Professional Etiquette

Your academic knowledge and skills may be spectacular, but do you have the social skills needed to be successful in the workplace? Good professional etiquette indicates to potential employers that you are a mature, responsible adult who can aptly represent their company. Not knowing proper etiquette could damage your image, prevent you from getting a job and jeopardize personal and business relationships.

Meeting and Greeting

Etiquette begins with meeting and greeting. Terry Cobb, human resource director at Wachovia Corporation in South Carolina's Palmetto region, emphasizes the importance of making a good first impression—beginning with the handshake. A firm shake, he says, indicates to employers that you're confident and assertive. A limp handshake, on the other hand, sends the message that you're not interested or qualified for the job. Dave Owenby, human resources manager for North and South Carolina at Sherwin Williams, believes, "Good social skills include having a firm handshake, smiling, making eye contact and closing the meeting with a handshake."

The following basic rules will help you get ahead in the workplace:

  • Always rise when introducing or being introduced to someone.
  • Provide information in making introductions - you are responsible for keeping the conversation going. "Joe, please meet Ms. Crawford, CEO at American Enterprise, Inc., in Cleveland." "Mr. Jones, this is Kate Smith, a senior majoring in computer information systems at Northwestern University."
  • Unless given permission, always address someone by his or her title and last name.
  • Practice a firm handshake. Make eye contact while shaking hands.


Shirley Willey, owner of Etiquette & Company in Carmichael, Calif., reports that roughly 80% of second interviews involve a business meal. Cobb remembers one candidate who had passed his initial interview with flying colors. Because the second interview was scheduled close to noon, Cobb decided to conduct the interview over lunch. Initially, the candidate was still in the "interview" mode and maintained his professionalism. After a while, however, he became more relaxed—and that's when the candidate's real personality began to show. He had terrible table manners, made several off-color remarks and spoke negatively about previous employers. Needless to say, Cobb was unimpressed, and the candidate did not get the job.

Remember that an interview is always an interview, regardless of how relaxed or informal the setting. Anything that is said or done will be considered by the interviewer, cautions Cobb.

In order to make a good impression during a lunch or dinner interview, make sure you:

  • Arrive on time.
  • Wait to sit until the host/hostess indicates the seating arrangement.
  • Place napkin in lap before eating or drinking anything.
  • When ordering, keep in mind that this is a talking business lunch. Order something easy to eat, such as boneless chicken or fish.
  • Do not hold the order up because you cannot make a decision. Feel free to ask for suggestions from others at the table.
  • Wait to eat until everyone has been served.
  • Keep hands in lap unless you are using them to eat.
  • Practice proper posture; sit up straight with your arms close to your body.
  • Bring food to your mouth—not your head to the plate.
  • Try to eat at the same pace as everyone else.
  • Take responsibility for keeping up the conversation.
  • Place napkin on chair seat if excusing yourself for any reason.
  • Place napkin beside plate at the end of the meal.
  • Push chair under table when excusing yourself.


Follow these simple rules for eating and drinking:

  • Start eating with the implement that is farthest away from your plate. You may have two spoons and two forks. The spoon farthest away from your plate is a soup spoon. The fork farthest away is a salad fork unless you have three forks, one being much smaller, which would be a seafood fork for an appetizer. The dessert fork/spoon is usually above the plate. Remember to work from the outside in.
  • Dip soup away from you; sip from the side of the spoon.
  • Season food only after you have tasted it.
  • Pass salt and pepper together—even if asked for only one.
  • Pass all items to the right. If the item has a handle, such as a pitcher, pass with the handle toward the next person. For bowls with spoons, pass with the spoon ready for the next person. If you are the one to reach to the center of the table for an item, pass it before serving yourself.
  • While you are speaking during a meal, utensils should be resting on plate (fork and knife crossed on the plate with tines down).
  • Don't chew with your mouth open or blow on your food.

The interviewer will usually take care of the bill and the tip. Be prepared, however, if this doesn't happen and have small bills ready to take care of your part, including the tip. Never make an issue of the check.

Social skills can make or break your career. Kenitra Matheson, human resource director with Dellinger and Deese in Charlotte, N.C., emphasizes, "Etiquette and social skills are a must! Our employees have to exhibit a certain level of professionalism and etiquette, given that we constantly interact with our clients." Be one step ahead - practice the social skills necessary to help you make a great first impression and stand out in a competitive job market.

Written by Jennie Hunter, a professor at Western Carolina University.