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Business Etiquette Makes or Breaks Employee Relations

June 1, 1996
Related Topics: Diversity, Featured Article
Norine Dresser, author of "Multicultural Manners: New Rules of Etiquette for a Changing Society," in Los Angeles, says:
Michael, 20, warmly greets Harihar Patel, a 50-year-old co-worker with, "Good morning, Harihar." This overture rankles the older gentleman.

Fernando has a surprise encounter with Wilhelmina, a former lab partner. Happily, he hugs her. But instead of being pleased, she sharply pulls away.

Luisa has been struggling to learn a complicated new computer program. Her supervisor, Mr. Samson, checks her work and enthusiastically gives her the A-OK sign. Shocked, Luisa blushes.

In a diverse society, social mishaps frequently occur because the individuals involved come from different cultural backgrounds—with distinct customs and rules of etiquette. Learned early in life, these customs become automatic responses. Except with traveling, few people expect what’s customary to them may be interpreted negatively by people of different backgrounds. This clashing of customs can clearly damage interpersonal relations at the workplace.

Why did these encounters sour? Michael assumed because they had worked together, it would be friendlier to call Harihar Patel "Harihar" instead of "Mr. Patel." However, his Indian-born co-worker considered it disrespectful for a younger person to address him by his first name.

Fernando, a Mexican American, grew up greeting family and friends with some form of physical contact. But his hug embarrassed Wilhelmina. Her Philippine upbringing stressed that public body contact between unrelated men and women was improper. Finally, when Mr. Samson gave Luisa the A-OK sign, he humiliated her because in her native Argentina, it’s an obscene gesture.

As minor as these improprieties may seem, they create disharmony in the workplace and decrease morale. Even though no social offense was intended, all initially resulted in social discomfort to the receivers of the perceived insults, and afterward to those who inadvertently caused them.

How can these cultural blunders be ameliorated? Often, a simple apology accompanied by a brief explanation will work. Then hopefully through time and nonrepetition of offenses, the parties will reestablish respect, harmony and mutual expectations of behavior. Miscommunications can be lessened by increasing awareness of cultural differences. Nowadays, it’s incumbent upon HR professionals to provide workshops, videos and a reliable manual to help avoid cultural-based discourtesies.

Janet Garber, employee relations manager at Cornell University Medical College in New York, says:
I see problems on the workplace front when the "bad manners" of supervisors undermine what they’re trying to do. For example, a supervisor might place her hands on her hips and point a finger at her staff member and tell him or her not to do something again. She might talk down to this person and even correct the employee at his or her desk, within earshot of the employee’s co-workers. She might also pull papers out of the employee’s hands or plunk down a file on the employee’s desk. All these actions defeat the supervisor’s purpose, presumably to assign work, point out errors and suggest ways to produce a finer work product.

I also had a situation, more than once, with a quiet employee who believed it was her duty to come into work and to only work. When employees spoke to her, she would turn her back to them, indicating she had work to do. She refrained from engaging in social conversation—her family and friends outside of work were for that purpose. What happened was the other workers took offense at her haughty attitude. She, in turn, perceived their dislike for her as a conspiracy against her. I attempted to counsel the employee and urged her to become a little less rigid and to demonstrate more friendliness and interest in her co-workers. Unfortunately, she wasn’t very receptive and didn’t seem to grasp why she had to change.

Jeff Jones, an industrial psychologist in Tampa, Florida, says:
As a management consultant, I observed a university-based think tank of about 80 individuals. Although there was a diverse workforce, most of the African Americans were in clerical support roles. They, and some of the other support people, were offended by a couple of senior managers (middle-aged white males) who would routinely fail to speak to them when passing in the hall or upon arriving in the morning. Yet these same managers would often stick their heads in the offices of professionals with whom they were friendly to say "good morning" and chat briefly.

In this instance, I’m not certain whether it was a cultural difference so much as basic etiquette and interpersonal skills. The lower-paid and nondegreed support people were sensitive to being looked down upon or treated as insignificant by the leadership—all of whom had graduate degrees, were highly paid, and very few of whom were nonwhite or female.

The support staff tended to identify themselves as people first and not to be so closely identified with their jobs. For most, it was a job to pay the bills. They expected to be treated like any other member of humanity, with respect and good manners.

Whereas the professionals often strongly identified with their jobs and saw a big difference between themselves and the support staff. They often saw no need to speak to support staff unless they had a business reason to do so, and were otherwise preoccupied with their professional duties. They had no malicious intent. They were just oblivious to the impact of their behavior on others.

Clearly, the failure to observe basic etiquette and good manners helped create a schism between support staff and professionals that negatively impacted the support staff’s job satisfaction and performance.

Dayna Kolbeck, staffing manager at USAA in San Antonio, Texas, says:
For organizations and teams to function effectively, employees need some sense of order and proper etiquette. As age, gender and diverse cultures continue to impact the workplace, Corporate America is more likely to experience problems with improper etiquette. The key for HR is to establish and communicate expectations honestly and openly. The process isn’t easy because the issue of etiquette is very personal—often hard to quantify and uncomfortable to address. For example, it’s much easier to inform someone he or she would be more productive by improving his or her typing skills. But how do you tell someone to stop being rude or arrogant? Although it may feel awkward, HR still needs to address the behavior in a safe, professional environment. Otherwise, teams will become dysfunctional, individual relationships will become strained and general morale will be lowered.


Personnel Journal, June 1996, Vol. 75, No. 6, pp. 173-174.

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