Business etiquette for beginners

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

At my sister's graduate school graduation a few years ago, a professor stopped my mother and said she had done a wonderful job. It wasn't because my sole sibling is an outstanding student or dedicated humanitarian — although she is both of those things. It's because my sister had written the professor a handwritten thank-you note.

We got the sense this was a rare occurrence.

It's worth noting my mother feels so passionately about thank-you notes that she will hold onto grudges related to those who do not write them for YEARS. Also, we are Southern, and there are certain rules of civility. Much is forgiven when you are courteous.

While I've tackled the issue of the benefit of handwritten thank-you before, lately it's been irking me that not only notes but business etiquette seems to be falling by the wayside. We're not talking about using the wrong spoon at dinner, but a genuine failure of manners.

This is not generational — every McKnight's intern has written a lovely thank-you note since I've been here. I believe it's more related to the increased business of our everyday lives, a lack of teaching about etiquette, or, perhaps, a genuine lack of knowledge.

If you assume the last, here are some basic rules from The Emily Post Institute, Mom Leis and me. (For more on business etiquette, pick up Peter Post's The Etiquette Advantage in Business.):

On thank-you notes: Every gift should be acknowledged. A handwritten note is best, but email is acceptable, especially if the gift is in itself a thank-you. Notes should be written within six weeks. Teach your children this at a young age by helping them draw on a card and sending it.

Remember: Many gift-givers will have sent something online — think perhaps of a box of chocolates from a client at the holidays — and simply want to know if it's arrived.

Many facilities have celebrations for birthdays, marriages or babies. Individual gifts should be acknowledged to the gift-giver promptly, but brides and moms-to-be have more time. Brides have three months following the honeymoon, assuming the trip was taken right after the wedding. New moms should shoot for sending out the notes before the baby is born, or within two to six months. (The former is more standard, but people will cut you slack, especially if there are extenuating circumstances.)

All meals where someone else treats should be acknowledged, even if it is being expensed back to the company. 

Do not forget to recognize people who make you dinner, or host a dinner party, whether these are friends or colleagues. In all of these cases, don't forget that handwritten notes make you stand out as a classy person. On the flip side, if a colleague is sick or has a new baby, dropping off dinner or sending a gift card is not a requirement or a breach of etiquette if you don't have time, but it is always a thoughtful idea. Sites such as Take Them a Meal make this easy to schedule.

If someone gives a gift on behalf of a company — an “employee of the month” gift card, etc. — it is still appropriate to acknowledge the person who coordinated.

Remember: A note is better late than never.

On phones: Do not text or email during meetings or meals. If you must take or make a call, or send an email, excuse yourself from the table. It is acceptable to pull out your phone to show photos of your baby or dog, as long as the person has asked.

This also is good practice in your social lives. When a person I'm dining with pulls out his or her phone, I'm tempted to ask if he or she was raised in a barn. Instead, I quietly seethe and feel bad, pondering whether I was boring.

If this is a problem with your teenagers, friends or other family members, follow the rule I heard: Everyone at the start of a dinner puts his or her phone face down on the table. The first person to flip it over has to pay for the meal.

On group dinners, gatherings, etc.: Speaking of meals, for an event that asks for an RSVP, you must tell the host if you are going or not. If you have RSVP'd yes, you must show up. If you cancel at the last minute or don't appear, you should have a good reason, such as a broken leg or a psychotic break. Being buried in work is not considered a good reason.

This is specific to events where a place setting is created for you, such as or similar to a wedding where the couple has paid for your food. It is understood that a casual reception may be skipped, especially in a large conference or trade show setting, although know if your boss or client is expecting to see you there. That's not etiquette as much as good career strategy.

Originally, I tackled about five other areas of long-term care business etiquette but was told it was becoming a manifesto. As a compromise, I'm going to offer an “Elizabeth's Etiquette Tip of the Week” in the footer of my column for the rest of 2015. Chime in on what areas you'd like to see covered, and I — with some help from my mother and Emily and Peter Post — will tell you what to do.

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's. Follow her @TigerELN.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.