The importance of a firm handshake, solid eye contact and appropriate dress are staples of business etiquette emphasized to most aspiring professionals early in their careers.
In recent years, however, corporate culture has evolved.
Social media is blurring the lines of what is considered proper or acceptable behavior, according to Peter Post, director of The Emily Post Institute and the author of five etiquette books, including “The Etiquette Advantage in Business.”
The underlying principles about business etiquette remain the same, whether it is by text or tweet, Post said.
“A lot of it has to do with the basics of etiquette, which is being respectful and considerate of the people around you, and that hasn’t changed,” Post said. “The way we do some of those things has changed, and that has impacted the workplace.”
The most noticeable change is the myriad ways business professionals communicate or deliver a message.
In many cases, email has replaced the phone call as a method of first contact. Text messages have become acceptable in some instances.
At the July Columbus Young Professionals Network session, Melina Kennedy, director of external communications at Cummins Inc., provided some communications guidelines to a group of about 20 young professionals.
The discussion included tips on professional communication and appropriate etiquette for electronic correspondence, as well as a question-and-answer session.
“It’s really important to have professional courtesy and etiquette whenever you are communicating,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy’s suggestions included asking for permission before putting someone on speakerphone, returning phone calls and emails within 24 hours and verifying accuracy on correspondence.
“These all are two-way, so if you are here to learn about communication and professional etiquette, these are things you should practice, and you would hope also that you are educating others,” Kennedy said. “Some of these things may sound obvious, but they are so important.”
Kennedy’s guidelines and suggestions specific to business emails include re-reading before sending, maintaining professionalism, avoiding angry or emotional emails and remembering to attach documents.
Lauren Burch, director of the MBA Program for the Division of Business at IUPUC, said developing a professional identity is very important in today’s business world and etiquette is a part of that.
“I always tell my students to dress for your next profession, the job you ultimately want, not the one you are in right now,” Burch said. “You are creating a personal and professional brand that is tied to everything you do.”
That brand extends to responsible use of social media, which is considered personal but is increasingly utilized in the business world to gauge professional character.
Post recommends what he calls the bulletin-board rule for social media or email messages.
“If you wouldn’t take the message and put it on a bulletin board, don’t put it in an email, tweet, Instagram or any other form of communication that is or could become public,” Post said. “There are too many cases where an email that was sent as a private message has become public and been very damaging.”
Texts are still not appropriate for a first contact or formal request, but they have become an increasingly popular tool among those with an established business relationship.
The ability to send or receive a short message discretely and without disruption is an attractive option.
“I’m in a meeting, I’ll call you in an hour,” for example, is the type of text many business people have sent or received at some point.
Corporate culture can also vary widely in today’s business world and it is important to remember that what is acceptable in one company may be frowned upon in another.
When visiting a business or meeting someone for the first time, Burch said it is better to select formal when it comes to options such as wardrobe.
“Sometimes layers work well,” Burch said. “Wearing a blazer or sport coat that can easily be removed in a more casual setting is something that often works well.”
LisaMarie Luccioni, an adjunct professor of communication at the University of Cincinnati and an image consultant, teaches a course on business and professional etiquette.
Luccioni, who has appeared on CNN and contributes to Psychology Today, said etiquette and branding should go hand-in-hand.
“The broad definition of branding is that which differentiates you from all others,” Luccioni said. “Visual, verbal and behavioral strategies can all be used strategically to create an impression.”
In an ethnically diverse city such as Columbus, Post said cultural differences also can influence business etiquette guidelines.
“If you live in a multicultural area like Columbus, it’s a good idea to find out what the different norms are of a culture and respect them as you interact,” Post said. “That can go a long way toward building a relationship.”
Post pointed to how the traditional extending of a hand, common courtesy in this country, is considered improper in the Muslim community if the other person is of the opposite sex.
Dietary restrictions and religious or ethnic observances can also create an awkward situation.
Some of the Cummins interns at the Young Professionals event, who are in the United States for the first time, spoke about how cultural differences created uncomfortable situations at work.
In social situations where colleagues were drinking alcohol or eating certain types of foods, they were torn between a desire to fit in and the need to stay true to their culture.
A good rule of thumb is to be aware of the ethnic diversity in your business circle and allow the other party to take the lead in situations where cultural uncertainty exists, Kennedy said.