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Don Burleson Blog 







Business etiquette for professionals

Donald K. Burleson

Updated April 22, 2009


Note:  In addition to these guidelines, make sure to review our Dress Code, Cross-Cultural Guidelines, Professional Corporate Tipping tips, professional golf etiquette, Corporate travel etiquette manners and  cultural 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a professional consultant, and I'm constantly amazed that many professionals believe that professional protocol is as outdated as finger bowls at dinner.

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 the 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 manners.

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 15th century.

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 culture:

Professional 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 bestseller "Fart Proudly" there has been a debate about involuntary flatulence and the proper was of handling this breach of professional etiquette. 

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 professionals. 

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 area.

Acknowledgement of rank and status

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 them.

  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 depart.

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.

Corporate party manners

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.

Professional 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 etiquette have 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 tips

  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 her fingerbowl?. 

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 plate!

By the way, never, ever, leave a spoon in a bowl or a glass. 

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 fork).

Wine rituals at dinnertime

Don't choose a wine just because it has a high-tech name.


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 meal. 

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 Chateau Mouton 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 aroma and 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.

However, 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 be swallowed. 

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 case of poor 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.

I've seen 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 their napkin.

  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 kids attended Cotillion and today they are comfortable in any professional social setting. 

Interestingly, even animals have social rules and norms of civil behavior, and you can always tell an intelligent animal if it understands animal 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.

Reader comments:

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.

Anya Macleod




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