Business Etiquette 101: 5 Rules Every Professional Should Know

These nuances could make or break an opportunity

(Image: Thinkstock)

Whether or not you realize it, your conduct in professional settings has a significant impact on how others perceive you and whether you‘ll be considered for current or future opportunities. That “someone is always watching” is, perhaps, an understatement.

If you want to manage perceptions, you need to begin with the end in mind. Master these fool proof and fail safe tips that will help you make a positive impression in high stakes environments:

1. Time is of the essence. The quickest way to make an opportunity go south is to show up late. Sure, things happen and sometimes circumstances are unavoidable. But, more often than not, tardiness can easily be avoided with proper planning. To account for unexpected situations that can slow you down, plan to arrive at least 30 minutes earlier than scheduled. If you do, you have plenty of time tounwind, refresh and be at ease by the time business begins. Showing up late is unprofessional–an amateur move for sure–and reflects a lack of regard for other people’s time. Don’t be that person.

2. Engagement before gadgets. Dialing into social media when you should be listening to a presenter or actively involved in a discussion is an absolute no-no.  Moreover, the behavior stands out like a sore thumb. How would you feel if while pouring your heart into your audience, folks were texting away like crazy—offended perhaps? That’s precisely why you shouldn’t do it. Of course, in the event of an emergency, you should excuse yourself so that you can communicate freely out of the purview and earshot of the group.

3. Table manners are essential. Ever need to combine a meal with business? If you haven’t already, it’s likely that you will to at some point. This is where the phrase “Be ready so you don’t have to get ready” teaches the lesson best. According to Emily Post, the basics are:

  • Chew with your mouth closed.
  • Avoid slurping, smacking, blowing your nose, or other gross noises. (If necessary,
    excuse yourself to take care of whatever it is you need to take care of.)
  • Don’t use your utensils like a shovel or as if you’ve just stabbed the food you’re about to eat.
  • Don’t pick your teeth at the table.
  • Remember to use your napkin at all times.
  • Wait until you’re done chewing to sip or swallow a drink. (The exception is if you’re choking.)
  • Cut only one piece of food at a time.
  • Avoid slouching and don’t place your elbows on the table while eating (though it is OK to prop your elbows on the table while conversing between courses.)
  • Instead of reaching across the table for something, ask for it to be passed to you.
  • Always say, ‘Excuse me,’ whenever you leave the table.

But, these tips don’t go far enough for business-savvy professionals. Explore more specific tips on business dining etiquette (including rules for pre-dinner etiquette, place setting guidelines, what happens when you sit down, eating styles, ordering, paying the bill and more, here.

4. Handle conflict professionally. Upset about what happened in the last executive meeting? Hold that thought. Don’t take to the virtual streets (ie. no angry emails, texts, tweets or Facebook posts). Don’t backbite and spread rumors. If you have an issue with someone, take them aside and discuss it like an adult. Don’t engage in passive aggressive antics that will create paper trails, damage your reputation or get you fired.

5. Say “Thank you.” Prompt and thoughtful expressions of gratitude are always welcome. You should aim for responding to a kind gesture immediately if in person and within 24 hours if responding by phone or email. If you wait much longer, the gesture goes stale, leaving the other party with the impression that you are unappreciative of their efforts. Strive to promptly express gratitude to avoid this result.

Remember, business etiquette is an extension of your professionalism. Don’t risk creating a reputation for being unprofessional or worse. Use the five tips to create a professional impression wherever you go and you’ll never have to worry about “who’s watching.”

To your success!

Karima Mariama-Arthur Esq. is the founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport, an international consulting firm specializing in professional development. Follow her on Twitter: @wsrapport or visit her website,

  • Sage advice.

    Taking someone aside and talking to them 1 on 1. Not only is that classy but it’s also the right thing to do.

    Here’s my question though. How do you handle it when you’re dealing with someone who thrives on manipulation and creating problems? The co-worker that chooses to punish you in some way when you attempt to work things out 1 on 1?

    It’s something I’ve been asked about over and over from others and the same issue comes up. If they bring in their boss they both lose face. But handling it on their own hasn’t worked.

    Any thoughts?

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      Hi Andrew! As always, thank you so much for your thoughtful engagement.

      Great question. It’s tough when someone refuses to be reasonable and essentially doesn’t want to work things out. Here’s the thing: You can’t want resolution more than the other person.It’s definitely a 2-way street. And, if the success of your job is contingent on working things out amicably, that is your first line of defense. You should make that point clear to the adversarial party. If, after attempting to go through the normal channels you still can’t find closure and it’s affecting your job performance, health, sanity or otherwise then unfortunately you may have to go up the food chain.

      If it’s merely pettiness warmed over and you can physically and emotionally separate yourself and your work from the person, then do that. Sometimes people are just looking to churn things up. Sooner or later they will drive themselves into a proverbial ditch. Give them permission to fight it out in their own head. Don’t give them the space to wreak havoc on your sanity.

      • Nice!

        Most of the situations I referenced were about emotional intelligence. A few of the “aggressors” seemed to enjoy controlling or dominating others and chose their targets accordingly.

        One friend had a superior that refused to approve her promotion because she’d leave his dept. She was bullied into staying and punished for being “disloyal”.

        I’ll share your advice with her when I get a chance.

        Thanks again.


          Excellent! I love the topic of emotional intelligence and teach on it regularly. Also, people are pretty unaware of the prevalence of workplace bullying (how to identify and what to do when it happens to you). Have you friend check out the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). I have some contacts there if she needs them. Let me know how the situation turns out…

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