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Navigating Business Etiquette in a Civilian World

by Heidi Lynn Russell, Contributing Editor

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Corporate Different Than Military Culture Is Culture

“’Etiquette’ is just a fancy word that describes ‘making another person feel at ease and comfortable with you,’” says etiquette expert Vicky Oliver, author of “301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions.”

When it comes to business etiquette, knowing the nuances of corporate America will place you ahead of the pack - not just apart from fellow military veterans who are vying for the same job during the interview process, but also among your future civilian colleagues, she says.

“The main thing for military members to remember is that going into the civilian workplace can be a shock to the system. Corporate culture is different than military culture. Go in prepared for that. During the interview process, you’re going to spend a lot of time about how your background is so similar and how your skills will fit in,” adds Oliver, “But once you’re there, the truth is that it’s going to be very different. Be prepared for it. Know it’s going to take a while to acclimate, and be open to learning during that time.”

We asked Oliver and another etiquette expert, Diane Gottsman, for a primer on workplace politeness. In addition to authoring four job-smart books, Oliver has worked with more than 5,000 professionals who have emailed her for advice on navigating the etiquette of the current business culture. Gottsman is owner of The Protocol School of Texas Inc., a company specializing in executive etiquette and leadership training. She is also author of “Pearls of Polish: A Guide to Social and Business Etiquette.”

Here are their tips to navigate various sticky scenarios:

Names and Titles: This is dicey, Oliver says. “The lines of communication may be a little more ambiguous in a corporate environment than in a military environment,” she says.

For example, someone’s title may not correlate to their position. “The system of alliances in a company can be very mystifying. The receptionist may play golf with the owner, and you’re not going to know that or be able to learn that in the first couple of months,” she says.

Show courtesy to everyone. “If you’re respectful of people and willing to scope out the situation quietly, then you’ll go far,” Oliver says.

Gottsman shies from using “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and notes, “There is no ‘Mrs. - only Ms.” Nowadays, call people by their first names in most situations. “When in doubt, ask the person what they would prefer to be called. Or ask, ‘Would you like to go by Ms. Smith, or should I introduce you as Jane?’” Gottsman says.

“It’s about being relatable. It’s always nice to build relationships and get to know someone, but at the same time, be cautious,” she says.

Job Interview Niceties: Don’t shake hands across the desk. “If you’re reaching to shake a hand, walk to the side of the desk rather than across. Across is a barrier.”

And definitely “turn off the cell phone and put it away. Cell phones are a big common mistake,” Gottsman says. “They should not be visible and not be heard.”

When leaving a job interview, ask for a business card, even if the interview was “atrocious,” Oliver says. “You need it for your follow-up. And, it’s a special thing to hand someone a business card - a bonding moment.”

Send a thank-you letter, which is a follow-up sales tool to get you the job. “Your note has to sound gracious and happy, but take it further by telling them why you want to work there,” Oliver says.

Business Meals: You’re at a client lunch, and another client arrives an hour late, “which happens a lot,” Oliver says. “You’ve decided to go ahead and eat, when the second client comes in. This is typical of very busy people and the corporate life. What do you do?”

Put down your napkin, stand up and shake the person’s hand, no matter how inconvenient it is, and take a break from eating. “Welcome the person and get the waiter over to serve him or her. You have to be flexible about it, even though it’s rude for them to walk in late. Take it in stride,” she says.

Who picks up the tab? “With colleagues, it’s easier to split the tab down the middle, even if it means you’re losing a couple of dollars. If you have eight people, split it eight ways. Who cares if someone has something that is more expensive? It doesn’t matter,” Oliver says.

Gottsman says the only caveat is that if you’ve invited someone to lunch as your guest, you always pick up the tab and the tip. What about if you’re going out to eat with a boss? “I would not assume that the boss is necessarily going to pay for the lunch,” Oliver says. “If it’s considered a business lunch, the question is, can they put in for it? Sometimes they can’t. Just because your boss earns more, don’t assume they will pick up the tab.”

As for men and women, Gottsman notes that business settings are gender-neutral: Men don’t pull out chairs for women like they do in social settings. “And, if a man gets to the door before a woman, hold it for her. But don’t run ahead of her to hold it. If she gets there first, allow her to open the door,” Gottsman says.

After-Hours Cocktails and/or Parties: It’s a bad idea to talk exclusively about business at a business party or after-hours cocktail function, Oliver says. The purpose of the holiday parties is to improve morale and make people festive about the holiday. If you’re in a corner with a client talking about business, you’re not really bonding in the way that you should be. It’s so much better to talk about neutral topics,” she says.

What are some neutral topics? “Entertainment is a good one. It’s always changing, and it’s not personal,” Oliver says. “I also think a great topic is hobbies, because you could stumble on something you both enjoy and talk about that in a deeper way.”

As for liquor, limit yourself to one drink. If you drink more, other than potentially making a fool of yourself, you can let important information slip. “Liquor loosens you up. The key thing is to remember it’s not a real party. That’s goes for how you dress and how little you drink. Even with eating, I recommend that you eat first and then go. You’re not supposed to stand by the appetizer tray scarfing down all the food,” Oliver says.

Heidi Lynn Russell writes about employment and business issues.

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