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Helping Generation Xers Decipher Corporate Protocol
Manners matter-especially in today's competitive business arenas.

by Amy Mills Tunnicliffe

Unlike several generations ago when good manners were drilled into young minds during childhood, today's Generation Xers were raised in a much more casual, laid-back atmosphere. Nowhere is that more evident than when they enter the corporate halls. After a recent training, my client and I were reviewing the surveys and we came across one that said "this is not the Queen's palace-this stuff is outdated!' Another said he liked the "dining edicut" portion the best. My client, the Director of Training at a large manufacturing company, said, "These recent grads don't have a clue-this is why we hire you!" Just months later she routinely hears through the grapevine that through trial and error, the new employees discovered the etiquette training was on target after all.

HR executives realize that in today's competitive business climate it takes more than job skills or the right education to succeed. Interpersonal skills and the ability to adapt to the corporate culture are critical for launching a successful career. Savvy companies take control of this situation by outlining expectations up front and providing a solid foundation for success in the form of training.

Tips for Launching a Successful Career

Show Respect and Deference to Senior Executives
Generation Xers' more casual and open attitude can be a detriment in the structured business world. They need to learn to conduct themselves in a reserved manner-not appearing too familiar or casual until a relationship is formed. Model or gently suggest the behaviors expected of them, such as:

  • Rise when a senior executive enters the room.
  • Don't sit at a meeting until being shown where to sit-or ask "Where would you like me to sit?"
  • Offer assistance where needed-don't remain seated while a more senior executive jumps up to make extra copies or locate supplies.

Rise with Respect
The older generation was taught to rise immediately when a woman entered the room or approached the table in a social situation and when a colleague, manager or guest came into an office. Many Generation Xers simply don't know this rule. Encourage your new employee to always rise for any introduction-both business and social-and when greeting colleagues, management or clients who enter your office or workspace. Rising is a gesture of respect for both the person to whom you are being introduced and yourself.

Develop a Positive Handshake
A casual wave and the word "Hey!" seem to be the standard Generation X greeting. You are judged by your handshake, both inside and outside the office. New employees should:

  • Make the handshake firm, with tension in the hand.
  • Pump the forearm two or three pumps from the elbow.
  • Avoid the bonecrusher, limp fish or consoling clergy handshake.
  • Be aware that older women were taught they should make the first move. This is not so in today's business world. (Exception: In European countries, the woman offers her hand first.)

Cultivate Conversation Skills
Small talk has a bad rap in today's quest for meaningful conversation. Xers need to learn the importance of small talk, which is simply what persons say to each other to be polite and to start a conversation. Xers should:

  • Read the newspaper, the employee newsletter and be up on current events-both international and interoffice.
  • Learn to ask questions and respond with information of his own.
  • Introduce himself to others.
  • Show curiosity and interest in others.
  • Balance the conversation-talking and listening.
  • Ask open-ended questions that begin with words like How? Why? In what way? How did you get involved...?

Pay Close Attention to Your Appearance.
Professional grooming and dress are one area where learning to decipher corporate protocol is essential. Each generation has its trends-such as the body piercing and tattoos that are popular with the Xers. These forms of expression are not always quite understood by colleagues and management-even those just a few years older. Generally speaking, except in the very most casual of small businesses or in art-related fields, one earring in each ear is viewed as appropriate for women. Men should think carefully before wearing an earring to the office. Earrings in other orifices should be removed during the business day. And about those tattoos-keep them under cover. Dermablend make-up can cover them-or consider removal via laser surgery. What seems as cool and hip socially could be detrimental to your career before the climb up the ladder is even begun.

Today's more casual business climate can be confusing. A common mistake is to take the words "business casual" to the extreme. Carefully observe the style of dress of the movers and shakers in upper management. While it won't be possible to duplicate a designer wardrobe on an entry-level budget, look for conservative, classic, well-fitting clothing. Trendy midriff-baring tops or baggy, loose-fitting pants do not fit the description "business casual."

Other tips:

  • Maintain neat and clean hair.
  • Brush and floss teeth regularly.
  • Use an effective deodorant.
  • Maintain proper skin care.
  • Keep clean and filed fingernails.
  • Exercise and eat a healthy diet.
  • Wear clean, neatly pressed, and well maintained clothes.
  • Polish shoes and be sure the heels are not worn.

Navigate Business Events with Ease
National and international conferences, off-site meetings and company outings bring employees together in a more relaxed environment focused on motivating, educating and planning. Any new employee views company events with some anxiety. That trepidation is magnified for the Xer who's most likely never encountered a formal business event. Help put the new employee at ease by introducing them and helping them enter a conversation. The aware employee will be grateful and will emulate the positive behavior you modeled. The savvy new employee realizes these meetings also provide a unique opportunity to reinforce relationships with colleagues and peers and to make positive impressions on senior management. Failing to participate enthusiastically, shyly hovering on the periphery and retreating to your room instead of socializing can be detrimental to a career.

Present a Polished Image on Paper
While surfing the 'Net and e-mail are familiar territory to the Xer, no electronic method will ever replace the sincere, thoughtful note handwritten on personal stationery. Encourage them to invest in quality social stationery and use it to write brief, warm notes as often as possible. Write to:

  • The host of a meeting or luncheon
  • A new client or new colleague
  • A manager, colleague, friend or acquaintance who does something you admire
  • Congratulate on a personal or professional success
  • Thank anyone who provides assistance-both inside or outside your office

The Generation X employee needs to observe and emulate positive behaviors to learn how to interact with ease up and down the corporate ladder. By providing guidance and outlining expectations up front a company can help mold a successful employee. To be an invaluable asset to a company an employee must possess the polished social skills that help him navigate through the corporate halls with ease, and ultimately represent the company with poise and polish.

Amy Mills Tunnicliffe is the Director of The Proper Manner, a Boston-based training company. Her seminars specialize in business communication skills, corporate etiquette, international protocol and executive dining skills. Programs are held at companies and fine hotels across the country. For more information contact The Proper Manner at 877-399-3636.

2004 Amy Mills Tunnicliffe