Miss Manners Regrets

The syndicated columnist sounds off about wildly blatant greed, soaring executive pay, the unfair use of the perp walk, and other fine points

From corporate-funded bacchanalia in Italy to outsized pay packages, some American managers have been models of bad behavior. Are these headline grabbers just exceptions to the social norm or emblematic of how we conduct ourselves in the workplace? For a clearer sense of the state of corporate etiquette, BusinessWeek consulted Judith Martin, the syndicated columnist known as Miss Manners.

You just wrote Star-Spangled Manners, a look at American etiquette. How does the country rank?

If you're asking how our etiquette system ranks, I would say it's both the best and the most influential in the world today. How do we rank as practitioners of it? Well, we have a lot of people who violate it, as does every society.

Have we become more comfortable with boorish behavior in the executive suite?

This is a society in which greed has become wildly blatant. Have we become comfortable with it? No. People resent it. They're delighted when someone who has been getting away with this is caught by the legal system.

We have seen a rapid escalation in executive compensation over the past decade. Is that a problem?

It builds up resentment. I would doubt that people who are making skimpy wages have warm feelings toward an organization that creates such a divide between the rich and poor.

A lot of those rich execs do give to charity, and some of them seem to have their names on every building in their home town. Another example of bad taste?

What happened to good old Anonymous? One very rarely sees Anonymous listed among donors anymore. It [has] become a competitive game because people believe they are gaining prestige. It's a good end but a rather pathetic means to get there.

Let's say a donor is up on criminal charges. Can you take their name off the building if they go to jail?

That's a rather ugly move unless you return the money. If a person is tainted or has ill-gotten gains, return the money. Then wipe off the name.

What do you think of such traditions as the perp walk?

It is an attempt to use humiliation to augment and stir up social disapproval. Since it's usually done before someone is convicted, there's something unfair about it. The weapons that the realm of manners has to control behavior are disapproval and humiliation. They must be used judiciously.

We've seen indicted celebrities sit down to chat with Barbara Walters. Is it proper to go public with one's problems?

People have found that a good confession and a little remorse are enough to wipe out any transgression or crime. As long as the person tells us the whole story, says he's sorry, and maybe seeks therapy or something like that for 12 minutes, we will wipe the record clean. It's rather generous...who would not take advantage of it?

In a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, you criticized the informality of the American workplace. What are the perils?

We Americans pride ourselves on not tolerating phoniness, yet this is the biggest hoax -- that people you work with are also your friends and that [your jobs] are a leisuretime activity. You're not equal to your boss or your staff. You have to work together in a cooperative and pleasant manner, but you don't have to be friends.

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