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Workplace Etiquette

Vol. 10 •Issue 16 • Page 33
Workplace Etiquette

It's important to master this essential skill for professional success

By Sally Ann Corbo, EdS, APRN, CNAA

This offering expires in 2 years: July 21, 2010

The goal of this continuing education offering is to provide information on proper workplace etiquette. After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. Identify three key issues regarding why managers would not hire an applicant.

2. State three behaviors workers find offensive.

3. Describe steps to leave a job in a professional manner.

You can earn 1 contact hour of continuing education credit in three ways: 1) For im-mediate results and certificate, go to Grade and certificate are available immediately after taking the online test. 2) Send this answer sheet (or a photocopy) along with the $8 fee (check or credit card) to ADVANCE for Nurses, Learning Scope, 2900 Horizon Dr., King of Prussia, PA 19406. 3) Fax the answer sheet to 610-278-1426. If faxing or mailing, allow 30 days to receive certificate or notice of failure. A certificate of credit will be awarded to participants who achieve a passing grade of 70 percent or better.

Merion Publications Inc. is an approved provider of continuing nursing education by the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association (No. 008-0-07), an accredited approver by the American Nurses Credentialing Center's Commission on Accreditation. Merion Publications Inc. is also approved as a provider by the California Board of Registered Nursing (No. 13230) and by the Florida Board of Nursing (No. 3298).




Have you ever channel surfed and caught reruns of The Flip Wilson Show or All in the Family, popular in the 1970s? Many of the socially acceptable comments back then, even for network television, are now considered politically incorrect. While some social mores have relaxed, others have become more rigid. How do you know? Sometimes, we just have to purchase an etiquette book and teach ourselves — how to gracefully get rid of an olive pit at a black-tie dinner, for example, or greet a dignitary visiting your hospital. Some corporations offer business etiquette training for new executives.

In healthcare, evidence of a lack of manners on the part of employees often presents itself in lower patient satisfaction scores. And peer-to-peer boorish behaviors can border on harassment or bullying. Therefore, there are many reasons to present yourself with polish and finesse.

Getting the Job

Usually, the adage "You can never undo a first impression" says it all. If you are looking for a job or interviewing for a promotion, this is a valuable guide. According to a recent survey, managers were less likely to hire a person in the following instances:

  • the candidate had visible body piercing besides earrings, 83 percent;

  • they were casually dressed for the interview, 80 percent;

  • their cell phone rings during the interview, 80 percent;

  • they had visible tattoos, 70 percent; and

  • the applicant asked about vacation time during the first interview, 56 percent.1But in this digital age, it's easy to find out more about someone through a search engine or social networking site. So even if your appearance is classic and conservative in an interview, perhaps the photos of you at spring break on MySpace or Facebook are not the most flattering in the business sense. Be careful, too, of what is posted on YouTube — perhaps what started as a prank is now out there for all future employers and colleagues to see.

Even if the organization at which you are interviewing has flexible scheduling, be on time for the interview. Being late is disrespectful to the person who is waiting for you. The interviewer may make assumptions about your ability to get to work on time and your respect for co-workers and superiors.

Of course, sometimes despite our best efforts, traffic or public transportation just doesn't cooperate. You then need to call and say you will be late and ask if that will be acceptable or if the interviewer needs to reschedule. Apologize and explain the delay, but it's usually best not to make excuses. Also, remember in this age of information technology it's easy to check whether a road was closed or train service was suspended, so be honest.

The interview should not be interrupted by your cell phone ringing, so be sure to turn it off or place it in vibrate-only mode before the interview begins. Also, be sure all correspondence has the interviewer's name correctly spelled and the correct title included. These can be checked online or by calling the office and asking the secretary.

On the Job

A recent survey of 1,400 American workers by Randstad, a global staffing firm, determined which workplace behaviors are the most annoying. The results were as follows:

  • foul language, 91 percent;

  • talking in a condescending voice, 44 percent;

  • loud talkers, 32 percent;

  • ringing cell phones, 30 percent; and

  • speakerphones in public areas, 22 percent.2It is important to remember while some behaviors may be against hospital policy, others are just annoying. One that falls into this category is calling people by their first name. For a patient, superior or new colleague, it is best to address them by their title and surname until you are invited to do otherwise.

Secretaries and unit coordinators are the hub of all information and often have great influence, so it's important and smart to treat them with respect and dignity. Many managers will ask their administrative assistant what they think of potential candidates because they have spoken to them several times while setting up the interview.

When a working relationship is established, these staff people will help you get a last-minute appointment or signature. In addition to a verbal thank you, be sure to remember them at the holidays and on Administrative Professionals Day.

Telephone skills are critical to good business etiquette. Be sure to identify yourself and ask if the person has time to talk to you. Use the hold feature for less than 1 minute and thank them for waiting; if it needs to be longer, ask if you can call them right back and then do so. Using voicemail has become a requirement, so learn its features. If you are going on vacation, change your message to say that, and who can handle calls when you are away. If the absence is business-related, leave a cell number if you want to handle calls.

Perhaps some of the most perplexing etiquette situations present around meals and socializing. Superiors will initially extend social invitations to subordinates. There are some exceptions, such as weddings. If you are invited, be sure to respond promptly, within 3 days. If you can't make it, be sure to thank them for the invitation. If you go, do not talk business unless they initiate it. Use the time to get to know their interests and life outside of work without being intrusive ("Did you grow up in this area?" "Where did you go to school?" "How do you like living in this area?"). Avoid appearing to be trying too hard with questions like, "How about this weather?" It usually is best to avoid highly charged topics like politics until you know the person better.

In terms of dress, there is great confusion about terms like "business casual." In healthcare, it's best to abide by the organization's dress code policy. For an organization-sponsored social event, err on the conservative side for dress. Often, photos are taken that will memorialize your over-the-top outfit.

Food Faux Pas

The person who extends the invitation to a business lunch or dinner pays the check. This can be uncomfortable to the invitee, so be clear by saying, "I'd like to take you to lunch," or "Are you available to have lunch with me?" If it becomes a regular event, then politely ask, "Can I get the check this time?" If the intention is you will each buy your own lunch, it's best to start off by asking, "Would you like to have lunch together in the cafeteria?"

The issue of free food in healthcare organizations creates many faux pas. Food provided by the hospitals for patients should not be eaten by staff. Food provided as part of a meeting or training session is for the participants to enjoy while they are attending. If the sponsor of the program, who usually paid for the food, would like attendees to take the leftovers, they will offer it by saying something like, "Please take a cookie with you as you leave," or "Would you like to take these sandwiches back to the staff in the ED?" These norms apply for all work-related events.

Once at a hotel event, a participant went around emptying all the candy bowls; another brought a plastic bag to fill with bagels and pastries. One's professional image extends to many venues and often creates lasting memories.


Electronic mail has improved the ability to communicate with speed. Common etiquette includes using sentence case and punctuation for business-related e-mails. Some are now using abbreviations (e.g., IMO for "in my opinion," BTW for "by the way"), which can cause confusion. Using all uppercase letters is the equivalent of yelling, and all lowercase may be interpreted as passive.

Certain sensitive conversations should take place in person, such as performance reviews, warnings and terminations. It is good to remember most interpersonal communication is nonverbal, so there is a definite advantage to being face-to-face. Urgent messages usually are better communicated via telephone or voicemail, since some people do not check their e-mail frequently.

During meetings and training sessions, be sure not to have side conversations while others are talking, unless you have been directed into breakout groups. Many have mastered multitasking, but knitting or texting during class can be construed in many different ways by the presenter. Are you not interested? Just quit smoking and need to keep your hands busy? This is not important to you? Or, what great time management skills! One never knows how nonverbal behavior will be interpreted.

Another aspect to communication is the concept of being unavailable or plugged-in. Some healthcare organizations have written policies regarding appropriate use of personal MP3 players (such as iPods), cell phones and other devices. The customer expects healthcare professionals will be available to hear them and communicate with them. It is inappropriate to use these devices while on duty unless it is for work-related reasons. The occasional emergency call about a sick child, etc., is the exception.

Always remember to send thank-you notes for an interview, meal, experience or whenever individuals extend themselves and give you their time for your personal benefit.

Leaving the Job

Perhaps the corollary to the adage about first impression is "Don't burn your bridges." Healthcare workers don't always make the most graceful exits from their employers. It's always amazing to see old colleagues in new jobs. Healthcare can be a very small world. So it's best to remember the key steps to a graceful exit.

  • Write a professional resignation letter that is mature and polite. It should state you are leaving, your last day of work and a generic statement about your future career potential, e.g., "I have an opportunity to pursue my desire to be a manager." It is unnecessary to identify the exact position and new employer unless you want to.

  • Give the required amount of notice.

  • Tie up loose ends for projects and ask who you should give report to.

  • Advocate for yourself — check your benefits and schedule an appointment with human resources to learn about the necessary paperwork to be completed. Be sure to keep notes about who you spoke to and the date. Failing to do so can create anger when procedures are not followed, causing benefits to be lost or thinking there would be a benefit such as payment for unused sick time when there was not.

  • Establish a network with those you may want to keep in touch with on a social level or need to for professional references.

  • If you are leaving because you are unhappy, it's best to keep it to yourself. After all, you have made a decision to move on. If you would like to share it, do so in an appropriate forum such as an exit interview with human resources.

While some large corporations hire etiquette consultants for their staff or send promising executives to classes, in healthcare one usually uses a self-taught approach or the mentoring process. Whatever the method, business etiquette is an essential skill for professional success.


1. Bradley, S. (2008, January). Meetings & Conventions (p. 30).

2. Top workplace annoyances. (2008, January). Incentive Magazine (p. 12).

Sally Ann Corbo is president of Epicare Associates, West Caldwell, NJ.

  Last Post: April 22, 2010 | View Comments(5)

Applicants should think twice before creating/providing offensive usernames i.e.

Marlena  Wright April 22, 2010
Darlington , SC

anytime that I can learn more about interpersonal
communication, I am eager to read all I can

judy donahue,  rnJanuary 04, 2009
pittsburg, CA

great article

Judy  Donahue January 04, 2009
Pittsburg , CA

Read all comments (5) >>


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