Confusing business etiquette explained
In business as in life, there are certain situations where only common sense is needed to have appropriate etiquette. Anyone with decent judgment should know that it’s never OK to scream profanities at your boss, steal someone else’s lunch from the refrigerator or fall asleep in your cubicle.
Yet there are some etiquette gray areas where right and wrong aren’t always as easily defined. And it’s especially tough to crack these protocol codes when you’re new to the working world or you’ve just joined a company.
In these situations, the first step you should take to better understand your company’s business customs is to ask your manager. “As a success and business coach, I find that having a transparent discussion with your boss at the start of your work avoids many of these uncomfortable situations,” says Laura Lee Rose, owner and certified business/life coach at Rose Coaching.
But you may not always have easy access to your boss, or you may not feel comfortable having these types of discussions with your manager. To help, Rose and other career and etiquette experts weigh in on what actions to take in some of the most confusing business situations.
Leaving work before your boss: If you’re new to a company, you want to prove your commitment and work ethic, and it’s common practice to stay late or at least until your boss leaves. But what if your boss departs at 9 p.m. most nights? Should you be expected to follow suit?
“If it is your regular ending time, and the boss happens to be working late, you should pop by to say goodnight so your boss knows you are gone and did not sneak out,” says Jodi R. R. Smith, president of etiquette consulting company Mannersmith. “If you are able, you should ask if there is anything he/she needs before you leave. If you need to leave before the end of the workday, you should speak with your boss well in advance and include how you will be sure your work is covered. If this is a last minute emergency, you should speak with your boss, apologize for the late notice and include how you will be making up the time.”
Taking/receiving personal phone calls from your desk: “Personal calls can be taken at the desk if you have your own office,” Rose says. “In shared offices or cubes, calls can be distracting for your office mates. It is not only interrupting your work time but your office mates’ day as well. On the other hand, some personal calls cannot be avoided — and often will energize you for higher performance at work.”
Rose suggests keeping personal calls short and to the point. If you know you’ll need extra gabbing time, go into an empty office or conference room. If you can take a quick break, run down to the lobby or into a coffee shop for the call.
Correcting your boss’s error: “This is always tricky, and it really depends on the nature of the error, the quality of the relationship between the employee and the boss and the sensitivity of the moment,” says Chris Bryant, corporate trainer and career coach at Chris Bryant Presents Inc. “If it’s a small inconsequential error, it’s probably best to just leave it alone. However, if it is more significant — and it’s during a presentation or in front of a client — I would recommend passing the boss a note if it can be done discretely.” If that’s not possible, Bryant suggests instead bringing the error to the boss’s attention during a break or immediately after the meeting.
Paying for meals on a business trip: Before going on your first business trip, find out what your company’s policies are for expensing meals, who pays for what, paying for others beyond yourself and any other expense-related situations. Ask your boss, or speak with a human-resources professional who may be able to send you a written policy for reference. “For some companies, the highest-ranking traveler covers the bill; in other companies, the lowest-ranking traveler deals with the administration such as the bill,” Smith says. “It is best, when traveling for the first time with a new company, to ask in advance so that you can be prepared with the corporate credit card and/or cash as needed.”
Sending/accepting a Facebook friend request to/from your boss: “Simply put, follow your boss’s lead,” says Kerri Garbis, business etiquette expert and president of Ovation Communication, a professional skills development firm specializing in communication, presentation and relationship building. “Let your boss make the first move when it comes to contacting you on a more ‘friendly’ form of social media like Facebook. Some people may prefer to keep their Facebook page personal and reserve LinkedIn for business connections.”
According to Garbis, if your boss sends you a request and you’re comfortable accepting, go right ahead. Just be sure to adjust your privacy settings or avoid posting any pictures or updates that might offend your boss or make you look unprofessional. “If you don’t feel comfortable, offer another solution: ‘Thanks for the request, but would you mind meeting me on LinkedIn? I like to keep all of my business communication in one place,’” Garbis says.
Buying candy/cookies from your boss’s children: While you should never feel forced into buying something from your boss’s kids, if you’re able to swing it, Smith suggests developing your own personal policy about office purchases and donations. For instance, you’ll purchase/donate $20 per cause, no matter the circumstance. That way, your co-workers never think you’re favoring one over the other.
Bryant encourages donating to colleagues’ causes whenever possible and sees it as a relationship-building move. “It’s just good business and goes a long way in relationship building to support a co-worker’s kids — and that [is doubly true] for the boss,” Bryant says. “The price of the cookies is relatively low compared to the value of the goodwill that is produced.”
What are some other confusing business situations that you’ve found yourself in? Tell us about them in the comments section.