Just a Little Respect
Each generation has its own take on Workplace Etiquette
by Lynne Lancaster & David Stillman
Etiquette in the workplace used to revolve around one set of standard behaviors that newcomers would make it their business to learn. Today, though, what used to be reliable rules for behavior seem like shaky guidelines at best.
The problem, explains Perrin Cunningham, co-author of Business Etiquette for Dummies, is that there’s more than one version of the rules. “The reason the etiquette issue has gotten so out of hand is that every generation brings its own set of rules and behaviors, and nobody knows what’s standard anymore,” she says.
One etiquette school of thought maintains that the younger generations owe it to the older ones to learn the established rules and play by them. Another says it’s the job of the older ones to bend because, well … times are changing. The simplest solution presumably would be to determine which set of guidelines is the “right” one. But it’s not that easy.
Whose rules are best?
Traditionalists (born before 1946) and Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) were raised to respect their elders, and that principle has guided them in their careers. For these groups, calling the boss “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms.” acknowledges status and conveys deserved respect. To Generation Xers (born 1965-1981) and Millennials (born 1982-2000), such formalities seem stilted and unnecessarily hierarchical. How can they collaborate with someone—even when that someone is their boss—if they have to start each sentence with “Mr. So-and-So”? For younger workers, respect isn’t necessarily demonstrated through titles. It’s earned and shown through mutual respect and other forms of address.
Who’s right? Perhaps they both are. There’s something to be said for each generation developing distinctive rules. Haven’t we learned from the diversity movement that different isn’t necessarily bad? If we apply that tenet to office etiquette, we’re less likely to offend—and less likely to be offended.
We’ve found that the biggest etiquette faux pas in the workplace occur in three areas—forms of address, telephone communications, and clothing. Here’s a familiar scenario: A Traditionalist manager hosted an expensive retirement dinner for his boss and was appalled when not a single Gen Xer bothered to dress up. Although the office dress code was casual, he assumed that everyone would know enough to dress well for this occasion, if only as a sign of respect for their leader.
Not every etiquette-challenged individual is under 40. The younger generations are victims of etiquette mishaps, too. In one case, a marketing team presented a new plan to a Traditionalist CEO. The youngest member of the team, an Xer, was very excited about the new strategy. But at the meeting, the CEO directed his remarks to the higher-level people in the room and failed to make eye contact with the Xer even once. She felt as though she was unimportant, and by the end of the meeting she’d lost her enthusiasm.
Some new guidelines
Rather than cling to a particular protocol, the best approach seems to be to adopt a big picture strategy in which the primary goal is to be more considerate of others. Managers need to “read” the etiquette rules of each generation to learn what makes others feel comfortable and respected. Here are some ways to develop this sensitivity:
Copyright Lynne Lancaster & David Stillman. All Rights Reserved.
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