Business etiquette is more complicated than ever. We now communicate across a thousand different channels, and we’re working with partners and employees all over the world.
It’s a new era.
That’s why now’s a good time to review these important business etiquette rules.
Table of Contents
- The Business Etiquette Rules Every Professional Should Know
- 1. Be on time.
- 2. Knock before entering.
- 3. Stand when meeting someone new.
- 4. Initiate handshakes as host or higher-ranked person.
- 5. Introduce yourself in full.
- 6. When in doubt, introduce others.
- 7. Dress well.
- 8. Use basic manners.
- 9. Don’t swear – at least, not at first.
- 10. Never interrupt.
- 11. Avoid gossip.
- 12. Don’t eavesdrop.
- 13. Greet everyone.
- 14. Express thanks.
- 15. Send a follow-up message after meeting or meeting with someone.
- 16. Turn your phone off.
- 17. Use a professional email address.
- 18. Use names as they’ve been introduced to you.
- 19. Ask for a name if you’ve forgotten it.
- 20. Rely on professional salutations in email.
- 21. Be sure of your email recipients.
- 22. Use caution when pointing at someone.
- 23. Hold the door – but don’t pull out a chair.
- 24. No politics. No religion.
- 25. Order food and drinks like your host.
- 26. Don’t get drunk.
- 27. The host pays.
- 28. Let the leftovers go.
- 29. Be prepared to exit politely.
- 30. Use your instincts.
- The Problem With Setting Business Etiquette Rules
The Business Etiquette Rules Every Professional Should Know
Alright, let’s get to it.
These are the most important business etiquette rules everyone should be following:
1. Be on time.
Punctuality is in.
Being on time isn’t just about proving that you can set an alarm and wake up on time. It’s not just about making sure the meeting can start in a timely manner.
It’s about showing that you respect the other people you’re meeting with. Their time matters just as much as yours, and if you can’t bother to show up on time, they’re going to feel disrespected.
If you’re caught in a bad situation and being late becomes inevitable, acknowledge and apologize for your lateness.
2. Knock before entering.
It was a rule between you and your little brother. It should be a rule between you and your boss too.
Knock before entering a room. If the door’s closed, this should be a no-brainer, but consider giving a friendly knock or two even if the door’s open. It’s a gesture of respect and acceptance of the other person’s privacy.
3. Stand when meeting someone new.
In business, you’re probably going to meet a lot of new people. At least, you will if you’re doing things right. If you’re meeting in person, stand up when meeting someone new. It’s a subtle gesture, but an impactful one.
4. Initiate handshakes as host or higher-ranked person.
Handshakes aren’t always an appropriate form of connection (like, say, if there’s an active pandemic). But they’re likely to remain a staple of professional interactions for many years to come.
The question is, who’s supposed to initiate one?
Generally, the host (the person doing the inviting) should initiate. A higher-ranked person (such as a boss) should also be doing the initiating.
However, you shouldn’t let this stop you from initiating in the absence of someone else’s initiation. If a higher-ranked person or if your host doesn’t reach out to shake your hand, give them another couple of seconds, then reach out with a handshake of your own.
You’ll never been seen as impolite for trying to shake hands. Unless we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, of course.
5. Introduce yourself in full.
Introducing yourself to the group?
Say your full name and do it as clearly as possible – so people aren’t in a position to mishear you. It’s going to make everyone’s lives a bit easier.
6. When in doubt, introduce others.
You know you should introduce two people who don’t know each other.
But what if these people have met before already? Oh God. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing?
The short answer is no. Always err on the side of introducing people. If you’re not sure, go ahead and share names and provide a warm start to the meeting.
7. Dress well.
Okay. Business attire is a category worthy of its own in-depth article. But we’ll cover some basics here.
It’s good etiquette to respect whatever dress code currently applies to you. Figure out the dress expectations not only for your business, but for other businesses you’re likely to interact with. Make sure you look well-prepared, clean, and professional at all times. You can also create merchandise for your company that reflects company spirit.
And if you’re not sure what you’re supposed to wear, err on the side of formality. It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.
8. Use basic manners.
I struggled with whether to include separate points for pieces of advice like, “say ‘excuse me’ when passing someone” or “apologize if you make a mistake.”
But come on. You’re not a caveman.
You know what basic manners are, hopefully, so employ them in a work environment the same way you would in any polite company. Don’t skip “pleases” and “thank you”s.
9. Don’t swear – at least, not at first.
We’re adults. Which means we can say whatever we damn well want.
But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
In some business environments, it’s perfectly acceptable – and sometimes even encouraged – for employees to swear.
But if you’re not absolutely sure of this status, try not to swear at all. Some people see curse words as unprofessional, undignified, or uncouth.
Regardless of how you feel about them, they do have the power to change the dynamic of conversations, so keep them at bay.
10. Never interrupt.
Getting interrupted sucks. You’ve felt it before, so don’t do it to other people.
Not only is it polite to let people finish their points, it also gives you more of an opportunity to listen – which is the ultimate communication skill to master.
The only exceptions here are if there’s an emergency that warrants interruption or if the person has taken the entire meeting hostage with a rant.
11. Avoid gossip.
Did you hear about Angela from accounting?
Well, keep it to yourself.
Gossiping is in bad taste, so if you’re going to say anything about your coworkers when they’re not around, keep it positive and respectful. Don’t speculate or give into rumors.
This is about reducing the propensity for rumors to spread, but even more importantly, it’s about protecting your own image. You don’t want to be seen as someone who talks behind others’ backs; otherwise, you’ll never be trusted again.
12. Don’t eavesdrop.
Speaking of trust, don’t eavesdrop.
If you have a question or want to know more information, be direct and ask.
13. Greet everyone.
You should be greeting everyone you cross, assuming you won’t be interrupting them when doing so. A simple “hello” or “good morning” will instantly win you some favor.
This is especially important in an environment in which you’re unfamiliar – like if you’re going into a new business for a job interview.
Being nice to the receptionist may seem inconsequential, but they may be able to put a good word in for you – or who knows, they may even be one of the people interviewing you.
14. Express thanks.
“Thank you” is a powerful expression. Whenever someone lends you their time, say “thanks.”
You don’t need to bombard people with repetitive thank-yous; usually, one or two is plenty. You can (and often should) follow up with a thank-you message as well, especially if the other person has done you a favor.
15. Send a follow-up message after meeting or meeting with someone.
We were just talking about follow-ups!
Follow-ups are often a good idea. Even if you’re not sending a thank-you note, you can often send a message inviting the other person back to your business, recapping your main points, or reaching out with next steps. It’s a way to close the interaction.
Again, hosts and higher-ups should be the ones initiating these.
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16. Turn your phone off.
It’s 2021. Do I really have to tell you to turn your phone off?
That means not distracting the meeting with your X-men animated series theme song ring tone.
It means not playing Candy Crush during the meeting.
It means not glancing at your phone every time it vibrates to alert you of a new email.
Pay attention. You don’t need your phone to do that.
17. Use a professional email address.
Okay, email@example.com. That was probably a cool email address in 7th grade, but it’s not helping your case that you’re a “consummate professional.”
Keep it simple and professional – and use your name. Refer to this article on professional email address ideas if you need help.
18. Use names as they’ve been introduced to you.
Is that “Charlie” or “Mr. Smith?” Or is it “Charles?”
If possible, use the name the person gave you when introducing themselves. If they said “Hey, I’m Charlie, nice to meet you,” call them Charlie and don’t sweat it.
If you’re not sure what to call someone, stick with a classic “Mr.” or “Ms.” with a last name. It’s hard to offend someone this way.
19. Ask for a name if you’ve forgotten it.
Forgetting someone’s name is to social awkwardness what Michael Myers is to slasher villains.
But seriously. It happens to everyone.
Your best-case scenario at this point is to be direct; just say something like, “I’m so sorry, but I’ve forgotten your name. Can you remind me?” You can even throw in, “This is awkward, but…” to acknowledge the tenseness of the situation.
Unless you’ve been working closely together for years, the other person is likely to understand, sympathize, and happily remind you of their name.
20. Rely on professional salutations in email.
In email, stick to professional salutations unless you know the other person well.
“Dear Mr. Smith,” is always going to look better than, “Heyyyyy Chuck, whatsup!”
Check out this list of top email greetings for help.
21. Be sure of your email recipients.
Sending an email to someone you didn’t intend can be awkward, rude, and – seriously – a security threat in some cases.
22. Use caution when pointing at someone.
It’s a simple gesture, but pointing can often be construed as rude.
If you need to gesture to something (or someone) in the room, consider gesturing with an open hand, or using two fingers instead of one.
23. Hold the door – but don’t pull out a chair.
It pays to be nice!
Feel free to hold the door for other people (as long as you don’t make a clumsy rush to do it in an effort to look good) and make other gestures of simple kindness.
However, you’ll want to draw the line before pulling out chairs for people; going overboard can raise eyebrows.
24. No politics. No religion.
Talk about fishing. Talk about sports. Talk about just about whatever – as long as it’s not about politics or religion.
These are hot-button issues that can easily conjure resentment and spite if you disagree. Don’t bring up topics even slightly related to these areas, and if someone else brings them up, remain neutral and try to change the subject.
25. Order food and drinks like your host.
Going out to eat?
Pay attention to what your host or boss is ordering – and follow suit.
Don’t order something significantly more expensive than them, and don’t order alcoholic beverages if no one else is drinking.
26. Don’t get drunk.
In many cases, drinking with colleagues and clients isn’t just allowed – it’s celebrated. That’s perfectly fine, but whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to become drunk.
Know your personal limits, and don’t drink more than you can reasonably handle (even if there’s peer pressure to do so).
You need to be in total control at all times.
27. The host pays.
Generally speaking, the host should be the one paying for meals, drinks, etc. The host is the person doing the inviting.
However, there are cases where you’ll want to offer even if you’re not the one doing the inviting.
What’s important is that you don’t enter a battle over the check; if someone else offers to pay, don’t contest them unless you have a very good reason for doing so.
28. Let the leftovers go.
In the United States, we waste about 80 billion pounds of food every year. That’s why, under usual circumstances, I get a doggy bag for my leftover food at restaurants.
But in a business environment? This can be seen as tacky and might be burdensome to carry around if you’re going somewhere else together. Just let those leftovers go.
29. Be prepared to exit politely.
When it’s time to leave, make a closing statement like, “thank you for your time,” or “I hope to meet again sometime soon.”
Be sure to say goodbye to everyone you met with, and to other people you cross on your way out the door.
30. Use your instincts.
These business etiquette rules certainly don’t cover every possible situation – there are plenty of gaps you’ll have to navigate for yourself. There are also a great many situations where these tips may work against you – and in fact, it’s better to do the opposite of what they suggest.
Don’t panic. When in doubt, just think about the situation critically and trust your best instincts. If you have good intentions and you’re trying your best, most people will give you the benefit of the doubt – even if you don’t follow the rules perfectly.
The Problem With Setting Business Etiquette Rules
Depending on the context of the situation, many factors can influence whether business etiquette rules remain the same, change slightly, or are completely abandoned.
- Company culture and values. Different companies are going to have different etiquette rules. What flies at a casual, young startup may make a horrible impression on an old-school bureaucratic company.
- Broader cultural context. Your Midwest accounting business is going to expect different business etiquette than a Chinese manufacturing plant. Different cultures have different values – don’t forget that when dealing with professionals in other countries or other industries.
- Personal demeanor and affect. Sometimes, the way you carry yourself can completely change how you’re perceived. It’s a lot easier to get away with a slightly risqué joke in a sharp suit than a dirty tank top.
- Higher-ranking, senior businesspeople tend to set the tone for a given social interaction. The more authority you wield, the more you can push the envelope. If you’re a total newcomer, you need to put yourself at the mercy of those around you.
- Existing relationships. After establishing personal rapport with someone, you can get a sense for their own etiquette standards – and change your behavior accordingly.
Wait, where are you going?
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.