarm system personnel, postal carriers, and countless others also keep all of our secrets, every day.
Confidentiality isn't always a cut and dried issue either. While most professionals are held to certain policies regarding confidentiality, sometimes the choice to divulge or not to divulge certain information is tricky. When in doubt, the professional decision to maintain a client, co-worker, or business confidentiality may need to be made by a supervisor when there's not a clear and correct choice. If you are the supervisor, your responsibility is to follow the law first, follow the company's policies second, and make the best decision you can when the answer is still unclear.