Professional Etiquette

What is Etiquette?

You can have the resume and the degree, but if you don't have the manners, you probably don't get the job.

Etiquette is the proper mode of conduct or procedure within a certain social realm. Being aware of certain conventions will give you a professional and attractive look. And though practicing good etiquette alone won't get you up the business ladder, it certainly will give you a boost.

Social/Conversational Etiquette

The way you interact with others says a lot about you. Learn how to project polite and professional appeal.

Introducing Yourself
  • Make sure to look people in the eyes and smile in order to seem confident and approachable.
  • If you are seated while being introduced to someone, stand to greet that person and shake his or her hand. Have a firm handshake, but avoid death grips.
  • If you are given a name tag, put it high on your right shoulder; that way, while you shake hands, people can follow the line of your arm straight up to your name without having to scan your chest.
Introducing Others
  • When introducing two people to each other, introduce the lowest ranked person first, then reciprocate.
  • Logistically this means you must look at the higher ranked person and say, "Ms Throckmorton, I'd like to introduce to you Mr. Thomas, an intern in our IT department. Mr. Thomas, this is Ms Throckmorton, the director of technical publications."
  • When dealing with people outside of the company, clients are considered more important than anyone working within the company, and hiring managers are more important than job seekers. You can omit titles when introducing people of the same rank and position.



When talking with people at the workplace, in a networking session, or even over coffee, there are some basic tips for discussion that will make your conversations more enjoyable:

Basic Courtesy
  • Try not to interrupt people in the middle of a story. If you must interrupt, always excuse yourself and try to get back to what the other person was saying as soon as possible. This shows people that you value their ideas and company.
  • Don't talk too loudly or for too long; these actions might make you seem self centered.
  • Stay away from negative conversation and never tell rumors or point out major faults in others. These actions build mistrust and are generally unpleasant.
  • If you feel the conversation going sour, switch the tone as soon as possible. Close the negative topic and ask a question to redirect the conversation. If all else fails, talk about the weather, but keep the conversation positive.
Cat got your tongue?
  • For some people coming up with conversation topics can be really difficult. If you struggle with this, equip yourself with easy conversation starters. Before going to a work party or professional gathering,
  • Try watching the news or reading an interesting article.
  • Read articles from a professional journal.
  • For networking, you might want to brush up on your strategic introduction. Being ready to quickly and clearly describe yourself shows confidence and direction.
  • If you get stuck in an awkward silence, you can bring up any of the above topics. Asking people questions is always a great way to keep a conversation going as well: People love to talk about themselves or a topic about which they know a lot.
Body Language
  • At social functions, try keeping your hands as free as possible: Don't carry a huge notebook or bag, and if you must eat something, hold it in your left hand to save your right hand for hand shakes.
  • Show that you are focused on the conversation by keeping eye contact, nodding, smiling, and using other nonverbal affirmative gestures.
  • If you are alone, try not to zone out. Make eye contact with people and smile at them. These actions will make you more approachable.

Communication Etiquette

The way you communicate in writing or over the phone is sometimes more important than communication in person. This is because people may not be able to see your body language or hear your tone of voice. So word choice is imperative. Avoid confusion by omitting jokes that could be misinterpreted.

Letter Format

Letters are still the most formal mode of communication. Even with e-mail, it is still important to know the format of a formal business letter:

  • Use 8 1/2 by 11 inch paper.
  • Write in single space.
  • If the letter is not printed on letterhead, type your address, not including your name, at the top of the letter.
  • Skip one line. Then write out the date.
  • Skip one line. Then type the recipients name, title, and address.
  • Skip one line. Write the salutation, including the recipient's title, last name, and a colon.
  • For example, write, "Dear Mr. Peterson:"
  • Skip one line. Write the short body of the letter.
  • In the first part state the purpose of the letter and identify your connection to the recipient.
  • In the second part, describe what you want.
  • In the third part, make the specific request.
  • Skip two lines. Close your letter with "Yours truly" or "Sincerely."
  • Then skip three lines to leave room for your signature, and type your name.

See a sample cover letter for an example of a formal business letter.



Professional email should not address the recipient in a more casual tone than you would in person (i.e. Mr. Smith in person should stay Mr. Smith in e-mail). And though e-mail is a quick and convenient mode of communication, you should ALWAYS use correct English. Take time to check for spelling, grammar, and proper usage.



Lately more and more business transactions are done over the phone, and phone interviews are a pretty common procedure. So know the proper protocol:

Making Calls
  • Be mentally prepared to make a call before you dial. Know with whom you want to speak and what you want to say or ask.
  • Always introduce yourself immediately.
  • When leaving messages, speak slowly, and leave your number twice: once at the beginning of the message and once at the end.
Receiving Calls
  • Always answer your phone in a quiet place free of interruptions and noise. Before you pick up make sure you have time to devote to the caller. Always identify yourself immediately.
  • When asking who is calling make sure to ask permission to ask; that is, phrase your question something like this: "May I ask who's calling?" This will avoid alienating the caller.
  • Change your voice mail message to a simple professional greeting when your job hunting: "Hello, you've reached Shanna Jones, I'm unable to answer my phone at this time, please leave me a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible."
Cell Phones
  • Turn your cell phone off during meetings; answering your cell phone in a meeting gives the impression that those around you are less important than any other person who might call.
  • Try not to answer the phone when you are in restaurants; if you are expecting an important call, let those you are dining with know, and when you receive the call, excuse yourself, leave the table, and make the call brief.
  • Be aware of how loud you talk on a cell phone in public places and create space by moving at least two arm lengths away from those around you (or out of the room if possible).

Dining Etiquette

Many times professionals conduct business meetings or interviews over a meal. This may give some people a panic attack. But dining is not as complicated as we sometimes imagine. Just knowing a few pointers will help you survive.


First Things First
  • As you arrive at the table, wait until the person with the highest seniority sits before taking your seat.
  • Immediately place your napkin on your lap as you seat yourself. If you must leave during the meal, place your napkin on the seat--not on the table.
  • Don't start eating until your host or hostess begins.


  • Use the outside utensils first and work your way in.
  • Once you use a utensil, it should not touch the tablecloth again. While not using your utensils, rest them slanted across the right front side of your plate. Make sure that the blade of your knife is facing you. Never leave a spoon in a bowl of soup or cup of coffee. The plates under bowls and cups are there for your utensils.


Accidents Do Happen

The general rule for spills or accidents is hands off. Don't clean up spills with your own napkin and don't touch items that have dropped on the floor. You can use your napkin to protect yourself from spills. Then, simply and politely ask your server to clean up and to bring you a replacement for the soiled napkin or dirty utensil.


More Help

Visit the Etiquette Scholar website to get detailed instructions.


Thank You Letters

Sending a thank you letter is not only very courteous, but could also make the difference in whether or not you get the job. it is also another way of getting your name and qualifications in front of a recruiter or a networking connection. Additionally, your letter can also be one more way of displaying your writing skills.

Three types of "Thank You" communications:

  • Formal business-type letter
  • Email
  • Handwritten card or note

All three of these forms are completely acceptable, choose the form that best fits your personality and that of your interviewer. Ask yourself "How do I want to portray myself" and "What form would my interviewer prefer?" If you have a strong feeling about one of these questions, you have your answer.


When to Send?
  • Send thank you letters or thank you notes after job interviews, career fairs, informational interviews, career panels, or other career-related events. Start off by mentioning something you enjoyed or benefited from during the interview or meeting. Then give a specific thank you. Try to keep the letter short.