Advice On Everyday Workplace Issues

"Ask Allan"

Great behaviour in business is not about being proper and playing nice at any cost.  It's about being respectful while being authentic and honest in your dealings with others so that business gets conducted in an efficient and productive manner. 

First-hand insight into a multitude of corporate situations is necessary before anyone can successsfully counsel others in business.  Over the years, I've held various positions in some of the largest companies as a senior leader, manager, career counselor, trainer, and human resources professional.  I have mentored, guided, trained and counselled dozens of teams and hundreds of professionals.  I continue to do so with the same passion. 

Following are a few of the many questions I receive monthly that are of concern to people working at any level in any area of business. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q20:  I dislike having to shake hands while mingling and eating finger foods.  Is it acceptable not to shake hands?

A20:  You're far from alone in your thinking… and, yes, it's now acceptable. 
Many people prefer not to shake hands when handling finger foods, especially at cocktail parties.  And who can blame the degree of caution given germs are spread hand to hand.  While some are dispensing with handshakes altogether, others shake hands if a hand is extended but they no longer offer their hand first.  Do what's most comfortable for you.  No one should fault you if you're gracious and attentive to others.      

Q19:  I've noticed men's suits now have a very tight fit.  As a young professional am I expected to go with this latest style if I want to appear current at work?

A19:  Absolutely not… overly tight suits on men isn't style but sad. 
Many suits are now body hugging, not a flattering look on most men, even young men.  A few companies have asked me to address the issue with their male staff because they feel it's embarrassing to see form fitting pants that show bulges, pant legs that hug from thigh to ankle, and jackets pulling in all directions.  Your discretion is needed if men's tailoring sees fit to call this "fashion".  Many in the fashion industry call this latest trend fashion faux pas, not fashion forward.  Use common sense and dress as if you're presenting in front of your company's most important client.  

Q18:  The company I work for is business casual dress and jeans on Fridays.  A few of our younger professionals are wearing "jeggings" on Fridays.  Isn't that a big no-no even for jeans day? 

A18:  Absolutely… jeggings are out if you want to look professional.
There are plenty of options to wear on jeans day but leggings that look like skin-tight jeans isn't one of them.  In many offices, leggings of any kind are considered unsuitable, even for jeans day.  After all, leggings are not pants!  A word of caution when wearing jeans - make sure they're suitable for the office in fit, look and style.  Often jeans that are worn outside of work aren't the most appropriate for office wear.  You want to elevate your overall look on jeans days and keep to the same high grooming standards as for the rest of the week. And your shoes and accessories should still say "business".   

Q17:  I just completed a PhD and was told to use social networking media to give potential employers insight about me.  I'm private and wonder if that's necessary? 

A17:  It's wise in business that you do only what feels comfortable.
I hear it often too… people touting all the new social networking media as a great way to increase career success.  But there's a lack of evidence as to the merits of that.  In fact, some evidence runs counter to it.  A recent U.S. poll of hiring companies showed that some managers changed their minds about a potential hire after reading information the candidate had posted on the internet.  It seems it's now become easy for a company to gather all information ever posted by a person on any internet source, even when they used cryptic names rather than their own!  In one case, a young woman was overlooked for a significant position when the hiring company found photos she put on Facebook which were not very respectful.  In another case, a candidate was overlooked after the company read one of his comments on Twitter that went against the company's views.  Many people are private, shy, reserved or just plain cautious… and for those reasons alone it's ok to avoid or limit use of social media.  Instead use your great credentials, intelligence, people skills, and resourcefulness to garner attention from employers.      


Q16:  A caterer interviewed on tv about finger foods, when asked how to handle business cards at a function, said to carry your cards in one pocket and those you receive in another pocket.  Is that correct?


A16:  Pocket fuzz aside… the cook couldn't have been more incorrect!
Exchanging business cards is not about efficiency or practicality.  It's about decorum and respect.  While it is difficult to mingle, eat finger foods and exchange business cards, the best approach is not the fastest.  You should always carry your business cards in a two-sided card case.  For a function, the case is put in a pocket (especially for a man) or in a purse if the woman is carrying one.  At no time should you mingle and eat… and carry your card case in your hand.   

Q15:  I’m between jobs; what information should I put on my business card?  Is it appropriate to put a mini resume on the back? 

A15:  It takes time to design a card so don't rush it.
Everyone in transition or looking for their first job should create a business card.  It should contain your name, credentials, email, phone number and city.  Your address is optional.  You do not include a job title.  Cards with a mini resume on the back must have a clear message that's short and smart looking.  Be particular in laying out your information (often the font is too large in an attempt to fill space).  Keep your card professional and simple to attract the widest audience but make it a reflection of who you are and the kind of job you seek.  Get trusted opinions from a few people who know you well before having it printed. 


Q14:   How should you conduct yourself when you're downsized?


A14:  Professionally at all times!
The way you handle yourself during your termination can have significant impact on your career transition and job aspirations elsewhere.  Leave with dignity by handling your termination meeting calmly.  Keep your cool and acknowledge that the company had difficult decisions to make which could not have been easy.  State how much you enjoyed working with the company and your colleagues.  When the timing is right, don't hesitate to approach former colleagues and superiors for letters of reference or for an introduction to those they know who may be in a position to assist with your job search.


Q13:   What single behaviour will sabotage my reputation the most?


A13:  Telling a lie - no matter how small or well intentioned!
Deceit, exaggeration and errors of omission are unprofessional.  If you're old enough to be in business, you should have the backbone to tell the truth - no matter how uncomfortable a situation that may be for you.  I've seen people blame their lies on others, or plead it was just a little white lie. Jack Welch (one of the greatest corporate leaders) said he would fire anyone - and instructed his managers to fire anyone - for dishonesty, no matter how small, because left unchecked deceit will set the tone in a company. I couldn't agree more. 


Q12:  Is relaxed and informal conduct okay at work?


A12:  No it's not… not if you take your work and career seriously.
It's important to be friendly and approachable but the workplace is a place of business, not a social club.  Professional conduct is best, especially if you aspire to greater career opportunities or more important projects.  And keep in mind that it's smart to behave in ways that are acceptable to the senior management team.  


Q11:  Is it acceptable to speak out against "bad" ideas in meetings?


A11:  Absolutely.  Not only is it acceptable, great leaders expect it.
What you say and how you say it are important but, as someone once said, "Even if your entire board of directors votes for a dumb idea, it's still a dumb idea."  For the good of the company you work for, and for your reputation, you should be courageous enough to identify bad ideas by stating their shortcomings… and then come up with a good idea.


Q10:  Does what you wear to work really matter that much?


A10:  An emphatic yes, it does
If you want to play the part, you must dress the part.  And dress for the position you want, not the one you have.


Q9:  What's the etiquette on being late for a meeting? 


A9:  Being on time is professional and shows respect for others. 
But everyone is late now and then.  When you know you'll be late, call immediately to explain.  Apologize when you arrive, quietly take a seat, and don't expect others to immediately acknowledge you or bring you up to date.  How can we counter those who are always late?  Allow five minutes grace then close the door and start the meeting.  Don't recap what was missed when the latecomer arrives as that's a waste of everyone's time.


Q8:  What's the etiquette on promoting yourself while networking?


A8:  Always with a modicum of modesty! 
Networking has become synonymous with selling.  When attending a function be careful not to appear desperate for business or a job.  The purpose is to meet and mingle with many and to have fun.  It's about getting to know people in order to build relationships (most often slowly over time).  Show people you care about them so that they can care about you.  Don't ask questions merely to get others talking about something that's of interest to you. 

As for that business card someone shoves at you after speaking with you for only a few minutes, know that the etiquette is not to offer your card until someone asks you for it.  If they don't ask, you can ask for theirs first and then offer yours.  I was at a function recently when someone rushed up to me as I was leaving to say we had not met during the evening but she wanted me to have her card!  Why, I thought? 


Q7:  I've been told I'm too brisk with email.  Shouldn't email be fast?


A7:  Your image and that of your company are on the line.
Poor email skills can cost you business.  The way you handle, answer and manage email tells others if you're professional, organized and timely.  What erodes your good image?  Poor grammar, spelling mistakes, not using a proper salutation, and not using signature lines.  Ensure your email aren't too long, are easily understood, well formatted, accurate, and organized in a logical way.  Insert a subject line that's meaningful.  Err on the side of more formality rather than less.  And know that many countries are more formal than we are in North America.  Respond to all email you receive within two days or acknowledge receipt if you can't reply in full right away. 

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Q6:  What is proper when using a PDA?  My email are short, I use short forms, and don't always punctuate.


A6:  Assess your recipient to determine how formal you should be.  
If the formality you require is beyond what a PDA offers, wait, if possible, until you have access to a computer.  If you must respond using a PDA, keep your email to the point but don't omit essentials to be professional (especially when sending to someone who receives email on their computer).  The basics of email etiquette still apply but your email will be to the point.  What people object to most about PDA email is the format default that occurs… not only does it affect the email you send, it reformats the entire email stream.  Alignments may be gone, fonts changed, sentences split unnaturally, etc.  This makes it very difficult (and annoying) to read email sent from a PDA.


Q5:  What business accessories do I need to appear professional?


A5:  Go for classic quality items that are practical.
Carry a briefcase (never a backpack no matter how smart it looks), a writing portfolio, a classic pen, and a daytimer.  And buy the best you can afford.  I still recall taking a meeting a few years ago with a woman wanting to sell her high-priced services to the company I worked for.  She was escorted into our boardroom and I noticed how well dressed she was… but more important, I noted her battered brown briefcase stuffed to the top, her Bic pen, and her writing pad taken from the University Club on which she had scribbled a few illegible notes on the top page!  That told me all I needed to know about her business skills!


Q4:  What items are inappropriate when accessorizing an office?


A4:  Never display pictures of yourself (it appears very self-centered).
Display family photos, team photos of people you work with, pictures of company events, etc.  Don't put trinkets in your office (it's unprofessional) or items with another unrelated company's logo.  Don't clutter your office - a few well placed items are best.  Hang certificates so guests can easily see them.  One woman I know hung three certificates on the wall facing her desk (so she could admire them all day!) but her guests always had their backs to them! 


Q3:  What do you do when you've made a bad decision at work?


A3: Proper conduct is to own up to it… quickly!
Then apologize to anyone affected by your decision, correct the situation as best you can, and then don't dwell on it.

Q2:  How many drinks are acceptable at a businessfunction?

A2:  No more than two alcoholic beverages is wise.
Regardlessof the occasion or the professionals involved, limiting yourself to two drinksis a good idea.  When you’re withcolleagues, clients or prospects, these are always business functions and it’sbest to err on the side of conservatism - especially if you’re the host! 

Q1:  What is the best way to thank someonediscreetly at work?

A1:  A handwritten note with a few lines of thanksfrom the heart.
Toshow appreciation for an act of kindness at work that was out of the ordinary, agift may or may not be in order.  Anemail is never the best way to show appreciation.