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Business Etiquette for the Win

As legend goes, Ray Kroc of McDonald's could not decide between two executives for a high-powered position so he took them both to lunch. When the food arrived, one executive immediately salted his food while the other, tasted it first. Kroc decided the executive who first assessed the situation rather than assumed it would be the better candidate and gave him the job. Just how important are your manners when it comes to winning over a general counsel? Plenty. Manners are a good indicator as to how you will act once hired. Etiquette is the hinge factor that can swing clients in your favor even if your qualifications are less than your competitors. According to Mark LeHocky, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Ross Stores, Inc., in Pleasanton, "Manners and etiquette are one measure of a person's effectiveness."

Etiquette also reveals your sense of judgment. William Scarff, Jr., Vice President, Assistant General Counsel and Chief Litigation Counsel at Allergan, Inc. in Irvine says this about etiquette: "It is very useful to observe how people treat others when they think no one is looking. How careful are they? Are they the kind of people who talk about business in elevators or in the hallway? If they are careless in those situations, it often means that they will be careless in others."

Many people relegate manners to a dusty corner when I explain that in addition to public relations and marketing, I teach business etiquette. The common response is, "Oh, I better be careful to use the right fork around you." That's understandable as the word "etiquette" often conjures up antiquated rules and most people assume their own manners are just fine. Yet, there are two problems with that: The majority of people mistakenly assume they are never rude and manners change constantly. As new products and services are developed manners du jour do spring up accordingly. Baby Boomers are just as likely to offend Millennials with tacky Tweets. In Costa Mesa, El Pollo Loco's Senior Vice President and General Counsel Jerry Lovejoy agrees, "It is easy to upset someone unintentionally if you don't know the manner guidelines in text messaging."

Do you know when you're offending someone? Probably not. Statistics show we rarely see rudeness in ourselves and assume it is rampant in everyone else. A study shows that 89 percent of people say they encounter other people using their cell phones in a rude manner on a frequent to occasional basis. Yet, only eight percent say that they use their own cell phone in a rude way. (Associated Press Rudeness Study, 2005)

Business manners are the ability of connecting easily with people and making them feel comfortable, which means not sending off-putting signals. If you are perceived as rude you won't be hired. And certainly, rudeness isn't objective. It is the decision-maker's perception of what is rude that matters, not yours. Etiquette, though subtle, is usually the dealmaker or breaker.

Recently, several general counsels were asked to choose between two law firms, which on paper were equal in terms of experience and rates. In a case like this, how much do manners matter? Members of Team A send an inappropriate email-joke before the business lunch, treat the waiter rudely, have difficulty making eye contact, check their Blackberrys, eat in a way that draws attention, swear occasionally and talk negatively about other law firms. Inversely, Team B members engage confidently in the discussion and when business is addressed, they focus on the General Counsel's needs. Would Team A's lack of manners influence the hiring decision?

According to Kim Fogarty, General Counsel at Ellison in Lake Forest, "I would go with Team B even if Team A was stronger on paper. Their inappropriate email and lack of consideration for the waiter would certainly influence my decision. The Team A member who can't look me in the eyes when talking to me indicates a lack of confidence in his or her firm's abilities or does not necessarily believe what he is telling you is true."

LeHocky adds, "We have a "no PDA" rule for meetings. No one can effectively participate in meetings if they are diverted to their Blackberry, iPhone or other similar device. Along with how people treat support personnel, these examples reflect rudeness and a lack of judgment. Unfortunately, they also signal that the people involved are going to be less likely to negotiate or resolve problems effectively and efficiently, and instead, divert time and attention to confrontations that need not take place."

At Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream in Oakland, Rosanna Marrero Neagle, Vice President and Chief Legal Officer, says, "One of the things I have to consider with outside counsel is whether I can have this attorney interface directly with my business clients. If an attorney exhibits poor manners with me-I have to assume the same will happen with my business clients-and that's going to be a poor reflection on the Dreyer's legal team."

Allergan's Scarff shares, "There was a time when I did not hire an attorney because he talked disparagingly about another firm. There's a difference between promoting your strengths and when you go out of your way to disparage another professional." A Senior Counsel at a large San Francisco corporation agrees, "Whether it is the janitor who takes out your trash or a CEO, they should be treated in the same respectful manner."

Marketing and PR campaigns will only go so far in attracting clients. Business etiquette, when used according to today's norms, can yield the best advantage in a crowded and uneven playing field.

Published October 2009