Office etiquette lets workdays pass more smoothly


In the rough-and-tumble business world, good manners may rank low on the must-do list of many executives. Although professionally accomplished, many lack the basic skills in business etiquette, says Letitia Baldrige, who has been adviser to four first ladies and has written seven books on etiquette.

"The tales of arrogance and innocent rudeness are many now," Ms. Baldrige says. "Of course, it's my philosophy that for every step forward in technology we take two steps backward in humanity."

Her recent "Letitia Baldrige's New Complete Guide to Executive Manners," is a revised edition of an earlier book published in 1985.

Ms. Baldrige says the new book addresses proper behavior in workplace situations that would not have arisen in years past, such as sexist language, the pregnant manager, the HIV-positive employee, male employee-female boss problems and working with diverse groups of people.

The essential ingredients of etiquette, such as compassion and knowing how to get along with people, "fall through the floorboards" somewhere along the line in the business and social education of many people, she says.

A manager may be in the position of having to "teach the facts of life to people who should have learned them before they came to work," Ms. Baldrige says, adding that for the last 20 years, "many people have been coming to the workplace without knowledge of the basic essentials, and senior management is just often embarrassed."

Some everyday tips from Ms. Baldrige:

* Your sex life should not be discussed in the office. "A person discussing his or her sexual prowess in the office embarrasses his or her peers, regardless of how fascinated they pretend to be."

* Words like "honey" or "baby" should not be used in the office. However, women should not confuse friendly male bantering, such as a compliment on clothing, for sexual harassment. If a woman is being sexually harassed, she should take action. "Women who are self-confident do not let themselves be victims of this kind of behavior," she says.

* Chivalry isn't dead -- it just isn't gender-based. A woman should pick up the tab for a meal with a male client if she does the inviting. A man stands up for a female visitor entering his office and remains standing until she is seated. A woman does the same for a male client entering her office.

* Avoid foul language and pejorative names for nationalities and religions. "I have heard much better language from construction men and coal miners than in many posh executive suites," she says.

What Ms. Baldrige calls "electronic manners" is a whole new world of manners that didn't exist before, and one many executives bungle.

"Executive communication is what's suffering the most," she says. "The way you talk, write letters, handle the telephone, and use your electronic devices. We're in bad shape in all four."

Ms. Baldrige checks off a list of electronic abuses, such as having your beeper go off in movie theaters or talking on cellular phones during performances.

"A very well-dressed young executive was sitting behind me in church in New York on Wall Street. In the middle of Mass, his telephone rang in his briefcase. He simply opened the case, answered the telephone, and carried on a phone conversation. In the middle of the consecration of the host, everyone was aware he was talking on the telephone," she says.

Ms. Baldrige says people who let their electronic devices run amok in public are just trying to call attention to themselves and look important. "It's a desperate cry for attention."

The faxing of personal messages or things like wedding announcements should also be avoided at all times, she says. "We keep forgetting that what we send somebody else, whether it's over the phone or on E-mail, what comes out on the other end is us. If it comes across in a shoddy, unattractive way, that's the way people are going to think of us."

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