Donald K. Burleson
etiquette for professionals
Updated April 22, 2009
Note: In addition to these guidelines, make sure to review our
Professional Corporate Tipping tips,
professional golf etiquette,
Corporate travel etiquette manners
Good manners and professional etiquette are essential to a professional
consultant, and I'm constantly amazed that many professionals
believe that professional protocol is as outdated as finger bowls at
I noticed this book on Brooks Brothers “How to be a Gentleman” and I bought a copy for my young
male executives, plus the book
How to be a Lady for aspiring female executives.
Business professionals are expected to
understand etiquette and professional protocol, and while
standards have changed over the past century (i.e. It's no
longer considered rude to address a corporate executive by their
first name), there are still many rules of common professional
||Historically, good manners evolved from common-sense and
respect for others, and Sebastian Brandt was among the first
advocates of good manners in his 1494 work in his book
Stultifera Navis (Ship
of Fools), a hilarious collection of woodcuts
showing numerous breaches of the professional manners of the
Later, Victorian England became obsessed with fine manners,
and one of the greatest marketing efforts in the world was
the Staffordshire craze of the 19th century.
American pioneer wives pestered their husbands relentlessly to get the
Victorian "Flow Blue" china, so they could demonstrate fine
etiquette. Let's take a look at professional mannerisms
and see how etiquette and chivalry are far from dead in American
Etiquette in the workplace
Whatever your personal definition of
professional manners, there are some common courtesies that are
timeless and always expected from a courteous American professional.
Involuntary bodily functions
There are times when involuntary bodily
functions can disrupt a meeting, and the well-versed professional
know the proper etiquette.
||Everyone has had the experience of sneezing, and you
should always be prepared for this unexpected reflex.
I once witnessed a Herculean sneeze where the poor fellow
had no ready access to a Kleenex or handkerchief and every
sat in-horror watching him dispose of great gobs of spittle
and snot by wiping it into his pants pocket.
Ever since Benjamin Franklin published his
Proudly" there has been a debate about involuntary flatulence
and the proper was of handling this breach of professional
The debate centers around two issues,
sound and smell.
If the gas is passed silently, yet
possesses an aroma that will curl your hair, many
professionals recommend ignoring the incident, thereby
allowing everyone in the room to silently speculate about
the identity of the perpetrator.
In my experience, a quick disapproving
glance at the dog will suffice.
Ignoring embarrassing involuntary
sounds, including farts, is the approach taken by most
I once knew a high-ranking executive
who sputtered every time that he bent over. He was
aware it it (as were we all) yet the polite thing to do is
to ignore it and, if necessary, move the meeting to another
Acknowledgement of rank and
It is still considered polite in corporate
circles to stand when a senior executive or a woman (of any status)
enters a room. This is especially true in the military and
Federal Government where senior officers (Lt. Col. and up), elected
officials, dignitaries and top-executives expert you to stand when
they enter a meeting. In practice, most professionals make
motions like they are planning to stand-up, allowing the official an
opportunity to wave-them-down with a quick hand motion.
When meeting another professional it is
critical that you follow proper protocol. Wait until they have
offered their hand (not not, just bow your head at the neck).
When shaking hands, you should always use a firm grip (but don't
squeeze) and look the professional directly in the eye when greeting
||When exchanging business cards, it is polite to
look at the card and make some sort of comment, even if it is just a
confirmation (e.g. "Is this your correct cell number?")
When meeting people of celebrity status
(politicians, entertainers) you should never offer your hand
first and place them in an awkward situation.
For example, I've read that Donald Trump and Prince
Charles will not reciprocate an offer to shake hands (Trump
is a germophobe and he will rebuff you if you try to shake
hands with him).
When traveling with other professionals always
remember the LIFO (last-in, first-out) rule. The senior person
always enters a vehicle last so that they may be the first to
At professional meeting and cocktail parties
you must be on-time (it's an affront to arrive after the senior
people) and you MAY NOT leave until the senior executive has left
the party. Most executives are well-aware of this protocol and
will excuse themselves early to give others an opportunity to leave.
When at a corporate party, it’s
considered extremely rude to leave the party until the senior person
at the party has departed.
In turn, the senior managers display gracious
manners by deliberately excusing themselves early so that their
underlings are free to depart.
Etiquette when Dining
One of the biggest areas of breaches of
professional etiquette is during dining situations, and many major
corporation will test job candidates with a meal as an integral part
of the job interview. It's interesting to see how the rules of
changed over the centuries. An British etiquette writer of
the 1840's advised, "Ladies may wipe their lips on the
tablecloth, but not blow their noses on it.".
Also see our pages on dining abroad,
Our most interesting meals.
Good professional manners pays off. There
is the famous true-story about a gallant gentleman who noticed a bug
in his salad. The horrified hostess also noticed it at the
same time, and to spare her a public embarrassment he discretely ate
the insect and said nothing about it. Years later the grateful
hostess rewarded the gentleman for his chivalry by leaving him a
substantial sum of money.
Here are general tips for good professional
manners when dining.
General professional dining
||In a fancy restaurant you may encounter a
bewildering array of tableware and you are expected to understand
the proper function of each utensil.
Remember the ancient
episode of "I Love Lucy" where she asked for a tea-bag to go with
As a rule-of-thumb, always use your
utensils outside-in, and don't be afraid to leave the table
and ask the server if you find an unusual dining device.
I was once presented with a small silver spatula, like a
hammered-flat spoon. I slipped off and discretely
learned that it was a "sauce spoon", used from scraping-up
the sauce that they artistically drizzle on your dessert
|By the way, never, ever, leave a spoon in a bowl or a
It is considered boorish and it may also have the
unwanted side effect of causing a spill if someone waves their hand
over the table.
Never gesture with a knife of fork, especially
if it has food on it. (I know this sounds stupid, but I've witnessed
people in animated conversation holding a speared shrimp on their
Wine rituals at dinnertime
Don't choose a wine just because it has a
While entire books have been written on
wine manners, here are some high-level wine protocol tips:
He who grabs the wine list, gets
the check - If you are picking-up the dinner tab,
you must make sure that you reach-out for the wine list
(this is a well-understood signal to the waiter that you
are the person taking the check), and this will avoid
the awkward check-grabbing contest at the end of the
When dining with superiors (or clients)
always make sure that you feign ignorance about wine (i.e.
"I have horrible taste in wines. Can you help me?"),
and hand them the wine list.
Choosing the wine - If the client
chooses, always agree, even if it has a screw-off cap. If you
choose, remember that it is insulting to try to impress them with a
high-priced wine (anything over $400/bottle in 2005). You can
get many superb reds (you can't miss with
Rothschild, one of the best, and at a great price) for under $200.
Understand the wine ritual - I've seen
young people who embarrass themselves by not understanding the
simple wine ritual. I once witnessed a fellow grab the cork
as-if the waiter was handing him a jar of warm spit. He had no
idea what to do with it, so he licked the cork! In case you
need a refresher:
The initial presentation - The
waiter shows you the bottle. Your only job is to take
a quick glance and make sure that it's the wine that you
ordered, and you just read he name and vintage, and nod.
You are not supposed to examine the bottle!
The cork presentation - The
waiter hands you the cork for the sole purpose of
examination, not sniffing. Improperly-stored wines (placed vertically) will allow the
cork to dry out, resulting in an air-breach will
cause the wine to turn to vinegar. Just do a quick
sniff, and hand it back. It's extremely unlikely that
you will get a bad bottle, and believe me, you will know it
the instant you sniff the cork and detect the scent
reminiscent of dirty socks.
The sip test - At this point the
waiter will place a tasting amount of wine wine and step back.
This is your signal to small and taste the wine.
Simply swirl the wine in your mouth to release its natural
stick you nose into the glass while inhaling deeply. Next,
take a very small sip, swishing the wine evenly across your
tongue. Next, turn to the waiter, and nod your approval.
Unless you are world-class
oenophile, don't EVEN THINK about
sending the bottle back. I saw someone do this once and the
Sommelier came to the table and told the fellow that there
was nothing wrong with the $150 bottle, and made the table
take the wine.
Don't touch your face with your fingers
Without going-into details, the safest way to
remember good manners is to never touch your face with your fingers.
This covers a wide-range of faux-paux from nose picking to removing
sleepers from your eyes.
||In some cultures, digging boogers from your nose in
public is an acceptable acceptable practice.
American professionals know that you should never pick your
nose in public.
I once met a
client with a dried booger that would disappear in his nose
when he inhaled and re-appear when he exhaled. It was impossible to pay attention to this man
because the booger show was mesmerizing everyone in the room.
Foreign objects in your food
||At some point in your dining experience
everyone had placed something in their mouth that could not
Nobody wants to see a masticated piece
of gristle on your plate, but you would be surprised at how
many professionals do not follow proper manners for removing
foreign objects from their mouth.
When you put something in your mouth that you cannot swallow you
should use your napkin to "fake" wiping your mouth and subtly place
the offensive item in your napkin.
If you find something in your food that belongs to someone you
should always return it to them. In a recent North Carolina
professional manners, a man in a custard shop breached
professional courtesy by refusing to return
a man's finger, because he was saving it for evidence in a lawsuit:
Stowers had refused to give it to the shop's
owner or a doctor who was treating 23-year-old Brandon Fizer,
who accidentally stuck his hand in a mixing machine and had his
finger lopped off at the first knuckle.
Stowers later realized that it is very rude and unprofessional to
keep a body part, but his breach of manners was to late to be
rectified and the frozen
finger could not be re-attached. As we've already noted, in
some parts of the USA it is
considered chivalrous to eat any foreign objects that the host
inadvertently places in the food.
Involuntary food ejection
It some point in your career you may experience the horror of accidentally
ejecting a food particle from your mouth. Like the adage that
dropped toast will always fall buttered-side down, the gross
particle will most likely land directly on your boss's dinner plate.
this happen on numerous occasions and it can be very awkward.
Some professionals recommend making-light of the incident with
flippant comments like "Are you planning to eat that?", but I
always ignore it unless it's so gross that it must be removed from
the table, which most savvy professionals can accomplish with a deft swipe of
||As a child I was fully indoctrinated into professional
manners, learning all aspects of the social graces, the
source of much kicking and screaming.
My parents always joked that Grandma insisted on
chaperoning them on their first date, as it was improper for
a young lady to go-out unattended on a first date.
I hated my
etiquette training at the time (I especially hated learning
to Waltz, Foxtrot, and Tango), but its one of those things
that they will thank you for later. When I became a parent, I made sure that my
Cotillion and today they are comfortable in any professional
Interestingly, even animals have social rules and norms of civil
behavior, and you can always tell an intelligent animal if it
etiquette. I evaluate an animals response to a social
courtesy to access
their social skills and intelligence.
In sum, professional manners and etiquette and mostly
common-sense, but you must always be conscious that your mannerisms
reflect on your personal professionalism and your company.
I love your etiquette page, it is written with a good balance
between straight-shooting and delicacy! Very amusing and in this age
of Blackberry-enabled rudeness, sadly pertinent.
Subtly emptying gristle into her napkin, priceless.