June 28, 2005
American companies find manners still matter
By Ellen Wulfhorst
GOSHEN, N.Y. (Reuters) - Business etiquette coach BarbaraPachter likes to tell the story of a financial executive who,dining with a potential client, licked his knife clean at theend of the meal."It was a $30 million dollar lick," she said at a recentetiquette seminar in Goshen, New York, referring to the valueof the deal the executive lost by offending the potentialcustomer.
Businesses are turning to etiquette training to boost theirbottom line, according to the coaches who train employees oneverything from shaking hands to buttering bread.
Simply put, better-behaved employees are more valuable thanbrutish oafs, they say.
"Etiquette is saying that it's really OK to be nice," saidPeter Post, the great-grandson of etiquette's grand dame EmilyPost and himself a writer and lecturer on business etiquette.
"We've had an attitude in this country that being nice wassomehow counter-productive to good business, to beingsuccessful," he said, adding, "In fact, being nice is a way tobe much more successful in business. It has real bottom-line,dollar value."
He's seen demand for etiquette training boom in recentyears, he added.
"We've heard over and over from corporations who haveemployees with all these skills but can't let them take aclient out to lunch," Post said. "I get calls every week."
In suburban New York, employees of Elant Inc., which runshealth and housing facilities for the elderly, have beenstudying etiquette since the company decided to slash itsadvertising budget and send staff into the community to drum upbusiness through word of mouth.
Sent out to join civic groups and meet people, employeessoon complained they were uncomfortable networking andsocializing, so the company turned to an etiquette coach, ElantChief Executive Donna Case-McAleer said. "It's a lost art," shesaid.
Elant employees recently attended a day-long seminar tohear Pachter answer an array of etiquette questions:
--What accessories do people notice first? Watches andpens.
--Where should empty foil butter wrappers go? Fold the foilwrappers in half and place them under the bread plate.
--How does one eat spaghetti at a business dinner? Don'teven touch spaghetti; it's too messy.
--Should a man be told that his fly is open? Yes, peopleshould be always informed of zipper failure.
Listening, Elant administrator Laurence LaDue said he waswell aware of his own etiquette failings. "I don't speak up,I'm guilty of the 'ums,' and I'm a fidgeter," he said.
Jan Davis, new to Elant management, found herselfpracticing her handshake with some tips from the coach.
"I've never been in the corporate world before. I've got alot I need to learn," she said.
In a telling development in the world of businessetiquette, Post said he has just added a chapter on ethics tothe business etiquette book he first published six years ago.
Not paying attention to ethics, he said, can be costly. Just look at Tyco International Ltd.'s Dennis Kozlowski, facingprison for stealing the company's money, he said. The formerchief executive could have used a little etiquette, he said.
"We teach people to think before they act. My guess is hewasn't thinking. He was doing. But unfortunately we'reresponsible for our actions, and now he's responsible for his,"Post said after a recent lecture in New York.
Experts say modern etiquette is different from just a fewyears ago. Women's roles have changed, families spend less timein such settings as sit-down meals, children of working parentsoften fend for themselves and television and movies glorifyprofanity and rough-and-tumble behavior.
"If I asked my mother where she learned manners from, itwas probably from Sunday dinner, and I don't think you findthat today," said Susan Schulmerich, an Elant vice president."In many ways, we're missing a lot in our informal society andloss or tradition."
BACK TO BASICS
Pachter said she often has to go back to basics. "I amamazed I have to tell people to say please and thank you," shesaid. "Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we stop usingthose words."
Listening to Post, businesswoman Dale Marcovitz said shewished her company, a huge retailer, would train employees.
"I'm from the old school and social graces, or the lack of,is what I notice the most, she said.
A study of people who experienced incivility at work,conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill'sKenan-Flagler Business School, showed how costly it can be.
One in five said they worked less hard as a result ofrudeness at work, and one in 10 spent less time at the office.Nearly half considered changing jobs, and more than 10 percentdid so, the study found.
"It's more than just telling a person the rules," saidPost. "Etiquette does have value for people. Etiquette makesyou a successful person."