The Modern Woman's Guide to Professional Etiquette

Updated 09/23/16

1. Err on the side of formality.

My mother always said you can never be over-dressed. While I definitely found instances—such as middle school birthday parties—when this sentiment wasn’t true, in a business setting, formality is always your friend. When being introduced to someone, always stand. Reserve candid conversation with your business partner until after you have left the building in which your meeting was hosted. This is known in the business community as the “elevator rule.” Wait until the elevator doors have opened on the bottom floor until discussing anything that went on during your last meeting. You never know who is listening, and it’s impolite and unprofessional to disclose your perception of the meeting until in private.

2. Use your first and last name.

When introducing yourself in a business situation, always use your first and last name. Introducing yourself with just your first name sounds childish. It’s also harder for the person you’re meeting to remember you with only a first name. When you meet people, shake their hand and repeat their name back to them. “Nice to meet you, Nancy” makes you seem more confident than just “Nice to meet you.” Repeating a person’s first name also helps you remember it.

3. Always carry business cards.

Sure, everyone can find you online after meeting you, especially if you have a public LinkedIn profile or other social media presence. But if you wish people would follow up with you, it’s far more respectable to offer people your business card than just making sure they know how to spell your name correctly. It’s also awkward (and looks terribly novice) if someone asks you for your business card and you don’t have one. You want to avoid taking out your cell phone during business introductions as well, so having a simple yet well-designed card on hand helps keep screens out of the equation.

4. Response time matters—stay on top of your inbox.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt identifies a quick response time as the top rule of email etiquette. “Most of the best—and busiest—people we know act quickly on their emails, not just to us or to a select few senders, but to everyone,” Schmidt says. “Being responsive sets up a positive communications feedback loop whereby your team and colleagues will be more likely to include you in important discussions and decisions.” Always strive to be the person your team can rely on for a quick response.

5. Say thank you, but sparingly. 

Being polite is professional. But flooding your language with the word “thank you” not only lessens the impact of your grateful sentiment but also makes you seem less confident in yourself. Preserve the integrity of your thanks, and present yourself as deserving but not needy by restricting to your use of the term “thank you” to once or twice per conversation. That said, after an interview or meeting in which you ask a favor, you should always provide a written thank-you note within 24 hours, even if you’ve already said thank you twice. 

6. During a business meal, follow your guest’s lead.

If you ask colleagues to a meal, always follow their lead on the pace of the meal. If they order a starter and a main course, you should do the same. If they have coffee after the meal, order yourself a cup as well. It doesn’t bode well for the flow of your meeting if one party is left twirling thumbs while the other consumes a course alone.

6. If you’re the host, pay.

When you ask a colleague or anyone you respect to a meal, a coffee, or a drink with the intention of probing for business advice or asking for a favor, always pay. You are seeking their advice and asking them to rearrange their day to help you, so it’s only right that you pay. Paying for the bill should also be a discreet matter. You never want to end a business gathering by arguing for the check. Excuse yourself to give the waiter your card before payment becomes an issue if you think it might be.

7. Orchestrate the perfect exit. 

Short, sweet, and effective are always best. Keep your meetings to 30 minutes or less, when possible—an hour when meeting for a meal. You want to have a clear purpose, a defined ask, enough character to entertain, and a solid exit. Leave before the meeting drags on, and always excuse yourself by leaving your counterpart wanting for another meeting. For example, “I’ll keep you updated on the launch” makes your guest feel included, excited for the future, and looking forward to hearing from you. You want to solidify your role as an enjoyable person to meet—someone to learn from and help—not a boring, disorganized obligation. Make it easy for your guest to help you, if that is the case, by providing a clear verbal overview of actionable items that you can each deliver after the meeting. For example, you can email your contact your business plan, and she can email-intro you to three colleagues.

Shop our favorite modern etiquette books below.

The Essentials of Business Etiquette by Barbara Pachter $9
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Modern Manners by Dorothea Johnson and Liv Tyler $16
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What’s the biggest business faux pas you’ve ever committed? What did you learn from it? Share with us in the comments.

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