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10 Simple Rules of Corporate Etiquette

I am writing this post in an airplane about 30,000 feet above someplace between Detroit and Tampa on my way to a three-day Internet of Things conference. As a senior leader, much of my time is spent at trade shows and conferences and the bad behavior I see at these events never ceases to amaze me.  In fact, as I think back over my career, I have witnessed innumerable examples of over-the-top behavior that I never expected to see outside of an HR training video. I have personally, or through very close friends, witnessed examples of illicit drug use, inappropriate relationships between executives and their employees/customers/peers, walking in on people watching pornography at work, employees getting blackmailed by prostitutes, etc. I used to think the examples in HR training videos were a bit much, now they seem tame by comparison. For each of the examples listed above, I can probably provide 10 examples of less extreme (but still inappropriate) actions I have witnessed ranging from off color comments to acute drunkenness.

The purpose of this post is to outline some basics of corporate etiquette. I can assure you that these rules will seem obvious (and they should) but I am noting them because they are broken on a near daily basis.

1. Don’t get drunk in a work setting…EVER.

This includes customer dinners, company picnics, trade shows, casual drinks with co-workers, company parties, etc. It’s okay to have a drink or two, but even being mildly inebriated is a no-no. Last week we had a customer dinner for three people who were driving that evening back from Montreal to Ottawa and stated they didn’t want to drink much as they had to drive.  One of the Sales Directors from my company didn’t seem to care: he ordered shots (that nobody wanted) and multiple bottles of wine. He didn’t seem to notice (or care) that he was having 2-3 drinks for every drink the customer was having. By 6:30 (dinner started at 5:00) the Sales Director was “slurring his speech” drunk. I had to personally apologize to the customers and had a long discussion with the Sales VP about his employees behavior. If you want to drink, fine–just do it on your own time. DO NOT GET DRUNK IN A COMPANY SETTING–PERIOD.

2. Nobody cares about your politics.

I am a very political person. In fact, I was an intern in the US Senate when I was an undergraduate and am heavily engaged and involved in local politics. However, I NEVER talk politics at work. Why? Because it can only lead to an argument. Especially avoid politics around customers.

3. Your compensation is confidential…for a reason.

In the US, people tend not to talk about their compensation as it is considered impolite. In Canada (where I currently work) I am learning that talking about your pay is a national past time. I understand it is like this in other companies as well. Why should you not do this? Let me explain: assume you work for me and during your annual review I say, “Great work this year! Because of your great work I am giving you a 20% raise!” A 20% raise? Who wouldn’t want that, right? You are much better off and you should be happy. Now, however, let’s assume two weeks go by and you find out that everyone else on the team got a 30% raise. Guess what? Now you feel like you were cheated and you want a 30% raise too! You went from being happy and better off to being annoyed and feeling cheated. This is how it is whenever you talk compensation with your coworkers: the only outcome is that at least one of you will go from being happy to unhappy. Compensation is very complicated and is based on individual contribution, time in position, market conditions, etc. Trust me, just keep it confidential.

4. Avoid even remotely off-color humor or statements.

If you read the newspaper you will likely see lots of stories about people protesting some college speaker, Halloween costumes, some off-color comment by a public figure, etc. People are becoming more sensitive to everything, it seems. Yes, I strongly believe in the freedom of speech, but speech is not protected at work. Avoid even potentially offensive comments around race, religion, gender, politics, etc. Diversity is sacred in the corporate world and professionalism is a must, so avoid these topics like the plague. Remember, it’s not what you say but how it is perceived that is important. We live in an era of delicate snowflakes who take offense at any perceived insult–I don’t like it either, but it’s not going away, so be professional about it.

5. Focus on the customers!

I can’t tell you the number of trade shows and customer dinners I attend where the people at my company cluster together and talk to themselves instead of engaging with customers. As you know from my prior posts, the concept of being customer-centric is critical to success in the corporate world, so if you get an opportunity to spend time with customers, use it wisely! You can connect with you co-workers whenever you want, so ensure customers become your number one priority.

6. Dinner etiquette

By this I don’t mean how you hold your knife (Continental vs. American), if you want that kind of information get a good etiquette book (seriously, the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Etiquette is quite good). What I want to focus on is the basics of a “formal” customer dinner:

– If you are the host, get appetizers, salad, entrée, dessert.

– DO NOT start eating until everyone’s food has arrived.

– Pace yourself so that you finish eating roughly at the same time as customers.

– Learn about wine. If you don’t know about wine, defer to the customer to order the wine.

– Try not to talk business until after the main course has arrived (ideally after it is finished).

– Do not rush and do not linger. Respect your customer’s time.

– BONUS POINTS: Call ahead to the restaurant and ask them to print a menu without prices specifically for your table. Give them your credit card in advance so that there is no awkward “payment time” where you have to wait for and sign the bill. Classy, no?

7. Being on time is being “late.”

Show up five minutes early to important events/meetings. Start your meetings on time–no exceptions.

8. Don’t suck up to your superiors.

It’s obvious. I promise.

9. Don’t be a jerk to your direct reports–treat them with dignity and respect.

It’s obvious to your superiors. I promise.

10. Treat the company’s money like it is your own.

If you owned a company and found out your employees were wasting your money, would you be upset? What about if you let a friend stay at your house and they trashed your room, how would you feel? You wouldn’t like it. Yes, large companies can feel extremely large and impersonal, but at the end of the day it is real money owned by real investors. Don’t spend lavishly on corporate travel. Don’t raid the company supply closet for your own use. If you struggle with this concept, I strongly recommend you invest in your own company (buy shares, use the company’s stock purchase plan, profit-sharing, etc.) to make the company “yours.” If you wouldn’t like people stealing from you, then don’t steal from the company.

The rules above are common sense but are worth following as I see them broken on a near daily basis. At the end of the day, etiquette is about respect: respect for you, your employees, your customers and your employer. Following these rules will lead to a culture of respect and you will be a stronger leader for following them.

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