Professionals Learn to Mind Their Manners in a Corporate World

Professionals Learn to Mind Their Manners in a Corporate World

It turns out engineers may not be born conversationalists.

That’s what Kevin Bean, president and CEO of O’Neal, a Greenville engineering and construction company, was learning about his 200-plus strong staff of professionals.

“If they went to engineering school, there’s no curriculum that talks about how do you do sales. In fact, these guys picked engineering so they probably wouldn’t ever have to deal with it,” he said with a laugh.

So when O’Neal wanted to help improve the communication and presentation skills of its employees, Bean turned to the Furman University Center for Corporate and Professional Development. The collaboration led to an O’Neal leadership academy that included, among other things, an afternoon of etiquette training.

While Bean said the move was a progressive one for his industry, O’Neal certainly is not alone in seeing value in helping employees put their best foot forward. Even as the economy cuts into companies’ bottom lines, many businesses, both large and small, and individuals have sought out seminars on manners, speaking skills and professional presentation since, as the saying goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

“If you have an employee who is polished, that employee will always win out over the one who isn’t,” said Victoria Kirby, senior associate with the Center for Corporate and Professional Development. “If that person speaks well, if that person presents well, if that person has an overall understanding of how to interact with other people, particularly in other companies with higher-level management, that person will always be the choice.”

Kirby, who teaches business etiquette classes for groups and individuals, said she addresses topics ranging from traditional table manners to things like how to mingle at social functions, email etiquette and professional appearance.

“You would think ... that people know exactly how to dress in the workplace. Guess what?” she said with a laugh. Material from a “Business Etiquette 101” class at the Furman center instructs participants to pass dishes to the right when dining, stand up to shake hands, introduce people according to authority level and focus on others in conversation.

They may seem like mundane details, Kirby said, but they add up to a more confident, professional demeanor.

“You may think it’s just learning protocol or etiquette, but it isn’t. It’s a lot more than that,” she said. “At the end of the class, we have better employees; we have more relaxed people and more skilled people.”

Bean said the brush up on manners and communication skills pays dividends when his employees are asked to meet with potential clients.

“In our business, we win projects from people,” he said. “We want our guys to feel comfortable going out and taking somebody out to dinner, how to handle business cards, how to network, how to be in a social environment so that they’re more well rounded, and we present ourselves as being very professional in front of clients.”

Some common missteps in the business world tend to center on electronic communications, Kirby said: sending e-mail to the wrong recipient or replying to a large group rather than an individual, failing to proofread emails before they’re sent, or neglecting the trappings of formal communication such as salutations.

Bean said one of the specific issues addressed with O’Neal’s project managers is when to send an email and when to make a phone call or arrange a meeting. It’s often easier, he said, for some people to write long emails detailing problems than to talk with someone personally. But when a business is about building and maintaining relationships, a face-to-face talk can go a long way.

“When we participate in social media and technology as we do, it becomes easy to personally disappear,” said Kirby. “People will say, ‘I’ll text you’ or ‘I’ll email you.’ We have smartphones; we have iPads; we have a million things that we could work with, and so personally our communication skills tend to dwindle.”

Dianne Marsch, director and co-owner of the Etiquette School of the Carolinas, located in Myrtle Beach, agreed that good personal communication is irreplaceable.

“Cutting-edge technology doesn’t benefit us if we fail to introduce ourselves properly when meeting someone or don’t have a clue what conversational topics we should discuss when we are seated by a new person at a business luncheon or dinner,” she said.

Another important focus, particularly in today’s global economy, is awareness of and sensitivity to cultural differences, Kirby said.

Bean said his company works with professionals from Japan, China, Germany, Italy and more. While it’s impossible to know every convention of every society, making a concerted effort to be respectful can go a long way toward cultivating a professional relationship, he said.

Job seekers, too, sometimes ask Kirby for guidance on how to present themselves well in formal and informal situations. Since companies are trying to do more with less these days, “the goal is to make less as perfect as we can get it,” she said.

She said it’s not uncommon for companies to schedule job interviews over a meal.

“Oftentimes it’s not just to be in a more casual environment. They’re doing it because they really want to observe the candidate in a different role. They want to see how the candidate will represent the company image outside of work,” she said.