Details make a difference in office courtesy

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Ever forget to say good morning to coworkers? Ever forget to turn off a cell phone during a meeting? Most businesspeople have been guilty of such seemingly minor offenses, but taking a moment or two each day to say something nice, compliment a colleague or lend a hand can make a world of difference.

Forty percent of executives polled said there has been a decline in business courtesy compared to 10 years ago. The survey was developed by the Creative Group, a staffing service that places marketing, advertising, creative and web professionals in jobs on a project basis. An independent research firm asked 125 advertising executives and 125 senior marketing executives from the nation’s largest companies “How courteous are professionals in today’s business environment compared to 10 years ago?”

Thirty-three percent said business professionals were less courteous today, while 7 percent said people in the business world are significantly less courteous. Pressure to multitask and take on additional projects at work may influence a decrease in office politeness, said Tim Girdlestone, division director for the Denver office of the Creative Group. “You have to keep in mind, over the last 10 years, people tend to do their jobs plus others,” Girdlestone said.

And doing more might be taking its toll on workers.

“Neglected manners may be an unfortunate byproduct of a workforce stretched thin,” Tracey Fuller, executive director of the Creative Group, said in a news release. “Overloaded employees may not take the time to offer assistance or show appreciation for others,” she said.

The rise of e-mail has certainly helped offices manage time more effectively, but e-mail can sometimes be impersonal, brisk and simply rude in the most extreme cases. “I think e-mail is probably the worst,” said Judy Cara, community relations manager for the Intel Corp. in Colorado Springs. “We’re in a hurry and it’s so convenient. Sometimes it would be easier to pick up the phone to respond to an e-mail.”

Including a simple greeting, like “hello” or “good afternoon” can go a long way.

“I started my career in England and we tend to be much more old-fashioned there,” Cara said. “Then I came to the states where everyone calls everyone by their first names.” Cara said she feels businesspeople in England tend to be more “flowery” and “beat around the bush” more. “I don’t think we have time to be as flowery as we’ve been in the past,” she said.

Deviations from traditional office decorum may be more apparent because of changes in office environments. “Compared to 10 years ago, people are working in cubicles more and more,” Girdlestone said. The odds of overhearing a rude or off-color comment in the office improve when employees work in close quarters, Girdlestone said.

“We need to be courteous to our cube mates,” Cara said. “It’s a real Dilbert world we work in.” Cara’s basic advice for “cube courtesy” is to not wear strong aftershave or perfume while at work and to refrain from putting calls on speakerphone when working in close proximity to others.

With the 2004 presidential election just around the corner, the temptation to discuss politics at the office is often difficult for people to resist. “It’s like Monday morning quarterback,” Girdlestone said. Gathering around the water cooler to talk about which candidate “won” the debate the night before is a popular way to strike up conversation. This, however, is not always a wise thing to do.

“The rule of thumb is, if you don’t know their viewpoint, don’t talk about politics,” he said. “I actually have a client who called me a couple of weeks ago and he said he was really glad I was his rep because he met with someone before who had talked about politics in a meeting.”

Girdlestone’s client said he would never do business with someone who talked about politics in a professional setting.

A survey conducted in September by the American Management Association found that 74 percent of the 238 executives polled said they are fairly comfortable with discussing their political views with coworkers and 65 percent felt equally at ease talking about politics with their bosses. The Creative Group advises, however, that business professionals avoid topics such as politics, religion and personal finances while at work.

Girdlestone offered a helpful statement to aid in gauging office courtesy. “It’s how you behave and how you behave with respect toward others.”