By Liz Ryan
My friend is a publishing executive who once worked for a titan in the industry, a man revered both for his leadership and his financial success. Once, the magnate shocked my friend by commenting: "When you hire kids out of school, look for prep-school brats -- wealthy kids who are used to being around money. They handle themselves best with customers, and they have perfect manners."
After her initial, kneejerk populist reaction -- what, rich kids need these jobs? -- my friend pondered her boss's observation. So did I, and I think he was onto something. Granted, his comments weren't politically correct, or even particularly accurate: Who hasn't run across a silver-spoon, ill-mannered boor?
Yet one thing is true: Regardless of their social background or income, people who have good manners tend to fit more easily into professional situations. The question is, who's going to tell you that you have an etiquette deficit -- and then counsel you on your shortfalls?
Most often, the answer is no one. The only clue you'll have about your shortcomings is that you don't get a job you want. Or, you get it and you don't succeed. Or, you do well in a job where social obligations play a small part -- say, a product-development role -- and then flounder when a move to management or senior staff suddenly requires you to handle yourself in higher-brow company. In short, etiquette is one area where, usually, you have to look evaluate yourself, and, most likely, seek help on your own.
That said, there are easy ways to check on your own EQ -- your etiquette quotient. One is to identify the most polished person in your office and ask him or her to lunch or coffee. Start with a compliment: "Sarah, one thing I admire about you is your ability to handle situations with grace. You have terrific style and great manners."
Next comes the hard part: Say, "I think I do O.K., but I could use some tips. Do you have any suggestions for me on what to start doing, or not to do?"
If you're reluctant to be so candid with a colleague, have a similar conversation with yourself. Try to answer these three questions:
1) Are you comfortable in moving from casual to formal environments?
As you move up the career ladder, you'll be invited to more formal events, such as galas and awards presentations. Are you ready to handle yourself at those? Ready to start conversations with strangers easily, make small talk, manage ultra-white-tablecloth dining experiences, and order wine? That is, are you ready for prime time? If not, you may want to pick up an etiquette book, such as Judith Martin's Miss Manners' Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium.
2) Are you presenting yourself as polished at work right now?
Day-to-day, most offices are fairly easygoing. But that doesn't mean you should walk into a noon meeting with take-out Thai food and gobble it down in front of everyone. Do you eat a sub sandwich in your cubicle during the course of the afternoon when you had to miss lunch? Do you chew the ice in your drink during a meeting or fail to introduce yourself to a new colleague until the third time you've met?
You may not care about these seemingly small things, but other people do. Other people such as hiring managers. If you apply for a customer-facing job, such as an outside sales position, you may find yourself having a dinner interview at a nice restaurant. There's no better way for your prospective boss to judge your social skills. And no better place for you to make an impression -- good or bad.
3) Should you become more polished in order to advance at work?
Many professionals (in my experience, technology staffers in particular) don't view "making nice" with other people as one of their responsibilities. Then as they rise through the corporation or move to more outward-facing roles, their social ineptitude inevitably penalizes them. Do you think about your job in terms of dealing with people, and managing those interactions flawlessly?
If you don't have have that mindset, you would be well served to develop it now. Because you won't reach your potential in business until you do.
You'll probably be happy to hear that my friend continued to believe in hiring new recruits from all backgrounds. And to be fair to the magnate, he was the one who hired my friend -- and many of her middle-class college classmates. It's just that he almost certainly wouldn't have, had they shown up with spinach in their teeth.
Ryan is an at-work expert, speaker, and writer and CEO of the online networking organization WorldWIT