30 business etiquette tips for every professional
What part does being well-versed in business etiquette play in the success of your career?
Here’s the truth:
Our professional success often hinges less upon talent and intrinsic genius, and more upon people skills, strong emotional intelligence and a keen understanding of proper business etiquette.
In the working world, individuals from various cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds put aside their differences in order to support a single mission — the success of their organization. And when people with diverse belief systems and points of view come together, following certain rules of courtesy helps to oil the gears and keep companies running smoothly.
What, exactly, is good business etiquette?
”Business etiquette is not just knowing what to discuss during a business dinner or how to address colleagues. It’s a way of presenting yourself in such a way that you will be taken seriously […], as well as having the ability to make others feel comfortable around you.”
Generally speaking, comporting yourself professionally means not only presenting oneself with confidence but also taking the feelings and attitudes of others into consideration.
Here are 30 business etiquette tips that every professional should follow:
- Study emotional intelligence
- Dress for your role
- Be on time
- Mind your P’s and Q’s
- Turn off your mobile
- Learn business lunch etiquette
- Respect other people’s time
- Learn to remember names
- Practice active listening
- Don’t gossip
- Demonstrate empathy
- Keep a positive attitude
- Address problems with solutions
- Take ownership of mistakes
- Embrace lifelong learning
- Realize that no one knows it all
- Learn to accept criticism
- Be honest
- Know what to keep confidential
- Follow the handbook
- Behave in open office situations
- Ask when uncertain
- Leave out drama
- Practice a firm handshake
- Control your body language
- Remember that colleagues have lives outside of work
- Learn email etiquette
- Proofread all correspondence
- Handle sensitive matters privately
- The Golden Rule
1. Study up on emotional intelligence
One of the most critical business etiquette skills involves behaving with emotional intelligence. It refers to one’s ability to put your own feelings aside and see things from the perspective of other people.
One study revealed that after emotional intelligence training, participants showed a significant increase in identifying emotions, as well as managing them. That means, people were able to better control their emotions in tense situations.
Think about it:
Managers and coworkers who scream and berate others when under pressure create a hostile work environment. Conversely, keeping a cool head when facing business challenges, trying to meet tough deadlines or dealing with difficult customers leads to success.
2. Dress for your role
In many professions, workplace attire has grown more casual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean rocking flip-flops from the dollar store to work is a good idea.
Remember that you only have one chance to leave a good first impression. So, unless you want to always be remembered as that girl or dude in sweatpants and cheap flip-flops, wear something more sophisticated.
A good business etiquette requires that you put some extra thought into your work outfit — that way, you’ll be showing your employees and colleagues that you respect your position and care about the company’s image. And paying attention to your work outfit doesn’t mean wearing a suit and tie every day, but rather making sure your work clothing is accurate — clean, ironed, and appropriate to the work setting.
3. Be on time
Everyone experiences times when they get caught behind an accident on the freeway, but punctuality remains a matter of choice much of the time.
Keeping other people waiting because you could not get out of the home on time is plain rude and bad business etiquette. You basically say with your actions, “My time is more valuable than yours,” to those you keep waiting.
Plus, depending on your industry, arriving late may compromise your coworkers. For example, those working in shifts who constantly show up late force their colleagues to work overtime. Once or twice is understandable, but chronic tardiness will earn you resentment.
4. Mind your P’s and Q’s
Think about the last time you did someone a major solid, and they accepted it as a matter of course without so much as a thank you. Their omission didn’t make you feel very good or motivated to help out again, did it?
Proper business etiquette demands using the words “please” and “thank you.” It doesn’t matter if you’re asking a staff member to call back a client or work late — phrase such demands as polite requests or expect colleagues to take umbrage.
In fact, if you manage a team, take this to heart: 80% of employees say they’d be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss, while 70% would be happier at their job if their boss thanked them more regularly.
5. Turn off your mobile in meetings
Even if you leave your phone on vibrate, any text message or incoming call will interrupt your colleagues’ train of thought if it buzzes during an important meeting. Learn to turn the cell off, lock it in a desk drawer or even leave it in your car if the temptation to tweet during conferences proves too much.
Sure, in large enough groups, you may be able to sneak in some texts under the desk the way you did back in high school. But then, you’re not exactly giving your full attention to the business at hand.
That said, using an app to take notes during a meeting is not a bad idea and doesn’t break any business etiquette rules — just make sure your phone is on silent.
6. Learn proper business lunch etiquette
If you have an important business lunch or dinner coming up, it is recommended that you snack on some almonds and dried fruit, or another healthy snack before heading out. You don’t want your empty stomach to steal the attention and make you think more about food than business.
Other dining etiquette rules for business include dressing appropriately for the dinner place and arrive on time. Then, when it’s time to order, take a pass on alcohol, or enjoy no more than one drink. You want to be sober when making promises and business agreements.
A good business etiquette also suggests that when ordering your food, wait until your host orders and follow their lead. This doesn’t mean ordering the exact same thing, but you may want to pass on the $40 filet if they order a $20 chicken entree.
7. Respect other people’s time
When your schedule is packed with deadlines, how do you react when “that” colleague insists on asking a laundry list of questions at the end of the meeting? Especially, if those questions could easily be answered via email or in a one-on-one?
Or — how do you feel when you have a great idea to share, but can’t get a word in edgewise as a coworker insists on dominating the discussion?
There’s a big difference between asking for clarification of a misunderstood point and holding other staff hostages while you ask a presenter to repeat half of what they’ve said already. Generally, the proper etiquette for business meetings is: if it ends before you have the opportunity to share a brilliant proposal, ask to speak with your supervisor privately or send an email to create a paper trail.
Also, remember that making workplace besties is great, but you’re at work to accomplish needed tasks, not to play the social butterfly. It’s okay to exchange pleasantries and the occasional (appropriate) joke, but don’t stand in someone’s office doorway gabbing away when it’s clear they want to get down to business.
8. Learn how to remember names
One of the most important parts of business etiquette is knowing how to greet people properly. Most people understand the importance of first impressions and a firm handshake but remembering names matters, too.
Here are a few tested and true tricks to remember people’s names:
- Create a mental picture that helps you recall their name — for example, if someone’s name is Mrs. Duckworth, you might picture a mallard wearing a dollar bill hat.
- Repeat the person’s name several times throughout your introduction. Repetition helps you to put a name to a face and make it stick.
- If you’re exchanging business cards immediately after meeting, jot down some notes on their appearance on the back as a cheat sheet.
9. Practice active listening techniques
Whether speaking with your boss, a client or an underling, practice active listening techniques to win people over. Because no matter who is standing in front of you, everyone wants to feel heard — especially when they’re talking about things that they’re passionate about or worry them. So, if you’re able to master this business etiquette, you’re up for success.
What does active listening mean?
It involves paying attention to the speaker and asking clarifying questions or using reflective statements to show you understand. Nodding and maintaining eye contact also helps — that way, you’re showing people you hear them.
10. Be like Switzerland with water-cooler gossip
A recent study indicated that the majority of gossip — three quarters — isn’t negative in nature, but rather neutral chatter about current events.
For example, exchanging occasional pleasantries around the water cooler, such as, “Hey, did you hear Barb in accounting had a baby girl last night?” does no harm. In fact, it can actually smooth interoffice relationships.
However, avoid negative gossip — that’s a big business etiquette no-no. Even if you don’t believe karma will catch up with you eventually, gloating over how Mike in marketing was let go for drinking on the job is gauche. Keep office interactions positive and kvetch on your own time.
11. Demonstrate empathy
Even the people who seem most well-adjusted can sometimes encounter rough patches that impact their productivity and behavior on the job. So, before criticizing someone for making a mistake or missing a deadline, or shaming someone for inappropriate office behavior — good business etiquette is trying to first put yourself in their shoes.
Simply asking what’s happening and whether you can help can go a long way. This doesn’t mean you need to become the office shrink, but it’s much easier to understand why someone is slamming phones down or taking multiple smoke breaks if you know they’re going through a breakup or dealing with stress.
12. Keep a positive attitude
Maybe you felt your last performance review was unfair, but you can’t change your scores. All you can do is control your reaction to the negative news and try to perform better in the future.
Think about it:
Is it more effective to storm off and pout, or more beneficial to calmly ask, “How do you suggest I improve?”
When deadlines grow tight and tempers soar, being known as level-headed scores major points toward promotion. Plus, who wants a reputation as the workplace Oscar the Grouch?
13. Address problems with solutions
Sigh. The copier went down again and the budget lacks wiggle room for a new one.
Time to throw your hands in the air and go home until management can afford to fix it, right? Not if you want to get ahead quickly.
In fact, one of the best ways to earn a promotion is to see a problem and propose a way to fix it. Maybe your office could utilize cloud storage instead of paper files to improve collaboration AND without cutting down trees? Your manager will appreciate your problem-solving skills, as well as the money saved on paper.
Not to mention, problem-solving skills are one of the number one requested skills in job advertisements. So, learn to master this business etiquette skill and it’ll be much easier for you to climb the career ladder.
14. Take ownership of mistakes
Few of us enjoy admitting “I made a mistake.” However, top business leaders tell us all errors create opportunities for learning and growth — but only if you take ownership of what went wrong.
When you realize you erred, it’s natural to panic. Instead of reacting instantly, stop and take a deep breath (or several). Then, begin brainstorming possible solutions.
For example, if you realize you mistakenly underbid an important project, how can you rectify the error without aggravating the client by making them pay additional fees? While you may have to offer a discount for the inconvenience, can you find a way to help the client see the additional value they receive?
Whenever possible, try to correct errors on your own. However, remain open to suggestions from others. It’s possible a colleague committed a similar mistake in the past and could offer valuable insight.
15. Embrace lifelong learning
You don’t necessarily need to enroll in graduate school to get ahead in life, but technology does change at the speed of light, meaning — industries constantly need to build the skills of their workforce.
Employers and managers can inspire learning by offering bonuses to employees who undergo continuous training, as well as by simply providing employees with free business literature — from books to industry magazines — to read.
In the meantime, as an employee, be open to new knowledge that comes your way, and take advantage of free webinars and meetups with industry people to stay on top of your game.
16. Realize that no one knows it all
You may be a genius, but regardless of your innate intelligence, no one knows everything, especially in a rapidly-changing information-based society. One of the important business etiquette rules is: listen to the suggestions of others and seek out ways to collaborate actively. Your coworkers have a wealth of knowledge to share, so tap in and grow your own value as well.
Also, be aware when interacting with others. Do you find yourself dominating the conversation? If so, stop talking and listen to what others have to say — you may learn something new or at least hear an alternative opinion to yours.
Do the same thing in the meetings — invite everyone to speak, even if only for a few moments. That way, no one will feel left out of the conversation and most importantly, you may leave the meeting room with more good ideas to try.
17. Learn to accept constructive criticism
Everyone’s hackles rise when they feel they’re being criticized. However, all criticism contains at least a kernel of truth, and learning to accept bad feedback is a crucial business etiquette skill.
Instead of looking at a negative review as proof your boss hates you, use it as a starting place on the path toward improvement. When someone offers a suggestion, thank them for it — they’ve taken time out of their day to get you on the road to success, after all.
When you receive a negative review or even a suggestion on how to improve a certain process, resist the urge to respond immediately. Instead, maintain a neutral demeanor, and nod to show you are listening and absorbing the message.
Then, take some time to analyze the feedback and ask yourself — can I learn anything from it? If the feedback has been constructive, the answer will be yes. So, say thanks to your critic and start implementing the lessons learned.
18. Behave honestly
Honesty in workplace affairs is critical, and braking this business etiquette rule can get you in serious trouble. So, unless you’re 100% sure the fib you’re telling is lily white — for example, telling a coworker you love her blouse when in reality, you think it’s a bit frilly for the office — tell the truth. Lies have a way of compounding, and they can be bad for the bottom line.
Telling the boss you were sick when your social media shows you were tanning at the beach? Such lies can cost you a job. Inform your manager you’re almost wrapped up with a project you’ve barely started? You risk losing your team’s and employer’s trust. Therefore, unless you enjoy pulling all-nighters at the office, be honest about needing more time.
19. Know what to keep confidential
Just as sharing negative gossip is bad, revealing certain information in the workplace can derail career aspirations and is considered bad business etiquette.
For example, don’t ask your colleagues to reveal their salary, and don’t discuss what you’ve found out with others — that’s none of your business and is considered poor etiquette skills.
The same applies to other personal information. Respect your coworkers’ confidentiality — if Sally from the sales department tells you she’s pregnant, avoid the urge to spread the happy news until she does it first.
Or, if someone confides in you about their struggles, keep that information to yourself. Unless such issues could compromise workplace safety — for example, if a colleague operating heavy machinery confess drinking on the job — keep mum.
20. Follow the handbook
Sneaking to the restroom 20 times a day to text due to a no cell phone policy? Instead of looking for sneaky ways to circumvent the rules in the employee handbook, address those you find unfair with your supervisor. For example, you may propose allowing cell phones out on vibrate so that family members can reach you in an emergency.
When attempting to bring about a change in policy, check your motivations. Make sure your suggestions truly stem from a desire to improve morale, procedure or both. And time the conversation right — just as you prefer to receive criticism in private, show your boss the same respect by avoiding complaining to coworkers. Schedule a time when things are going well to approach the conversation.
21. Use common sense in open office situations
Love them or hate them, open offices have become a trend which isn’t likely to go away soon. If you work in such an environment, use common courtesy.
Be aware of the volume of your voice. If you have an auditory impairment (15% of adults do!), the proper business etiquette would be to use a soundproof room for making calls or to go to a meeting room to discuss something with a colleague. You may think you’re speaking softly, while in reality, your coworkers on the other side of the room can overhear you clearly.
What’s more, keep in mind there’s little reasonable expectation of privacy in such settings, which is one aspect of open offices critics point out often. That said, conduct personal conversations with significant others and children via text if possible, or step outside to make a quick call. And even if you work in an environment where cursing is overlooked, avoid blurting out profanities or raising your voice when upset.
22. Ask when uncertain
You can avoid many workplace errors by asking for clarification when needed. Not sure how to operate the industrial-sized copier? Ask. Uncertain as to how detailed a certain report needs to be? You know what to do.
Failing to ask appropriate questions can lead to costly errors. For example, if you’re putting together an important contract and are uncertain if the language you are using is correct, you create risk for the business. Unclear terms can render contracts voidable under the law, a situation which, in large industries, can create a ripple effect which impacts outside entities and builds a poor reputation for your company.
Taking the time to ask a colleague or supervisor to review your work can help your organization maintain positive relationships and collect the full benefit of all contractual obligations.
23. Leave drama for the television
When you’re running a few minutes late, do you come crashing into the office like a bull crashing through a china shop, cursing up a storm about traffic and bemoaning the way it’s impossible to get your eyeliner right the first five times? If so, you’re taking your coworkers off task for matters which concern them not one bit.
The same goes if you’re the type who flies around the office in a frenzied panic when an important deadline approaches instead of calmly working to meet the schedule. Your negative, frenetic energy rubs off on everyone you meet and makes your coworkers feel stressed even if they’re in no danger of failing to perform. When people feel stressed, their productivity drops.
So keep this business etiquette close to heart and leave the drama at home on the TV screen. When you walk in the office, do so with a smile even if your morning commute left you feeling frazzled. Not only will smiling instantly boost your mood, you’ll avoid letting negative feelings rub off on others. When everyone feels more positive, productivity soars.
24. Practice a firm handshake
In the business world, shaking hands is de rigueur. The key is doing so properly.
If you’ve got a naturally strong grip, be sure you’re not crushing the hand of the person you’re greeting. You cannot always tell from the outside if the other person has arthritis, and even if they do not, a too-tight grip can hurt.
Don’t swing too far to the other end of the spectrum and practice a limp handshake, either — the best way to shake hands is firmly while making eye contact. And, if anxiety leads to sweaty palms, a good business etiquette would be to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer prior to introductions.
25. Control your body language
Your body language screams volumes even when you don’t say a word. Be aware of the unspoken messages you send silently.
- Resting your head on a table or desk makes you look bored, as does resting your head in your hands and looking away.
- Crossed arms across your chest indicates resistance or hostility, especially if a colleague or manager is sharing a new procedure you dislike.
- Raised eyebrows can indicate curiosity, but also incredulity. Try to pair with a slight smile to avoid looking skeptical.
- Hunched shoulders indicate stress and tension. While not offensive, looking harried all the time can cast doubt on your ability to do your job.
- Fidgeting indicates nervousness. Constantly twirling your hair or biting your nails projects insecurity, not confidence.
26. Remember that colleagues have lives outside of work
Work in a managerial capacity? Remember, a true leader rolls up their sleeves and works with their team during crunch time.
Expecting the team to stay late as important deadline approaches? Let your team see you’re staying, too. Sneaking off to hit the links while demanding your subordinates to work overtime builds resentment and destroys morale.
What happens when a colleague or underling experiences difficulty outside of the workplace? If you’ve recently returned from a month-long bereavement leave but expect employees to bring in a death certificate to receive one unpaid day off to attend a funeral, expect resentment.
Yes, you’ve worked hard to get where you are today. However, that doesn’t negate the fact everyone from the janitor on up has basic human needs deserving of respect, and when those needs are ignored by their employers, productivity drops.
27. Learn email etiquette rules for business
Going on holiday? Good for you! Remember, others may not know your plans, especially if you work with a large team. Set up out-of-office auto-responders so folks know why you’re not replying, and change your voicemail to indicate you’re away and whether you can be reached by alternate means, such as text.
Use proper email and text etiquette, too. Remember, it’s impossible to hear intonation via text or email, so take care in how you phrase things. And while you don’t want your correspondence to appear as a teenagers’ covered in emojis, using the occasional smiley face to indicate a joke or levity is appropriate.
28. Proofread all correspondence
Fair or no, few things label you incompetent as emails, memos, and letters crawling with grammatical and spelling errors. Make sure to proofread all correspondence before printing (save a tree) or hitting send — that’s number one email etiquette rule for business. Use free tools such as Grammarly to help catch pesky mistakes more easily.
Think back to the last time you read an advertisement online filled with typographical errors. How did that influence your attitude toward purchasing that product or service? If you’re like most people, you rolled your eyes and decided to shop elsewhere.
The fact of the matter is, proper spelling and grammar count, and lack of proper conventions give customers the impression your product will be equally shoddy.
Plus, in an international society, improper spelling and use of convention can lead to errors in translation. You don’t want to go down in corporate history like the KFC marketer whose “finger lickin’ good” was translated into, “eat your fingers off,” when the brand launched in Beijing, China, back in the 80’s.
29. Handle sensitive matters privately
Few things look less professional than a major shouting match on the floor where everyone can hear. Even if a coworker or subordinate does something outrageous, ask to speak with them privately versus airing your grievances in front of others. Schedule a private time to talk, and ask for a supervisor or neutral colleague to attend if you fear things growing too heated.
The same goes when you need to gently correct a coworker known to be volatile or one whom you suspect is going through a difficult time. Glass office doors do not mute all sound.
If you fear an interaction will grow loud, hold the meeting in a quieter part of the building instead of your office. Find an empty conference room. Even if the interaction doesn’t involve strong emotions, be aware sound can travel, and take all precautions to maintain privacy.
30. Treat others as you would like to be treated
Finally, one of the most important business etiquette tips involves following the Golden Rule — treat others as you would like to be treated. Everyone from the janitor to the CEO is a human being with feelings, emotions, needs and dreams of their own. Respect their humanity just as you expect others to respect yours.
Let’s say you need to put an employee on an improvement plan. If your own supervisor did the same, how would you like to be approached about it? If you’d prefer to be treated with calm and concern instead of threats, show those you oversee the same courtesy.
Would you enjoy being forced to come into work on your days off to cover a habitually absent employee’s shift regularly? If not, don’t ignore the complaints of those who chronically come in on their days off to cover the shifts of absentees.
Before instituting new policies, offering disciplinary measures or taking any action which materially impacts the lives of those you work with, consider how such actions would impact you if the situation was reversed. If you would interpret a particular action as harsh or arbitrary, reconsider whether alternate courses of action could support the same purpose.
Getting ahead with proper business etiquette
Research indicates the ability to work well with others and behave with emotional intelligence matters as much as talent when it comes to success in the workplace. As a reminder, keep the following in mind:
1: The rules of business etiquette exist for good reason
Business etiquette exists to oil the gears of relationships between supervisors and underlings, between coworkers and colleagues and between company representatives, clients and customers. These rules exist to keep interactions pleasant, positive and productive.
2: Respecting others proves paramount
Most business etiquette gaffs can and will be forgiven if you’re operating from a position of respect for those you interact with. Indicate respect by using standard courtesies like saying please and thank you, listening when others are speaking and keeping your tone and body language open and neutral.
3: Continue learning, gaining experience and staying humble
Today’s fast-paced world demands professionals stay on top of their game by continually improving themselves professionally. The best leaders of the industry admit to and learn from their mistakes as well. Even those who have attained the highest level of education and the greatest success go further by remaining humble and realizing others have much to contribute as well.
4: Bring sunshine, not rain and drama to work
Few people enjoy working with a volatile hothead prone to outbursts. Nor does everyone love the office chatty Cathy or drama queen. Smile, demonstrate empathy to others and share positive tidbits about your life, but leave stress and negative feelings at home.
5: Follow the Golden Rule above all
The most important business etiquette tip anyone who hopes to succeed can practice is treating others as they would like to be treated. Before approaching difficult interactions, step back and ask yourself how you’d like the other party to handle things if the situation were reversed.
There’s a reason that top leaders like Dale Carnegie swear people skills matter as much as intelligence when it comes to becoming one of the top performers in your trade. By following proper business etiquette, you can take your career to new heights.