When it comes to dealing with business etiquette and professionalism, many people underestimate the importance of these elements in developing a successful working career. While you may think or hope that the quality of the work you produce will be sufficient, the vast majority of professional work will require some business etiquette and professionalism. Even as many industries become more dependent on technology, frequently resulting in limited social interaction in many positions or companies, it is still absolutely necessary to know how to interact with others in a professional and appropriate way.
Our society perpetuates the belief that our professional life is a reflection of who we are as a person; consequently, it may be difficult to separate your emotions from good judgment. What is most important to remember is that the information offered here is to help you become a more professional individual, strengthening your career. The standards of etiquette and professionalism are constantly changing. While some elements remain constant, others change and develop over time. This is not necessarily a reflection that what came before was wrong, as much as it is an appreciation that we can, and should, seek out better and better ways to be.
Although business etiquette and professionalism are not necessarily always the same, they are extremely closely related. Business etiquette typically refers to common standards of politeness and representing not only yourself, but your employer, when interacting with others. Alternatively, professionalism focuses on more substantive issues of personal accountability and an adherence to business standards, as well as personal integrity. Even an individual who works full time from home translating documents, and almost never speaks with anyone else in a professional capacity, still has standards of professionalism to which they are expected to adhere. So while most successful professionals have mastered business etiquette, it is vital that all workers practice professionalism.
Saying things like "please" and "thank you" should be second nature to anyone working in a professional capacity. Personal hygiene practices such as bathing regularly and practicing basic oral health care should also be old hat by now; if not, Emily Post's Etiquette is an excellent resource for helping you establish these basic habits.
Although the term has become somewhat negative due to a backlash against its popularity, one of the first things to understand about business etiquette and professionalism is that it is extremely important to practice political correctness. This should not ever mean that you cannot calmly and rationally discuss pertinent information that may have issues of sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, and so on. Rather it is crucial that you know how to discuss these issues when they are relevant, as well as how to determine when they are or are not relevant.
Over time, you may have noticed terms that are used have a tendency to change in regard to what is considered appropriate. For example, in the United States, "Negro" replaced the n-word and "blackie." Then "Negro" was replaced by "colored," which was then replaced by "black" and/or "African-American." However, as most members of this race currently living in the U.S. were born in the U.S., "African-American" became inaccurate, as that would technically refer to someone from Africa who relocated to America. At present, however, it is still commonly used, as is "black." There has, however, been an upsurge of "people of color," which usually refers to blacks, as well as Latinos, Indians, and other races and/or ethnicities that are not Caucasian or white.
It's important to note that this example does not indicate it is pointless to keep up with PC terms, though some people may think that. Instead, it is representative of the fact that language is a dynamic force that impacts society, and is impacted by society. These terms have evolved on the basis of two key points: accuracy and prejudice. As the United States has worked to minimize, and hopefully someday abolish, racism, terms that are used capture and reflect these different stages of our society's prejudices towards people of color. So over time, as each term comes to represent a certain level of prejudice, some new terms are developed and used for people to demonstrate a lessening of prejudice. Once you understand this issue, it should become obvious that the language we use is incredibly important. Consequently, it should also help you understand why someone may interpret certain terms in a negative way, or assume that you represent some level of prejudice when you use certain terms. Alternately, this should clearly indicate why - whether or not you agree with this argument - it is better for your professional career to utilize politically correct terms and attitudes.
It is also worth noting that whether or not your place of business utilizes or eschews politically correct terms, it is better to be in the habit of using them and to be thought of as "too" proper, than it is not to use them and be considered a bigot. Remember that you are unlikely to spend your entire career with the exact same co-workers, bosses, and clients or customers, so it is critical to your professional success to act professionally.
Of course, race is not the only issue when it comes to being politically correct (aka professional). All people should be treated with respect, even if you don't like them. By using words that are charged with racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, size discrimination, disability prejudice, and so on, you leave yourself open to the possibility of not only losing the respect of people you work with and/or for, but even losing your job and your professional reputation. The vast majority of the time, before these issues are even brought into a discussion, they are irrelevant. Certain behaviors should be policy, regardless of what categories the person who violates the policy fits into.
When it comes to being professional and developing a safe, healthy work environment where prejudice and bigotry will not be tolerated, this may -- or may not -- be up to the boss. Depending on the state (or country) where you live, your boss (or you, if you are the boss) may have legal protection to deny services to clients or customers based on their personal characteristics. This has been, and continues to be, a hot button topic, particularly with regard to sexual preference and orientation. Virtually all businesses in the United States are required by law to act fairly when it comes to employing individuals based on their race, ethnicity, religion, and so on. However, as sexual orientation and gender identity have become more prominently considered in our society, some businesses have chosen to deny services or sales to people who identify with and/or behave as homosexual, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersexual, and so on. Because these characteristics are generally understood to be an inherent quality a person is born with, many people believe that these individuals should be protected by law, just as someone of a minority race would be protected.
If you are ever employed by a company or individual who asks or requires you to behave in a way you believe to be unjust and illegal, report that employer to the proper authorities. If your boss asks you to do something that is legally accepted, but you find it to be morally repugnant or wrong, you have to make the best decision for your needs and your personal and professional integrity. It is not unprofessional to report illegal behavior. In fact, professionals hold themselves to a high ethical standard and should expect the same from others, particularly if illegal actions are taking place. Nor is it unprofessional to refuse to treat someone with prejudice simply because your boss may have the legal grounds to do so. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily protect your job, (though it will protect your integrity to do so).
Once an individual is working within a company -- from their very first job, to their retirement -- it is absolutely imperative that they use business etiquette and professionalism to build relationships both within and outside of their own company. This article will focus on organizational culture, as well as professional treatment of others, whether they are within your company, or may be other professionals, clients, and customers.
Organizational culture and office politics
The first thing you must understand is that each individual company has its own organizational culture. Just as every other avenue of culture has its own customs and expectations, so has a business. Formal policies and procedures are typically defined and communicated through the use of manuals, rule books, procedural outlines, and so on. Of course, official policies and procedures are only one aspect of the organizational culture. To further complicate the issue, many official policies and procedures may not actually be practiced at all. Navigating the maze is complex and fraught with danger, so whenever possible, try to find at least one individual at the company who is a respected and established member of the staff who can act as your mentor and guide through this process. In addition to this individual (or more, if you can get more), this article will help provide background on commonly accepted rules of the game.
First, thoroughly read any manuals or documents provided by your employer. Ask questions, if you have them. Respect that there are likely to be some things you don't understand, or that you need further clarification on, so suck up your pride and ask questions. Even if you are sure that you do understand, it's a good idea to ask a few questions, simply to demonstrate your commitment to understanding and operating as a member of the team. If someone tries to clarify or answer a question using jargon with which you are not familiar, get clarification on those terms. Everyone started out at the beginning at some point, so they should understand that you need a little help.
As you continue your employment, there will be times when you notice that some of the information provided to you is unclear. A common example is dress codes: What counts as a body piercing? What counts as an extreme accessory? How short is "too short?" Oftentimes, there may not be a clear and objective answer. You may be able to get an employer to define an objective answer for some things, while others will remain subjective and may require more specificity in order to determine if any given element is acceptable or not. Along the same lines, you will undoubtedly find there are some rules or policies that are not followed. It may seem arbitrary why some rules are considered important and others are not; unfortunately, it is wise to wait until your position in the company is more secure before you start making waves.
There is one critical rule you must understand about policies that are frequently ignored: They are often only ignored when the employee is in the boss's good grace. In other words, no one may care that you spend an hour-and-a-half at lunch two or three days a week, until you get in trouble for something else; all of a sudden, breaking the lunch policy becomes relevant. Consequently, it is best to follow the policies as closely as humanly possible to further secure your employment. This may not always seem like the fun thing to do, but it is the professional (and smart) thing to do.
Outside of policies and procedures, there remains the "unwritten rules." These usually incorporate the social norms by which the businesses run and employees interact with each other. Although it is an unfortunate comparison, organizational culture and office politics tend to operate a lot like high school. There are usually some employees who are "brown noses" and suck up to the boss. There are also often times power plays occurring that may be professional, or personal, or both. Put simply, there tends to be popular and unpopular employees, slackers and overachievers, those who fit in, and those who stand out. Navigating this virtual minefield is not for the faint of heart and the path you take should be determined by your personality and your career goals. The best approach to this particular circus is to get the lay of the land, examine the culture from an objective viewpoint, and then navigate through it as an adult. This means no tantrums, no backbiting, no lying or cheating, and generally remembering that you are an adult working in a profession, rather than a teenager in high school, regardless of how many people around you forget that.
For example, generally speaking, it is unwise and unnecessary to "tattle" on those who are violating policies unless you are their supervisor or they are behaving unethically, illegally, or in a way that puts the safety of others at risk. This obviously varies from company to company and is part of each individual business's organizational culture.
It may be naive to hope that you can completely stay out of the office politics. If you have ambition, you may sometimes have to do things you'd rather not do, instead hoping that the quality of your work will speak for itself. The likelihood of your success with that approach depends primarily on whether your supervisor and everyone straight up the chain is able to behave professionally, rather than engaging in a high school mentality.
Now, assuming you have learned how to navigate the organizational culture in which you find yourself or, in an ideal world, you are actually working exclusively with people who behave professionally, that doesn't mean everything comes up roses; but it does give you a better shot at being successful. One important thing is to understand that every individual within your company is operating both as an organizational culture, in addition to operating as an individual. We all have different skill sets, habits, preferences, and so forth. Although it may not be necessary for you to cater to the individual needs and desires of every person at your company, it can't hurt to try. In these situations, basic business etiquette can go a very long way. Speak to absolutely everyone with whom you interact with respect. Even if an individual's job is to cut a check that you need to purchase something, ask them politely to do so and thank them for their efforts, especially if they are having to do it outside of their regular process.
Saying "please" and "thank you" can go a tremendously long way toward developing professional business relationships. If your boss pops their head into your office and asks you to do something, conclude the conversation by thanking him or her. These basic habits help demonstrate that you have respect for the work that others do. This extends beyond your relationship with your supervisor. Demonstrate the same level of respect with your peers and your subordinates. If you ask someone to do something that falls outside of their job description, it should be delivered politely and appreciated when fulfilled, not something that you achieve by threatening them, or holding your position or power over their heads. You will destroy your professional reputation by treating others poorly; in many ways, all industries can become very small worlds and the way you treat people will rapidly become public knowledge. Even when you are dealing with a subordinate or peer who is out of line, operate from a place of professionalism, rather then emotion. Always, always, always remember that those with whom you work are people first and employees second.
Of course, this doesn't apply only to the people with whom you work at your company. Dealing with other professionals (in any capacity, or at any level) requires the same finesse. Of course, these individuals are just as likely as your own co-workers to evoke periods of frustration, or even moments of anger. It doesn't matter - you engage with them professionally and politely. If a supervisor (yours or theirs) is necessary, stop and get one, but do so politely. There is always a way to respond politely and professionally, even when someone is out of control or being incredibly rude to you. The same applies to clients, customers, patients, or whatever you want to call the people you serve. Everyone who interacts with members of the public knows what it is like to be harassed, cussed at, threatened, and generally treated horribly -- but professional response is always the best choice.
It is important to understand that there is a difference between responding in a professional way and behaving like a doormat. No one, in any profession, deserves to be abused or to have a boss or supervisor who expects them to accept abuse, whether that abuse comes from within or outside of the company. If a client or customer is dissatisfied, and begins yelling and cursing at you on the phone, politely ask them to stop speaking to you in that manner and you would be more than happy to help them. If they stop what they're doing and make an effort to return to a place of reason, treat the incident as though it never occurred and attempt to meet their needs. However, if they continue to harass you and will not calm down, inform them that you are going to disconnect the phone call, invite them to call back when they are prepared to speak with you calmly, and hang up. In this example, you are behaving professionally and demonstrating excellent business etiquette, while also appreciating that you should be treated with respect, as well.