Business Etiquette: What they don't teach you at business school

Business Etiquette: What they don't teach you at business school

Business Etiquette – the things they don’t teach you at business school

Whenever I hear the words ‘business etiquette’ I always think of another word ‘meishi’ which is Japanese for business cards and also refers to the ceremony of exchanging them with clients. In Japan, a business introduction starts with a bow and then the presentation of a business card. The card should always be facing upwards and towards the recipient. Offering the card with both hands shows great respect and this is reciprocated by the recipient accepting it with both hands too. It should then be carefully inspected and placed in a business card holder. The business card is considered to be the ‘face’ of its owner, so stuffing it in your pocket or worse, your back pocket, is seen as a huge insult.

Top tip: In Japan a person's business card is considered to be their 'face'. Whatever you do don't stuff it in your back pocket!

We don’t follow meishi in the UK but we do have our peculiar customs and traditions in the workplace. My favourite custom is talking about the weather. Not because I particular like talking about the weather but it really is the best way to break the ice, that and discussing how you travelled to the meeting and how much traffic you had to brave your way through. But please bear in mind, you will lose me if you start quoting road numbers and junctions – I have no space in my brain for that sort of extraneous information – especially when we all use sat-navs.

We Brits enjoy talking about the's not because we're obsessed with the weather but it's a great ice breaker!

Tick, tock…why are we waiting?

We’re also pretty time-conscious in the UK. I hate being late for meetings with clients and find myself apologising if I’m only just on time rather than five or ten minutes early. That said, I have been in some internal meetings where it seemed as though there was a prize for being the last to arrive…once a colleague turned up 30 minutes late, making a passive aggressive protest about having to attend the meeting, then complained because we had started without him. Although we are usually all on time we can be pretty poor at finishing meetings.

I have definitely been guilty of outstaying my welcome, especially if I’ve spent a long time travelling to get there. Over time I have become much more respectful of people’s time, said what I have come to say, answered all the questions the client has and then concisely closed the meeting with a thank you for the client sparing part of their day. Again, internal meetings can be entirely different and I’ve experienced meetings where we’ve been kicked out of a meeting room and then continued discussions for hours afterwards in the corridor.

I heard that a company was trialling standing up meetings. No chairs, no coffee or biscuits. Apparently, it works and meetings last half the time because it’s so uncomfortable standing around for hours – maybe something to consider for you next team meeting.

Top five tips for successful business meetings in the UK

  1. Be punctual – 10-20 minutes before the meeting is the optimal time to arrive. It says I respect the people I am meeting with, I am prepared and I am reliable.
  2. Remembermeishi – always take business cards with you and hand them to your client even if they already have your contact details. I always take notes in every meeting and staple the business cards to the relevant page to refer to later.
  3. Be brief – if you are making a presentation get to the ‘punch-line’ as soon as possible. By this I mean you should explain the benefits to the client as soon as possible. If it’s something they are interested in they will be more engaged. If you leave them guessing for an hour you may lose their interest and possibly a sale.
  4. Dress appropriately – when possible you should try to match what you client is likely to wear as closely as possible. It makes it easier for your client to relate to you. Also dress for the specific meeting. During my career I have had to deal with a number of farmers and had meetings in the middle of muddy fields. In this scenario a suit, tie and office shoes would be a disaster and most likely alienate your client immediately.
  5. Remember to close – be conscious that you’re having a meeting for a reason. Whatever it is make sure you reiterate it to your client. Set firm actions or make a firm commitment to get back in touch by a certain date and stick to it! Be respectful of your client’s time and always remember to thank them for meeting with you.

Anyone for a cuppa?

One thing we Brits enjoy is a nice cup of tea, but the office tea round can be more trouble than its worth. For some it’s a chance to assert their authority and literally make sure everyone knows who the boss is. Then there’s the problem with not getting what you asked for. I’m not a fussy drinker at all so I find it exasperating when you’ve gone to the effort of making someone tea and they look at you as though you’ve committed murder by not adding enough milk or sugar. Someone once very kindly brought me a herbal tea…with milk! So I can sympathise a little. Considering the good intentions behind the traditional tea run it can be fraught with all kinds of problems. The person who only makes half a cup, the person who adds milk before the hot water, the person who dips the teabag for a nanosecond and on and on…The worst culprit of the tea run is the non-reciprocator. We had an intern with us for a few weeks recently and I was adamant he wouldn’t just become the tea boy. So on the first day I declared that I was making tea for all – “who wants one?” On the second day no offer of tea was forthcoming from the intern so I offered again, so did other colleagues throughout the day. The intern seemed resolute in not offering to ‘get a round in’. I know it seems like a small thing but it’s these daily social interactions that keep an office together.

Here are some top tips for dealing with the office tea round:

  1. Get a round in - Just like at the pub, if someone offers to make/buy you a drink, you should reciprocate – it’s only polite.
  2. Make the round as small as possible – Make your life easier and only offer to make tea for those immediately around you. This makes you look like a team player whilst minimising your time with the kettle.
  3. Lose the tray – if the tea round is getting out of hand and you are spending more time in the kitchen than your desk, think about mis-placing the tea tray. This limits the number of cups you can carry and is a great excuse for not offering to make tea for everyone.
  4. Fussy drinker – if you like tea stronger than creosote and your colleague’s version looks and tastes like dish water, educate them. When they offer to make tea, say that you will come and help them. You can then subtly suggest that they leave the bag in a little longer whilst you catch up on the office gossip.
  5. Drink herbal tea – this totally takes the possibility of tea failure out the equation. All that your colleague has to do is bring you a cup of hot water and you can do the rest…you could probably do with cutting down your caffeine consumption especially if the tea round is stressing you out!

Office parties

A blog on business etiquette in the UK wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the annual office social. If there’s anything we Brits like more than tea; its booze. I have been to one or two work socials and it’s amazing how people like to let loose in front of the boss.

Unlike a night out with friends, the hangover the next day may include vague recollections of being fired for making a pass at your manager’s wife.

Here are some top tips for office parties:

  1. Think about what you wear – it’s okay to dress up or down a notch, but don’t go over the top. I like the ‘I’ve just left the office look’ minus tie and jacket. Try and avoid anything too short, tight or suggestive – that goes for girls and boys! Remember you’re not going to a nightclub.
  2. Make the effort – switch off the Crackberry and interact with your colleagues. Make an effort to speak to people you don’t know or rarely interact with during work time. You never know when you might need a favour from Betty in Admin.
  3. Switch off - Whilst we on the subject of smartphones, it really is a good idea to switch them off. You may be tempted to post hilarious photos which turn out to be less than funny in the morning.
  4. Stay sober – so someone has convinced the boss that a free bar is a good idea. He agreed and now you have the whole evening ahead of you, socialising with colleagues. It’s really tempting to order a quadruple gin and tonic with a request to keep them coming…but don’t!
  5. Flirting – have ignored tips 1 and 3, you’re a little bit tipsy and feeling much braver then you are in the office. You see that colleague you have a crush on and in your drunken haze you think that now would be a great time to declare your love for said colleague. Stop! Do you really want to do this in front of everyone you work with? The potential for disaster is immense.

Of course, the easiest thing to do to avoid all of this would be to stay at home. Unless you’re wife’s going in to labour with your first child or you have similar immovable commitments you must go to the office party. It cements your commitment to the company and helps bond with your colleagues.


Business etiquette is all about being respectful of those you work with and do business with. We are all human beings with things we need to achieve and bosses to please.

If you’re trying to sell something to a client make sure they understand the benefits and how it will make their working life easier. If you’ve got the job makes sure you deliver what you’ve promised. If it all goes wrong, then let your client know as soon as possible and apologise…the chances are you’re mistake is going to make your client’s life a little harder…so try and remedy the situation, maybe consider taking them out to lunch to say sorry.

It's important to remember that your colleagues are just as important as your clients and that certain rules of etiquette should be observed if you want to maintain harmony in your office. When someone constantly accepts the offer of a cup of tea but never reciprocates it's not just about the tea and could signal issues with team cohesion.

Just because someone is paid to do a certain job in your organisation it doesn’t hurt to thank them, especially if they’ve done a good job. You might not be the boss, but why not considering rewarding helpful colleagues with something small…maybe a nice slice of cake to go with their tea!

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Posted by Mark Wisniewski @markcoolski

Mark Wisniewski @markcoolski
Mark is a co-founder of TripLinks and investor in renewable energy...well he's got to do something to offset all the flights he makes! In his spare time (although he doesn't have much being a dad to two boys) he likes to brew beer, watch F1 and take long walks – walking helps him think apparently. He seems to have an uncanny ability to inspire others to do the things they really want to do, for example his barber Tom wanted to move to Australia and after half hour haircut Tom decided he was going to look into it in more detail. Tom now lives in Adelaide and, rather annoyingly, no longer cuts Mark’s hair!

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