Exec-etiquette: why professionals should brush up on their manners

In an increasingly complex business world, etiquette and the right tone of voice influence more than just first impressions: they also determine long-term success.

Peter Firth, guest author
10 minutes

The dos and don’ts of business etiquette have tied professionals in knots for generations. There are the obvious cliches. Such as, which knife to use during dinner, when it’s acceptable to remove your jacket in the office or whether it’s become a faux pas to kiss-greet your colleagues. Then there are the trickier questions ushered in by the state of modern commerce – air travel, elevator and even videoconferencing all represent a sub-niche of the wider subject of manners at work. During the pandemic, workers were spared most of the anxiety to do with etiquette as the gala dinners, client breakfasts and networking events were canned.

Not anymore. In the last quarter of 2023, these things have reappeared in calendars, and people are rejoicing in the conviviality of “face-to-face” (f2f) or “in real life” (IRL) get-togethers. But the resurgence of meetings and social engagements has caused disquiet for some – and appears to be leading to a collective urge to seek help. This is well-advised. A bit of schooling on good graces doesn’t just help people feel more comfortable, it also gives individuals – and the organisations they work in – a boost in performance and results.

People clinking glasses during a dinner
As employees return to the office, more organisations are investing in etiquette training. © istock/PeopleImages

Brushing up

As employees return to the office, more organisations are investing in etiquette training. The sort of lessons workers receive shows how the issue of etiquette is changing. Rather than classes on codified graces, like which way they should pass the port, or how they should address a member of the clergy in a letter, they are brushing up on “soft skills”. This includes things like how to write an email without sounding rude or illiterate, how to wisecrack with colleagues without HR having to step in, and what sort of attire is acceptable. A survey by Resume Builder, a CV template company, indicates that 45% of US companies are already running etiquette programmes for teams. A further 18% plan to instigate classes by the end of next year. Resume Builder reckons that these initiatives are targeted at Gen Z. Having entered the jobs market during a pandemic, this cohort requires a bit of polish, apparently.

Man and woman shake hands
Good etiquette is designed to include people, not exclude. © shutterstock/PeopleImages_Yuri A

In Europe there are signs of a charm offensive too. For instance, Switzerland once had a wealth of finishing schools, where young women would go to take direction on social rites from the upper crust. While these places have all but vanished since the emergence of feminism and the march to gender parity, one institution has endured by pivoting from schooling debutantes to coaching managing directors. The Institut Villa Pierrefeu (IVP) features a course on the “European art of dining”, and a report by The Economist describes a class consisting of professionals from the spheres of finance, tech, and corporate law.

Charm equals success

Portrait photo of Jo Bryant
"You don’t do business with a company – you do it with a person", etiquette coach Jo Bryant says.

The sudden appeal of classes like those at IVP coincides with an increasingly competitive business environment. For candidates vying for a coveted job at a corporation, or for a sales person trying to land a big account, proving capability and acumen is only half the battle. It isn’t enough for your target to believe that you can do the job, they have to like you too.

Jo Bryant is an etiquette coach who teaches one-to-one classes on how to appear more affable in front of bosses and prospects. She thinks likeability is key: “You don’t do business with a company – you do it with a person,” she says. “And we always opt for people we like, over those we don’t. How do you differentiate in a crowded market, when you’re up against dozens of other people with the grades, expertise, and acumen to do the job? It’s about how you come across.”

Intergenerational etiquette

There is a clear link between good graces and commercial success. But coming across well isn’t as simple as it once was. In the first era of global business, where corporations contributed to globalisation, it was cultural mores that would unseat a European executive on a high-stakes business trip to Hong Kong, for instance. Today chasms in how we relate to each other are just as likely to come from generational, gender or sexuality divides. For instance, in the current decade, many high-net-worth individuals are in the midst of a transference of wealth, where baby-boomer parents are bequeathing their fortunes to millennial and gen Z heirs. Research by The Future Laboratory, a trend forecaster, signifies that this younger cohort – particularly women – are quickly dispensing with wealth managers that aren’t able to grasp their aspirations. The gulf is to do with etiquette, according to Martin Raymond, co-founder of The Future Laboratory.

A woman is eating bread in a restaurant
As employees return to the office, more organisations are investing in etiquette training. © Katharina Hesse/laif

“There’s an interesting lack of communication and understanding from the financial advisors, lawyers and bankers who are tasked with helping millennial and Gen Z wealth recipients,” says Raymond. “By misreading their clients’ aspirations, and moral objectives, their jobs become untenable.”

Raymond draws a distinction between two types of etiquette that have appeared throughout history – a positive one which is performed with the intention to create consensus and a feeling of parity. And a rather more malign one, which is intended to be exclusive and elitist: “Good etiquette is designed to include people, not exclude,” he says. “Having a code of behaviour means that kings could convene with paupers - without either feeling uncomfortable. Then the code became so impenetrable and hard to learn, that it was about keeping people out. But inclusion is always better for business.”

Our attitudes to do with etiquette say a lot about the state of business. Professionals are having to find ever more effective and resourceful ways of standing out from the crowd. Meanwhile, there is a bigger emphasis on culture – bosses in 2023 would rather have a team of average practitioners who are enjoyable to work with, than a group of virtuosos who are vain, argumentative or just plain boring. Good manners still cost nothing. But now the absence of them is likely to hurt your prospects.

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