21 May 2015 20:37 IST

The basics of office protocol

Be unfailingly polite, considerate, honest, culturally sensitive and respectful of differences

When clients are brought around to meet staff, the best business etiquette is to come around in front of your desk and give a smile and firm handshake.

Over the years that I have spent training thousands of Indian professionals in business etiquette and protocol, people have asked me again and again if there is a formula for getting it right every time. I have no secret prescription except the advice to be unfailingly polite, considerate, honest, culturally sensitive and respectful of differences.

Here are a few tips to point you in the right direction. By no means an exhaustive list, it nevertheless reveals one elementary truth about etiquette — it is all about basics.

Civility meter

A fair amount of professional success is pegged on how you score on the civility meter. How you speak to your colleagues, even if it is to the office assistants and support staff, is noted and you are judged as a professional if you do it politely. Everything from the volume of your voice to using `please' and `thank you' at all times, counts.

We once hosted a very important Scotsman who had come down to evaluate our company as a service provider for his MNC. We were all set to impress him, our office was superbly clean and decorated with fresh flowers, we had slick presentations ready. In his evaluation, he gave one comment to his headquarters which is a black mark to this day in their written records. He said, "The consultant I worked with showed no respect to the driver when she was showing me sample properties around the city. She spoke to him abruptly, raised her voice and was maybe even abusive when he couldn't find the property right away. I wouldn't have minded taking five more minutes, but was very uncomfortable that she didn't use `please' or `thank you' and show courtesy and respect to everybody she dealt with. It was one tone for me and another for the support staff who seem to be thought lower in the pecking order."

In a world where business is conducted across borders and cultures, and where the scope for crossed wires is already high, it is imperative that the modern professional stay scrupulously polite at all times and with all people. Start with the watchman, the person serving you tea, and then it will become second nature to be overtly polite to anyone who does any service for you.

Loud and excited

Though Indians are usually diffident about speaking up, we also have a penchant for interrupting and speaking really loudly. At meetings, one-on-one or even in a group, please take care not to interrupt, and do keep your voice low. Some of us have so much to say and we need to say it all just now. We mean well, but how do we come across? If you feel you want to say something and the other person hasn't finished, bite back your words and instead pay more attention to the speaker. She/he will be impressed and will more readily do what you want her/him to do.

Mobile courtesy

Yes, this is something everybody keeps talking about, but mobile courtesy is still sadly lacking in workplaces. Cell phones must be kept on silent or vibratory mode at all times within the office. Different ring tones going off sound extremely unprofessional. And do keep your phone voices low as most offices are of the open plan type and others are trying to work. Cup your hand over the mouth piece and leave the area to a quieter corner so you don’t disturb co-workers, even if it is a work related call.

One of the worst things we can do at work is play games on the phone or keep checking Facebook and other social media. Professional time is meant for work related activity, and it does mean staying focused. During lunch or tea breaks you can do a quick check of personal email, phones or internet space.

Visitor for you

When clients are brought around to meet staff, the tendency is to say a hurried hello from behind the desk. Keeping the desk as a barrier between the visitor and yourself is considered unfriendly. When we have a visitor in our open bay area, we usually announce, “Today we have racing car champion Narian Karthikeyan, do say hello” and every one rises in their seats and smiles in greeting. We then introduce each person, who simply smiles and stays standing for a couple of minutes. If someone is on the phone, he too stands and makes a hand gesture of apology as he continues his call. If visitors want to shake hands, the best business etiquette is to come around in front of your desk, smile and offer a firm handshake.

Entertaining guests

Offering food and drink is such an important part of Indian culture isn’t it? How do you serve official guests food and drink? When it is not a lunch or dinner meeting but a workday meeting, the simplest solution is biscuits served with coffee or tea. Ask staff to keep an assortment of regular cookies as well as digestives (for diabetics or people on a diet) in the pantry. Bring in more than one plate of biscuits if there are more than three guests and make sure the plates are not overloaded. Ask visitors for their preferred beverage and how they take it (no milk, one sugar and so on). Train the staffer who brings in the cups to come back 15 minutes later to clear or refill.

If you, as a guest, are asked whether you would like tea or coffee, go with the flow. The other day, the Director of an institution offered me coffee and I said I would love some. When she asked my colleague, he said “I would like tea please”. The offer was only for coffee, so we need to stick to coffee. If the host offers a choice, then we may state our preference. At the end of the day, etiquette is all about making it easy for those around you.

Happy practising...