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The essential rules on business etiquette

Always reflect what your customer would want to see

There are certain unspoken rules in day-to-day life that, when not abided by, cause offence.

As a shopper on the high street, you would no doubt be offended if the person you held a door open for did not say thank you. Or during a cinema screening, your patience would be stretched to its limit by a chocolate-unwrapping chatterbox.

While it’s true there are sensitive souls out there, who are offended by the meekest misdemeanour, there are certain rules that should never be overlooked. This couldn’t be truer in the workplace. In a place where first impressions count for everything; sticking to business rules of etiquette could be the difference between a failing first impression and a lasting working relationship.

Source of British social skills and etiquette, Debrett’s, agrees: “Etiquette in the workplace has never been more important in these competitive times.” So, to be ahead of that competition, here are some top rules on business etiquette.

Body language

Body language is a powerful tool, with the influence to intimidate, attract and calm another person with a few subtle mannerisms. In a business context such as a networking event, however, the code of choice is to put the people around you at ease, show respect and be welcoming. Mirroring the person you are speaking to – in terms of speaking pace and volume – puts them at in ease, which in turn eases you, too – making for a smooth and successful conversation. Standing at a slight angle to the person you’re conversing with, rather than a daunting square stance, is more accessible. According to recent research, 74% of people believe meeting face to face is the most effective way to carry out business, so maximise these opportunities by maintaining ever-valuable eye contact, unfolding your arms, not standing too close, and keeping body contact to a handshake.


As a start-up, it’s vital to get your name out there and shout about what you’re offering. No one will do the shouting for you (until your customers start doing the word-spreading on your behalf!). Listening with intent to other business contacts will earn you etiquette points, as well as demonstrate integrity and enthusiasm. Listening absorbedly enables you to adapt to the different people you’re speaking to, but most importantly, actually gain vital information. To speak to someone whose eyes are wandering around the room, they’re fidgeting or checking their smart phone, or worse – talking over you – is as infuriating and time-wasting as a broken printer. To not lend someone your ears is to suggest they’re not worth your time. Not exactly the best message to a fellow business representative.

Dress code

Research from Crowne Plaza Hotels’ First Impressions campaign shows that 50% of people in the UK believe appearance is vital in making a good first impression. Like you would for brunch or a barbeque, it’s important to dress for the occasion in the work environment. Dressing smartly for an important meeting shows effort and consideration for how you come across, and shows your fellow meeting attendees are worth this effort. Winner of The Apprentice 2013 Ricky Martin believes appearance is essential in basic business manners: “Treat every encounter as if you are meeting the Queen, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” A sloppy appearance implies lack of effort, and while it’s a valuable trait not to care too much about what others think of you, in the business world lack of input into appearance can reflect lack of motivation and low standards.

Prepare – do your research

Disappointingly, 35% of business people in the UK don’t do anything to prepare for an important first business meeting. Perhaps those lessons from schooldays did not resonate, but the adage is true: ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail.’ Similar to not putting effort into your appearance, not putting effort into preparing for a meeting shows a ‘can’t be bothered’ or even cocky attitude. Time is precious, not least in the world of business, so to waste another person’s time due to disorganisation is the height of discourtesy. No one wants to be that person in a meeting – you know the one. Rifling through paperwork for the corresponding spreadsheet; waffling with obvious ambiguity; that perplexed look that only an ill-equipped person has. Taking the time to learn something about the company or person you are meeting goes a long way, or the very least, reading the meeting outline and having something to bring to the table.

Time management

This preparedness encompasses time management. The cardinal sin in business is to be late for a meeting. Granted, curveballs are out of our control, yet allowing extra time to make it to your meeting often covers your back. Business rules on etiquette keep coming back to making a great first impression – and this is no exception. Lateness is not an option when it comes to impressing a business contact or trying to portray your business in the best light.

It’s not all about what goes on externally to the business, though. To round off these rules, don’t overlook the seemingly small things that go towards keeping colleagues happy too. Using the last of the milk/teabags and playing dumb; arriving late to work or never being willing to work extra; eating pungent food at your desk; never offering to make the tea; being the air-con controller; gossiping; playing music – the list goes on! If in doubt, ask yourself, ‘If the shoe was on the other foot, would I tolerate that behaviour?’

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