Transcript: Tuesday, August 22, 2 p.m. ET

Professional Refinement

Peter Post
Director of the Emily Post Institute and Author
Tuesday, August 22, 2006; 2:00 PM

Finesse and charm are the unsung tools of leaders. Cultivating convincing communication skills and the ability to act with ease in social and professional situations can be as important as your degree. Adopt the skills of the CEO set in Finishing School .

Director of the Emily Post Institute and co-author of business etiquette book "The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success," Peter Post is an authority on good behavior. Your deportment may be holding back your department, find out how.

Visit The Emily Post Institute's Web site at for advice about how to act gracefully in any situation.

Peter was online to discuss how to act appropriately at work. The transcript follows below.


Peter Post: Welcome to this chat. I'm Peter Post, author of The Etiquette Advantage in Business and the great grand-son of Emily Post. My goal in teaching etiquette is to make it usable and valuable for people, especially in the work place. When I teach seminars, I explain that I only have two goals for participants: think before you act and then make choices as you act that will build relationships (i.e. choices that are good for everyone involved, not just good for you.) Most of the mistakes we make, the rudeness we all, including myself, are capable of committing happen much more as a result of not thinking than from acting intentionally. The answers today, really are grounded in this idea of thinking about the situation and how to solve it best for everyone. Thank you for joining the discussion.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I am currently managing an individual who is great at the technical aspects of his job, has a heck of a work ethic, and has aspirations to progress within my department. I have an open manager position that I plan to promote him to. He deserves it. The problem is that he is somewhat lacking in the social skills department. For example, when I met with him recently to tell him of my plans to promote him (outside of his normal evaluation period, which is quite a push in my company), his response was virtually non-existent. To be fair, I wasn't expecting him to jump up and down with excitement or to do cartwheels in my office, but I was hoping for a little enthusiasm and maybe a simple "thank you" from him. I got nothing. When I asked him if he wanted the promotion, he said "Of course." I have countless other examples where he's been too short on words with peers, customers, and me, and I'm concerned about his ability to step into a manager role where communication is essential. Do you have any suggestions for how I can coach him to prepare him for his new role?

Peter Post: The key is to set up a situation where you can address the problem and offer the opportunity to work with him. Telling him of your concern right when an example of it happens, such as right when you offered the promotion, will more than likely make him defensive. So schedule a meeting, explain your concern, and have a plan to propose of how you will help him, coach him or perhaps even bring in an outside coach. Then ask him if this makes sense to him, ask him for his buy-in. Good luck.


McLean, Va.: Hello Mr. Post,

This is an everyday etiquette general question -- for work or elsewhere in public. I prefer a collegial mode of interacting with other people. I encounter many people who seem to feel a need to dominate. Even though they are officially being polite, their tone or other body language suggests otherwise. Have times changed in terms of general courtesy? How does one respond to this type of personality?

Peter Post: Times have changed from Emily's day. We are more in the team mode now, that collegial approach you mention. However, some people are still in the dominating mode. Being polite doesn't mean you should allow people to steamroller you. Being strong and being well mannered can go in hand. In fact often by standing firm in the face of a challenger, the challenger gains respect for you. While being strong and decisive, couch your actions in the principles of etiquette: be considerate, respectful and honest and you will make a strong impression of your own.


Washington, D.C.: Can you lay out the ground rules for cell phone etiquette, please. I feel rude whenever I talk on my phone.

Peter Post: Cell phones are among the most frustrating devices today. Best advice I have: be a master of the device, not a slave to it. That means that any time its use may bother another person or people near you, turn it off or move away from the people. Keep your focus on the live person in front of you, not the person who is calling on the phone.


Silver Spring, Md.: I share a large office with a fellow of Chinese background. He slurps his lunch every single day.

Yes, I know that slurping noodles is culturally correct in Asia. How do I tell him politely that it isn't okay here? Or do I just retreat behind the headphones when he eats lunch?

Peter Post: One of the hardest challenges for workers today is deciding which idiosyncrasies of co-workers need to be discussed and which are better left not discussed. This may fall into the latter category, unless the worker is also going to be eating lunch with prospects or customers. Then his eating habits may cause loss of business and in that case need to be addressed. If you talk to him, do it privately, quietly and with a goal of improving the situation, not embarrassing him. "John, I want to talk to you about something and it's difficult. But I know if the roles were reversed I'd want you to talk to me. So here it goes. It's about how you eat your noodles. That slurping. I've seen customers wince. Did you realize it's an issue?"


Washington, D.C.: I work at a big company for a short while, should I introduce myself to every person I encounter? Sometimes I am met with a confused response when I do this.

Peter Post: If you are a temp, you don't need to introduce yourself to every person you encounter. If you are permanent, it's a good idea to introduce yourself to the people in the area you will be working.


hold the mayo: What do you think of the use of a compliment sandwich? I agree that managers should praise as well as criticize but this seems a touch, I don't know, mommying.

Peter Post: For me, mommying comes in when the praise isn't sincere. Sincerity is key especially if you are sandwiching a criticism with a compliment. I don't mind making sure you look for the good as well as the bad. But anything you say as a compliment should be deserved and praiseworthy and not just an opener to make the criticism.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Post: Do you suggest, in a request e-mail (sometimes to a superior) using the word "could" as in "could you please do X" or "would."

Peter Post: "Could" implies do you have the ability, "would" asks if the person will make the effort. I would use "would."


Rockville, Md.: Dear Mr. Post,

Perhaps you can provide us with a way to appropriately handle the most obscene thing I have witnessed recently. One of our co-workers showed up today covered in spandex. Yes, a spandex body suit. She has since put on a large jacket provided by one of the gentlemen in the office, but this is quite embarrassing for everyone. Other than smacking her upside her head, what should we do?

Thank You.

Peter Post: The first question is: does your company have a dress policy? If it does, then ask a manager to speak with her if the clothing doesn't meet the policy. If the company doesn't have a policy, then this is a great example of the need for one. As she put on the jacket, did she indicate her own embarrassment at the not thinking about how her clothing might be perceived by others. The bottom line is talking with her without berating her is the key to changing the behavior.


Washington, D.C.: Peter: What etiquette "sin" do you see committed most commonly in the workplace here?

Peter Post: Certainly one of the most common sins has to be: being late. It's an egregious error, but one we all make far too often. It says to the people who are waiting that you are disorganized or worse, disrespectful. That's a bad way to start a meeting. Start on the right foot by being sure you are on time.


Reston, Va.: In an environment where there is lack of candor or feedback on the job, how does one know if and when the way they carry themselves is holding them back? What signs should you look?

Peter Post: Unfortunately, you may not know. Try to develop a relationship with a manager, and then ask them if no information is forthcoming. Raises are another way of knowing how management feels about you. If you aren't receiving a regular raise, that should be the point of a discussion between you and your manager.


Sonoma County, Calif.: I work for someone that will never allow a meeting to be uninterrupted by the phone. It is not a case where the calls constitute an emergency. This individual grabs the phone by the second ring and converses with anyone that is on the other end. Needless to say, we accomplish little. Suggestions?

Peter Post: One option is to meet in a neutral place or in your office area, a place where you control the phone. Also You can also talk to the person, not right when their phone is ringing. Suggest that during meetings you are looking to keep the focus on the subject at hand and are requesting that everyone refrain from taking calls.


Arlington, Va.: I work in an office of mostly twenty- and thirty-somethings. There seems to be quite a bit of backstabbing to get ahead. It is even to the point where people steal others' ideas and make false accusations to our superiors. The problem is, the superiors never take any action. Because of this, those of us that do not want to participate in this environment walk on egg shells. Short of leaving the job, what can be done to correct some exceedingly bad management choices on the part of my near-peer colleagues?

Peter Post: Unfortunately, you've already approached management and they've turned you down. The culture of the workplace encourage the behavior you find appalling. One suggestion is to get the employees who feel as you do together as a group and ask to meet with management. Lay out your concerns and suggest specific remedies. There's strength in your numbers especially compared to doing it alone. If this doesn't work, you be looking at putting up with the situation or looking for a job somewhere else that has a culture more compatible with you.


Alexandria, Va.: Hello, Mr. Post. I have recently taken over a department made up of five people. I am very fortunate that my team is made up of hardworking, dedicated people. Two members of the team happen to have terrible grammar -- both spoken and written. In our business, customer service is very important and sometimes I cringe when I hear them on the phone with our customers using double negatives and such. Unfortunately, their e-mails are often worse. These are nice people who do a good job and have aspirations to move forward in their careers. But the way they talk and write gives a very bad first impression.

I wouldn't dream of letting them go over something like this, but I would think twice about promoting them into positions where they would have more contact with our customers. Is there a way to communicate this to them without terribly offending them?

Peter Post: As their supervisor/manager, you have every right to discuss the situation with them. In critiquing them I also think it is important that you provide the training and help they will need to correct the problem so you can think about promoting them. This course of action would certainly be much less taxing on your department than having to replace these individuals. Good luck.


Washington, DC: Dear Mr. Post,

What should one do about a co-worker that has a body odor problem? I try not to sit next to her during meetings, especially since she has a habit of taking off her sweaty shoes under the table -- which is truly gross. I once had another co-worker ask me to reschedule a meeting to be held first thing in the morning rather than in the afternoon, because the smell usually gets worse as the day progresses, and because she was pregnant she was afraid the odor might make her lose her lunch.

Peter Post: In my seminars, people tell me that given the choice, if they had body odor, they would want a friend/co-worker to tell them rather than a boss or no one at all. Given that, the next time you have a friend who has body odor, be a friend and tell them. The telling is the hard part. Shouting, "You smell" in the middle of the cubicle farm won't be a good option. Instead, if you aren't a friend, ask a friend of the person to meet with them. If you're a friend, ask to meet with the person yourself. Here's how it could go: "Jane, I'm am really nervous about talking to you, it is really difficult. But I know if the situation were reversed, I'd hope you would come talk to me. So, here it goes. Jane I've got to mention and issue with you that concerns body odor..." Once the cat is out of the bag, the conversation can continue. It's the first step that's hardest. Just remember it needs to be from a friend.


Washington, D.C.: I am told that humor is an excellent way to diffuse another person's bad behavior, but I find that I always sound snide. I don't know how to be humorous and effective.

Peter Post: I'm concerned with the idea that humor is an answer to bad behavior because it absolves the bad behavior. I see nothing funny in bad behavior. The hardest thing to do is to talk to another person about their behavior. Have a conversation with the perpetrator calmly, without anger and with a goal of improving the work situation for all and without embarrassing the perpetrator of bad behavior.


Washington, DC: I believe that it is part of my job to be nice to everyone, including people whom in my personal life I wouldn't want to have dinner with. I generally like most people, but (I guess being from New England) really don't like whiners/complainers. I am female, and some times male complainers in my work place seem to confuse me for their Mom and want to -- all the time, way too much -- tell me what's wrong with them.

How can I remain "work friends" with these time-wasting whiners? I'm running out of polite ways of running them out of my office.

Peter Post: Whining is one of the most frustrating issues workers face today. We work with people we wouldn't necessarily want to socialize with. When they whine it really becomes difficult. I would simply shut them off the minute the whining starts. "John, please I enjoy talking with you but I've got to get work done. We'll talk later." At the water cooler, if the conversation turns to a whine, excuse yourself and leave.


Los Angeles, Calif.: As a financial/technical person who also is very much a "Mr. Mom," I've been successful in my career, avoided management -- and layoffs and maintain a strict work-life balance. My family is my priority, not my job. I'm not the smartest guy on the block, but I am good at what I do and my career, salary and reviews reflect that.

I know I could be a VP but who needs the stress? I've found that taking an "anti polished" appearance, I'm able to focus on the technical aspects of my job while avoid being tapped for management, sitting in meetings all day, and so on. I'm well-spoken, but I intentionally mumble and appear as a poor presenter during meetings. I have a good wardrobe, but wear white socks and a Hawaiian shirt to work. Meanwhile, those only concerned with climbing the ladder and looking the part, get way too much work dumped on them, asked to come in on the weekends and are pestered to become managers.

This all said, the key is I handle a very technical area and do a darn good job at it, I'm not a slacker, but climbing the ladder isn't as important as gaining skills. People think that the only road to success is "looking the part" and reaching for middle-management, it isn't. Those guy's/gals are the first to get laid off, never see their families, and are burnt out by 40. If having a life is more important than what you do for a living, being the office oddball -- so long as you're good at what you do -- isn't a bad option.

Peter Post: Not everyone wants to climb the ladder, and, frankly, that's OK. However, you are a professional and you seem to want to be appreciated for what you do. I wouldn't put on a false front to avoid promotion. Rather I'd look the part you are, and when offered the promotion, turn it down. I'm concerned your appearance and being a poor presenter could reflect on you in your current job.


Alexandria, Va.: I try to keep my professional life separate from my personal life. Is it rude to constantly turn down invitations to after-hours drinks/dinners, etc. or would it be better to give some sort of explanation that would stop the invitations?

Peter Post: If the invites keep coming and you're not inclined to accept them, a simple explanation may help reduce them. "Jon, thanks for the invites, I appreciate them. But at the end of the day I'm bushed and I've got to get home. I enjoy your company but I'm really not going to be able to make it after work. I hope you're OK with that?" The question at the end helps get John's buy-in to your request and bring closure. Good luck.


Washington, D.C.: Apologizing v. calling unnecessary attention to one's bad behavior. I find that when I apologize for sending an e-mail a few minutes late, the other person acts surprised. Am I over-apologizing? Will "politesse" be my undoing? I don't want to appear lightweight for my overabundant apologies.

Peter Post: You can "over-apologize." An email that's a few minutes late -- what is a few minutes late? Apologize for mistakes, for indiscretions. Just as you should offer compliments but not over-compliment, don't think you need to apologize for every little thing you perceive as a problem.


Fairfax, Va.: Is it appropriate to celebrate birthdays at work? At my job, we have those folks who remind you of their birthday, those folks who never mention their birthdays and don't care if you don't ask, and those who never mention their birthdays and are insulted if you do not ask. Am I correct in saying that if you acknowledge one person's birthday, you must acknowledge everyone's?

Peter Post: Birthday's cause lots of angst at work. The best solution to deal with the various people is one card signed by everyone. At Emily Post, we're small, we have a cake which EPI purchases. At larger companies, I've heard of the monthly cake and a joint celebration for everyone who's birthday falls in that month. Gifts and collections should be avoided, they cause way more trouble than they are worth.


Washington, D.C.: My office has really thin walls, my supervisor has a habit of knocking on my door just after I have finished a phone conversation about a project I am working on to ask questions or provide insights. I don't mind the input or questions but the supervisor has acknowledged that they have been listening in to the conversation, any thoughts?

Peter Post: One possible reason the supervisor hears the calls is that you may be using your "telephone voice." That louder voice may make it very easy to be overheard. First step: try talking quieter on the phone. Interestingly, the biggest complaint workers have about co-workers: telephone voice.

Second, recognize that in office environments, like cubicle farms, there is no remedy to being overheard. SO be sure to keep conversations professional, not personal. If you need to talk about something private, do it out of the office or move to an unused conference/meeting room.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Post,

Thank you for taking my question. Maybe you can finally solve my work situation. A new co-worker recently moved into a cubicle next to mine. We have not formally met as she is in another department. My problem is that she is constantly clearing her throat. She seems to have a phlegm problem that must be remedied every few minutes. Unfortunately, now that I have noticed this, it seems to have amplified twenty-fold. The co-workers I have spoken to regarding this matter have had several suggestions, including repeating my own cough after she does it and what I believe is a better option, leaving a bag of hard candies/cough drops on her desk with a little note. However, there are only two of us in our cluster of cubes, so she would know it was me. I do not want to hurt her feelings, but I do not know if my ears can take it much longer. Can you help me? Thank you.

Peter Post: First you have to decide if you want to talk to her. Is it an issue or can you figure out a way to deal without talking to her: perhaps using head phones. Not likely, but a possible solution. Probably, you'll want to talk to her. I doubt she's doing it on purpose. Generally, people aren't intentionally rude. Introduce yourself, get to know her first. And then after a few encounters ask if she minds talking with you about something. Do it privately so as not to embarrass her. "Joan, I'm so embarrassed to bring this up but I hope you would feel comfortable talking to me if the situation was reversed. We're so close here, I can't help but hear you every time you clear your throat. You may not even realize it..." Good luck.


Washington, D.C.: Shameless promotion: How much should you tell your co-workers about your professional plans in a company? If you are aiming for a promotion should you discuss that, or wait until it occurs?

Peter Post: I think you should discuss your career goals with co-workers at the company only in the broadest most general terms. "I'd love to move up to Mr Smith's position one day." But that's about it.


Baltimore, Md.: Peter, my significant other works with his father, aunt and others in a family business where profits are shared according to the respective ownership interests. My guy is supposed to be the person in charge. It seems that there has been some friction between my guy and his aunt lately, namely that she takes about 10 vacations a year and that he cannot figure out what she does on a day to day basis. He wants all the profit, if he's doing all the work. But family business is tricky business. My suggestion of more communication was met with little response. Any thoughts on this situation?

Peter Post: Business is tough enough. Family business is really hard. You've tried the communication route and not succeeded. I've managed two so far, including Emily Post, and the family interactions just add fuel to the fire. Does your significant other have a share as a member of the family? How does the family determine salary? What would happen if he/she wasn't there? These are all questions I can't answer for you but they may help focus on a course of action.


Anonymous: Hi Peter,

What is the proper protocol for outside-of-work parties, say a housewarming party or a Labor Day BBQ? Does one have to invite everyone from the department/organization/company? Or can you pick and choose?

Peter Post: Pick and choose is fine. Just don't issue invites at the office. Send them to the people's homes. That way it's on a social personal level and not on a business level.


Silver Spring, Md.: I received a cash award in recognition of my job performance. Should I send a thank you note?

Peter Post: It's always a good idea to thank people. A quick note, would be very appropriate.


Peter Post: I want to thank everyone who has written in. I wish I could get to all the questions. It's been fun. Thank you.


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