Back to the office: Bosses are sending workers to etiquette class

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You walk into the office kitchen to heat up your lunch and are greeted by a mess. Your co-worker Bridget has left the communal area in disarray — again.

You’re frustrated. Where do you go from here?

Do you shame Bridget and make her feel bad? That might make you feel righteous in the moment, but is that actually helpful? Are you helping to improve your workplace — and most important, ensuring a clean kitchen the next time — by unloading on her? What’s the end goal here?

This is a hypothetical scenario, one used frequently by business etiquette trainer Kate Zabriskie as she helps office workers and managers think through best practices for harmonious and productive workplaces. But workers throughout the U.S. are dealing with their own Bridgets every day — or are one.

As companies increasingly recall workers to the office, employees and managers alike are finding that the pandemic made us all a little rusty with in-person conduct. Co-workers are too loud at their desks. People are on their phones during meetings. Shaking hands is no longer a given. Small talk at networking events is … awkward.

Bosses’ solution to this stilted behavior? Charm school.

A woman teaches a young man the proper way to hold utensils while cutting food at a restaurant.

Business etiquette instructor Theresa Thomas works with student Tran Phat Chau to teach the proper way to hold utensils while cutting food during a dining etiquette class for students from Irvine Valley College.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

More than 6 in 10 companies will send their employees to office etiquette classes by 2024, according to a July survey of 1,548 business leaders by ResumeBuilder.com.

“It’s a shifting environment,” said Zabriskie, president and owner of Maryland-based Business Training Works Inc., a workplace etiquette and soft skills firm that has recently gotten more requests from companies for basic civility training. “We’re all coming back together. We want to … make sure we have a shared agreement about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable in the workplace.”

Before the pandemic, the Swann School of Protocol would go out to workplaces about once or twice a month to help train staff on business etiquette. Now, it gets four to six requests a month, said Elaine Swann, founder of the Carlsbad-based training institute.

“The soft skills that are necessary to have a harmonious workplace were not being used” when everyone was home working in their pajamas, she said. “Utilizing those skills is almost like a muscle. If you’re not using that muscle, it can become weak.”

Business etiquette training can include a wide variety of topics — professionalism in the office and on Zoom, giving feedback, proper dress code, remembering names and how to conduct oneself during a business lunch.

On a recent weekday, a group of Irvine Valley College students dressed in their professional best gathered at an Italian restaurant to learn how to navigate a multi-course business meal with savvy and finesse. In hushed tones and with minimal clinking, the students handled the multiple utensils, broke off small pieces of bread to butter and resisted the impolite urge to blow on their hot soup.

The fine dining class was the last lesson in their course on business etiquette. The students are in the Guaranteed Accounting Program, or GAP4+1, a partnership between Irvine Valley College and Cal State Fullerton that sets up participants to get associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting in five years.

Student Simran Bhogle eats soup

Student Simran Bhogle learns the proper way to eat soup during a dining etiquette class for accounting students from Irvine Valley College and Cal State Fullerton at Il Fornaio restaurant in Irvine.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

So much of accounting involves face-to-face contact with clients, or at a minimum, extensive interviews with employers to get a job. It’s why Irvine Valley College has placed so much emphasis on this business etiquette course, which a school representative said turns students into highly recruited “diamonds.”

Kevin Nguyen, 32, an Irvine Valley College sophomore, said previous lessons on professionalism taught him the importance of introductions and proper business attire — key components he plans to use in future interviews.

“When you come from high school, there’s no formalities. It’s very informal,” said Nguyen, who previously worked as a high-class server, caterer and driver before deciding to go to school for accounting. “I think this course makes me stand apart. There’s not really any classes that teach you how to be business professional.”

In a recent survey on office decorum, nearly 75% of respondents said they’d take advantage of business etiquette courses if they were offered by their employer, including 93% of Gen Z survey respondents.

Common complaints from hybrid and in-office employees included loud talking, office gossip and not being prepared for meetings, according to human resource consulting firm Robert Half. (The meeting etiquette faux pas also included arriving late and dominating the conversation.)

To be clear, bad behavior didn’t start with the pandemic. There have always been messy kitchens or loquacious colleagues. And to some extent, workers may have gotten used to solitary setups at home and are now less tolerant of typical office distractions such as crunchy chips or co-worker chatter.

There are also more serious workplace issues that etiquette training won’t fix.

Some ResumeBuilder etiquette survey respondents mentioned other topics of interest, including “what conversation isn’t acceptable,” that “discussion of political standpoints and/or religion is discouraged” and that every person should be treated “equally and fairly.”

Such diversity, equity and inclusion training or anti-harassment courses are outside the purview of most business etiquette classes and are typically handled through a company’s internal HR department, specialized cultural sensitivity experts or law firms. But related topics can sometimes come up.

Nisha Trivedi, founder of NishaTri business etiquette training, said she got a question during a training session last spring about how to respond to a microaggression. She encouraged the person to pose a neutral question, such as “What did you mean by that?” to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, while also not letting the comment go.

“That would give the person a chance to respond either with their sincere meaning, or to acknowledge an issue with what they previously said,” Trivedi said.

Annoying or off-putting office behavior can be costly to employers already struggling with retention or recruitment in the still-tight labor market.

“If somebody isn’t fitting into a culture — and that can be because of some of these workplace habits — they often become unhappy,” said Alexandra Von Tiergarten, district president of Robert Half, who is based in Los Angeles. “And an unhappy worker doesn’t want to stay.”

Business etiquette firms say requests are coming from all sectors — engineering, insurance, luxury car dealerships, healthcare, finance and even architecture.

Corrugated box manufacturer New-Indy Packaging decided to enroll sales employees in a business etiquette class after managers saw a representative give a lackluster presentation during a business trip. The Cerritos firm’s sales representatives went through six three-hour training sessions to polish up their skills in professional presentation, proper attire, attending lunch meetings and client interactions.

“There isn’t one session that didn’t open the eyes of our employees,” said Brad McCroskey, executive vice president of sales.

Interpersonal conduct is also a major topic of training.

Uncertain about handshakes because someone once left you hanging at a business event? Next time, confidently extend your hand and make eye contact. If the other person declines because they’re not comfortable, bring your palm to your heart and say, “It’s good to meet you,” which shows respect and avoids dangling hands, said Becky Rupiper, a longtime senior training and image consultant with Des Moines-based firm Tero International.

Trouble with networking skills? Small talk is a popular topic of training, as is how to get out of a conversation you no longer want to be a part of. (“There’s a whole template to that,” Rupiper said with a laugh, but did not divulge.)

Deciding what is “professional” for each workplace is another major issue.

A woman walks through an office kitchen

Office kitchens often are the source of drama. This one, at the Oakland corporate offices of secondhand clothing reseller ThredUp, looks tidy.

(Paul Kuroda/For The Times)

Returning to the office means a return to kitchen drama, as with the hypothetical Bridget — burned popcorn wafting its pungent odor throughout the office, constantly full dishwashers, or paper towels piling up on the floor because there’s no trash can nearby.

How does each workplace want to define what is and isn’t OK? How does that work when that extends to dress code or even open-door policies?

It’s discussions like these that Zabriskie helps facilitate for her clients. She and her team will meet with employees and managers at a company, break down what professionalism means in that particular workplace and identify behaviors that support that idea.

The price of these classes can range from $4,100 for an in-person, half-day program with a handful of people that doesn’t require Zabriskie or her team to travel far from their home bases (she also does business in California), to $7,850 for a full-day class with 36 people. The average price of a class is $6,500.

The classes don’t teach anything so mind-blowing that couldn’t be read in a book, she said, but they do help flatten the learning curve so what may have taken six months to figure out on your own is addressed instantly.

People sitting around a table with utensils in their hands

Students learn the proper way to hold utensils during a dining etiquette class. The accounting students from Irvine Valley College and Cal State Fullerton hope the fine dining skills will help when entertaining clients.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Another big topic — best communication practices among different generations.

“We all have value,” said Lisa Richey, founder of the American Academy of Etiquette, who is based in Raleigh, N.C. “That’s kind of an underlying theme with dealing with multiple generations.”

To help workers of different generations understand one another better, Richey has her clients play a game in which people fill out a worksheet with their favorite candy bars, favorite movies of their time or popular styles or hairdos. It usually elicits a lot of laughter.

“If there’s somebody from a Baby Boomer generation, then they like it when you stand up and shake their hand and show respect. That’s meaningful to them,” Richey said. “Whereas another generation wants a text and wants it quick and that’s it. So we talk about the benefits of knowing all the different generations and how they like to be communicated to.”

Part of the push for training is to help people get comfortable with going back into the office, and for everyone to realize that this takes some sensitivity, said business etiquette instructor Theresa Thomas, who taught New-Indy Packaging employees and the Irvine Valley College students and has more than 20 years of experience in the field.

“People have made major changes in their life,” she said. “Many of us have gone through difficult things. It’s important to have an increased ability to have empathy and be more caring.”



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