The first time I went to dinner with a business partner, I was terrified. What if I accidentally brought up a sensitive subject or committed a faux pas? What if it was hard to eat my meal gracefully? What if I made too much eye contact -- or equally bad, too little?

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Fortunately, the dinner went well. Now that I've attended several professional dinners per year, I stay up-to-date with the types of business etiquette and professional norms. Studying up gives me confidence that I'm representing my company well.

By learning and following the rules of business protocol, you can shore up your professional relationships and networking skills -- and potentially close more deals with a wider variety of clients and customers.

Business protocol is made up of a variety of different codes of conduct and manners, and it can vary across different companies, industries, and countries. Business etiquette is one element of business protocol.

So, let's dig into the five types of business etiquette, and our guidelines for sticking to them.

The 5 Types of Business Etiquette

Workplace Etiquette

These rules deal with your behavior at the office. Culture and expectations differ from company to company, so what's rude at one workplace may be normal at another.

For instance, HubSpot is dog-friendly, so my coworkers frequently bring their pups in with them. At a traditional office, showing up with Rover would probably annoy your colleagues -- and may even get you in hot water with upper management.

Figure out what's acceptable and what's not by reading your company handbook, paying attention to how the executives behave (and following suit), and sticking by the standard rules (such as "Don't heat up excessively smelly foods in the break room.")

Table Manners and Meal Etiquette

There's far more to dinner and meal etiquette than knowing which fork to use. Luckily, once you've memorized these rules, you'll be well-equipped for any eating situation.

I can't even begin to cover them here -- you should read a book on meal etiquette or watch some videos for a full briefer -- but every professional should know the following:

  • Put your napkin in your lap when you sit down
  • Order items in a similar price range to your dining companions
  • Don't start eating until everyone has received their food
  • Pass condiments and dishes from left to right rather than reaching across the table
  • Chew with your mouth closed
  • Don't snap your fingers at your server
  • After the meal is over, partially fold your napkin and put it to the left of your plate

Professionalism

Being professional means contributing to a pleasant, productive, and inclusive work environment. Professionalism includes an entire range of behaviors; however, here are the most standard:

  • Keeping your word: When you make a commitment -- whether it's big or small -- keep it. If you know that will be impossible, give the other person as much notice as possible.
  • Being punctual: Show up on time (or early).
  • Remaining calm: Even in heated situations, do your best to stay cool.
  • Acting flexible: Sometimes you'll have to stay late, show up early, change plans, move meetings, and more to make things work. Unless this is happening all the time, accommodate these changes without raising a stink.
  • Using diplomacy: There will be people you don't like -- prospects, coworkers, or both. Be kind and amiable anyway.
  • Accepting constructive criticism: Throughout your career, others will offer feedback. If you're closed off to it, you'll not only harm your professional rapport, you'll also lose valuable opportunities to improve.

Communication Etiquette

A large majority of our relationships hinge on good communication. Not sure what that entails? Let's break communication etiquette down into three categories:

Phone Etiquette

  • Don't speak too loudly or too softly. If you're worried about your volume, ask, "How am I coming across? Do you need me to talk more or less quietly?"
  • Never interact with your phone while you're with someone else. Keep it stashed in your pocket or bag at all times.
  • If you're on a conference call and you're not speaking, mute yourself so the others aren't distracted by the outside noise.

Email Etiquette

  • Aim to answer internal emails within one day and external emails within three days.
  • Avoid overusing exclamation marks and smiley faces.
  • Default to "Reply" over "Reply All."
  • Check with each party before you make an introduction.

In-Person Etiquette

  • Steer clear of complimenting someone's appearance, since this can make people feel uncomfortable.
  • Maintain eye contact 60% to 70% of the time.
  • Match their speaking volume.
  • Show interest in what they're saying.

5. Meetings Etiquette

Meetings are an important aspect of business communication that allow teams to share ideas, discuss strategy, and get on the same page about projects and priorities. Below are some strategies for maintaining proper meeting etiquette, whether you're meeting in-person or virtually:

  • Send a meeting agenda around when you invite people to attend so they can prepare for the discussion in advance.
  • Be mindful of time zones and the daily schedules of the people you're inviting when setting a time so nobody has to attend a meeting too early or too late in the day.
  • Set up lunch or ask people to bring lunch if your meeting is scheduled during a typical lunch hour.
  • Introduce new team members or first-time meeting attendees to the larger group.

In-Person Meetings Etiquette

  • Give attendees up to five minutes to settle in before diving into the agenda.
  • Follow or set a clear agenda so people have time to think about contributions and ideas before presenting. 
  • Call on everyone who wants to participate in the discussion, or go around in a circle so everyone can speak.
  • Don't speak too loudly so as not to disturb people working around you.

Virtual Meetings Etiquette

  • Look at the camera -- not your own face or theirs -- so you seem like you're making eye contact.
  • Shut the door and make sure you're not interrupted by your pets, children, roommates, significant other, etc.
  • Before your meeting, check the area in camera range for inappropriate or overly personal items.
  • If you're the meeting facilitator, make sure all participants have the chance to speak or present ideas, even if they're tuning in remotely.

These might seem like a lot of rules. And, well, you're not wrong. But rules have an upside: Once you know what to do, it's much easier to build and maintain a great professional reputation.

To learn more, read our list of client gift ideas next.

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Originally published Jan 21, 2019 5:00:00 PM, updated January 22 2019

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Business Etiquette