WorkZone: Boorishness usually starts at top
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The Power Point is done -- the statistics are accurate, the chart points the way it is supposed to -- for that big presentation your boss ordered.
So what is the top dog doing while you are talking? Sending text messages or answering email.
The boorish behavior of business generally starts at the top.
Dan Post Senning, the great-great-grandson of Emily Post and a spokesman for the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., sees it all the time.
He has even found statistics that while most people think it is the young techie who is texting at the conference table, the biggest offenders are usually the top managers in the room.
"Disrespectful behavior is most likely to come from a supervisor or boss or an employee with a valued talent," he said.
Even when he is presenting business seminars on etiquette, seminars that have been arranged by the employer, the employees are sitting and listening while the badly mannered boss is in the back tapping away on a laptop or smartphone.
Those phones are hard to put down. They are amazing little machines with more processing power than the computers used in the Apollo rocket launches.
They are with us more than our keys or wallets, and they provide instant access to friends, family and business associates -- all of which is both good and bad.
In the early days of cell phones, letters to the Emily Post Institute tended to focus on the manners regarding talking on the phone, be it at dinner with friends or even whether it was polite in a restaurant at all. Those questions now seem to be pretty much resolved: It is not polite to talk on the phone in those circumstances.
But reading and writing emails and text messages has replaced talking on the devices as the divisive issue of the digital era.
Mr. Senning said sending text messages used to be seen as the polite alternative and still is in places such as airports and on buses when talking would be obnoxious to the people around you, but, since you are not there to spend time with them, typing is fine.
This is not true in a social situation.
"When you are with someone, your attention should be on them," he said.
But that third realm of human interaction, when you are not socializing with someone or alone in a crowd, is the business meeting, and for that people have to make new rules.
In the rare instance, and the operative word is rare, someone may need to be available by phone or text or email in case he has a huge business deal hanging in the balance or perhaps is waiting for an organ transplant.
In that case, he said, it is best to state the need to be available up front by maybe saying "I am waiting for an important call or email and may be distracted."
In some businesses, it is common for everyone to have their laptops out, and if that is the common culture, it is fine.
"It's a question of creating expectations and fulfilling them," Mr. Senning said. The rules of acceptable behavior do change from place to place.
The key is to make the acceptable standards clear and to give someone your full attention when they are making a presentation.
But there are always going to be questions about appropriate behavior, which is a good thing for Mr. Senning.
"It would be phenomenal if everyone behaved well all the time," he said. "But then there would be no need for the Emily Post Institute."
First Published April 29, 2012 12:00 am