Business Etiquette Makes or Breaks Employee Relations

By Sunoo, Brenda Paik | Personnel Journal, June 1996 | Go to article overview
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Business Etiquette Makes or Breaks Employee Relations


Sunoo, Brenda Paik, Personnel Journal


Today's HR professionals are required to have a vast amount of knowledge on a wide array of topics. Let PERSONNEL JOURNAL find the experts to answer questions on the personnel issues important to you. Your colleagues asked: How can improper etiquette undermine employee relations?

Norine Dresser, author of "Multicultural Manners: New Rules of Etiquette for a Changing Society," in Los Angeles, says:

Michael, 20, warmly greets Harihar Patel, a 50-year-old co-worker with, "Good morning, Harihar." This overture rankles the older gentleman.

Fernando has a surprise encounter with Wilhelmina, a former lab partner. Happily, he hugs her. But instead of being pleased, she sharply pulls away.

Luisa has been struggling to learn a complicated new computer program. Her supervisor, Mr. Samson, checks her work and enthusiastically gives her the A-OK sign. Shocked, Luisa blushes.

In a diverse society, social mishaps frequently occur because the individuals involved come from different cultural backgrounds-with distinct customs and rules of etiquette. Learned early in life, these customs become automatic responses. Except with traveling, few people expect what's customary to them may be interpreted negatively by people of different backgrounds. This clashing of customs can clearly damage interpersonal relations at the workplace. Why did these encounters sour? Michael assumed because they had worked together, it would be friendlier to call Harihar Patel "Harihar" instead of "Mr. Patel." However, his Indian-born co-worker considered it disrespectful for a younger person to address him by his first name.

Fernando, a Mexican American, grew up greeting family and friends with some form of physical contact. But his hug embarrassed Wilhelmina. Her Philippine upbringing stressed that public body contact between unrelated men and women was improper. Finally, when Mr. Samson gave Luisa the A-OK sign, he humiliated her because in her native Argentina, it's an obscene gesture.

As minor as these improprieties may seem, they create disharmony in the workplace and decrease morale. Even though no social offense was intended, all initially resulted in social discomfort to the receivers of the perceived insults, and afterward to those who inadvertently caused them.

How can these cultural blunders be ameliorated? Often, a simple apology accompanied by a brief explanation will work. Then hopefully through time and nonrepetition of offenses, the parties will re-establish respect, harmony and mutual expectations of behavior. Miscommunications can be lessened by increasing awareness of cultural differences. Nowadays, it's incumbent upon HR professionals to provide workshops, videos and a reliable manual to help avoid culturalbased discourtesies. Janet Garber, employee relations manager at Cornell University Medical College in New York, says:

I see problems on the workplace front when the "bad manners" of supervisors undermine what they're trying to do. For example, a supervisor might place her hands on her hips and point a finger at her staff member and tell him or her not to do something again. She might talk down to this person and even correct the employee at his or her desk, within earshot of the employee's co-workers. She might also pull papers out of the employee's hands or plunk down a file on the employee's desk. All these actions defeat the supervisor's purpose, presumably to assign work, point out errors and suggest ways to produce a finer work product.

I also had a situation, more than once, with a quiet employee who believed it was her duty to come into work and to only work. When employees spoke to her, she would turn her back to them, indicating she had work to do.

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