This might be just the time when having solid footing in the art of human interactions can be most helpful.
As the local economy continues to sputter, business dealings have lost some of the cordiality of the past. Aggressive sales pitches, desperate job pleas, heated workplace disputes and check-splitting fiascos are on the rise. Just ask any regular networker. You can see it in people’s pitches and all over their faces.
BizSense chatted with Jacquelyn Small Thomas, owner of the Etiquette and Protocol School of Richmond, to find out whether etiquette should rule amid recession.
Her bottom line: Diplomacy and decorum are even more important now, because they promote a spirit of thoughtfulness and a sense of reassurance in anxious times.
Below is an edited transcript:
Richmond BizSense: Every conversation starts with, “How are things.” If people are honest and times are tough, is it appropriate to discuss financial hardship with clients or colleagues?
Jacquelyn Small Thomas: Everybody’s conversation is the economy. If you’re talking overall business, just say “our bottom line isn’t as healthy as it was two years ago” or whatever your general situation is. That only says that you’re in the boat with everyone because everyone has felt the economy’s crush. But you haven’t given anything really specific and you certainly wouldn’t want to ask anyone specifics. That’s a little intrusive.
Discussing your personal finances in a business setting is totally inappropriate. I don’t think you ever need to discuss your financial status with a client or with a colleague unless your colleague is your best friend. Everyone understands that everyone is having cutbacks.
RBS: When someone shares too much information, is it your role to console them?
Thomas: The most gracious thing is to acknowledge in general terms that you understand what they’ve said. You don’t have to go into details about all of the information that he or she didn’t need to give you.
RBS: What about the business lunch? If the bill arrives and the person who arranged the meal doesn’t reach for it, what is the appropriate response?
Thomas: In that case, you would have to pay, but the person inviting you is the one who has made the faux pas.
RBS: Is it ever appropriate to split the bill or just pay your portion?
Thomas: If you invite someone to lunch, you’re saying, “I’m inviting you and I’m going to take care of it,” so there’s never a time when you would ask someone to split the bill.
RBS: Is there still a place for etiquette and protocol in today’s business environment, where cool CEOs wear jeans?
Thomas: It may be relaxed on one end, but the business world hasn’t relaxed to the point that correct dining practices and procedures are not still necessary.
RBS: Let’s say you’ve been entertaining colleagues or clients at upscale restaurants but your company is cutting back and you need to go to a less expensive venue. Do you need to explain the reason for the change?
Thomas: If you need to change the venue, then you change the venue. If they accept the invitation, then surely they are gracious enough not to mention that the venue has changed. That’s your call. If you are inviting and you’re paying, then you don’t need to give an explanation. It becomes a little tacky to say why you’ve changed.
RBS: And for those who haven’t yet felt the pinch of the economic downturn or aren’t yet acknowledging it, how do they handle that in terms of carrying an expensive handbag or driving a late model luxury car? If you are doing fine, do you have to tone it down in any way?
Thomas: That’s truly a personal decision. If it’s an individual and they are accustomed to luxury items and they can still afford them, I don’t know that they should put them away and not use them. If you feel uncomfortable wearing expensive jewelry, then just don’t do it, but there again, that’s an individual call.
As far as companies are concerned, it’s inappropriate to be flashy and spend money as if there’s no tomorrow. That’s a little disconcerting, especially if your employees are losing their jobs. You don’t penalize people for having luxury items. If it’s a business and they have let hundreds of people go and turn around and have a big blowout, that’s different.
RBS: What if you are the owner of a company that has fallen on hard times? Should you worry about how your personal spending is perceived? Is it an affront to those people if you are driving that car or carrying that handbag?
Thomas: If you own a business and you have fallen on hard times but you acquired these material possessions prior, I don’t know that you couldn’t wear them if you wanted to. If you have a luxury car and this is the car that you drive and that car is paid for, I wouldn’t sell it and go for something smaller. I wouldn’t flaunt anything because that makes for very hard feelings. There are many ways that you can tighten your belt and show your employees you are concerned about them.
RBS: Many business owners have received a flood of résumés and requests for jobs whether they are hiring or not. How can you politely turn down requests for jobs that you don’t have open or don’t want to give to them?
Thomas: We’re back to the art of diplomacy. You say, “The company has reduced its staff; therefore, we’re not hiring at this time.” You don’t have to give them the intricate details. You can’t hire anybody if you can’t pay them.
RBS: What about loans?
Thomas: Your financial situation is the bottom line. If you are in a company or if they are asking for a personal loan, you know that better than anyone. Banks are just doing it straight up – they are saying, “If you don’t have the collateral, we’re not giving you that loan.” If an individual asks you for money, you don’t have to go into a long dissertation about why. If you can give a straightforward answer in understandable terms, that’s all you owe people.