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'Oh, behave!' 6 tips for proper business manners

Do loose lips sink work relationships? Find out why to keep it anything but casual in the office.
/ Source: TODAY

Do you know the proper way to behave at a business dinner? How to correctly address e-mails? What about the accepted protocol at office meetings?

These all seem like simple things — e-mail has been a part of my life now for a good decade and a half, but surprisingly enough, many professionals don't quite have a grasp of etiquette guidelines for the office. The result? Companies are increasingly bringing in outside firms to host seminars on proper business behavior much like you'd send your kids off to a coach to learn proper table manners.

"Companies don't necessarily want to assume the roles of being professional parents, and often times these topics are too close for comfort," said Ann Marie Sabath, president of At Ease, Inc, who has over the past 20 years trained some 90,000 businessfolk. "Fortune 500 and 100 companies often hire people with high IQs, but they want to confirm that their sociability factors are up to their standards."

Programs like the one that At Ease Inc. offers aren't limited to the 20-something crowd just starting out in the workplace. We all make a faux pas at one point or another and Sabath says her clients typically send everyone to the training, not just offenders. Here's a crash course — just in case your networking or social skills could use a little brushing up:

  • Watch the e-mail. When you e-mail your friends, chances are you do it informally — not worrying about abbreviations, misspellings and rough grammar. That won't fly at work. "Some of the biggest mistakes people make in the workplace involve e-mail," said Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work" (St. Martin's Press, 2005).

    At the very least, you should spell check your message before you hit send. Most e-mail programs will automatically point out errors for you  and scan it to make sure it reads clearly. But when dealing with clients, you also want to format an e-mail as you would a business letter, Whitmore advised, and keep in mind that your messages aren't private. Last, make sure you do reply in a timely manner -- and that goes for those messages piling up in your voicemail box, too.

  • Don't settle for being on time be early. According to Sabath, if you're the one benefiting from a meeting (the one receiving a paycheck, a shot at a job or promotion, etc) you should be 15 minutes early.

    That'll give you on time to get through security, if there is any, stop in the restroom and gather your thoughts. Leave non-essentials, like coffee or any heavy bags or purses, in the car or at your desk to create a neat, pulled together appearance. Be prepared and well versed in the topics that are going to be discussed, and try to formulate your own input ahead of time. One caveat: A five-minute lead time is sufficient if it's a one-on-one meeting with your boss, because you don't want to give the impression that you don't have enough work to do.

  • Observe the arms-length rule. According to Sabath, PDAs and cell phones should not be used when you're within arms length of another individual. That means during meetings, lunches, dinners and other business events. You want the people you're talking with feel that they have your undivided attention, and constantly checking your PDA doesn't give that impression.

    What if you're on an airplane waiting for take-off and sitting next to a stranger? Sabath will acquiesce on the PDA, but before you start chatting away on the cell phone ask if your seatmate minds.

  • Don't use technology as a substitute for interaction. "Technology has changed the way we behave because we've lost face-to-face contact. Most business relationships are based on friendship and personal touch, and if you rely on e-mail as the sole mode of communication, you've lost that," says Whitmore. This can be a bit harder if you're a member of the younger generation of workers, who grew up using e-mail for everything and may not feel completely comfortable engaging in long conversations.

    Still, if you shy away from it, you'll never be at ease, so the best thing to do is simply practice. Always initiate a relationship or make the first contact by phone or in person, never by e-mail, and think about what you want to discuss in advance.

  • Don't lose your manners at after-work receptions or business dinners. People tend to let loose a little too much because these events don't typically occur in the office, but nonetheless, they are still meetings. It's important to remember why you're there.

    "What I find is that people concentrate more on the food and less on the customers or clients. They think the food is for them, when in actuality, it's for the client -- they are there to meet and mingle, and build relationships," explained Whitmore.

    With that comes separating those office clicks — if you stay huddled together with other friends from work, you're missing out on a big piece of the pie, including networking opportunities and potential clients. And the importance of going easy on the alcohol goes without saying.

  • Go beyond. You know that you need to treat your boss with respect, but go the extra mile and treat your colleagues, secretary and the cashier in the cafeteria the same way. You probably understand the dress code, but instead of simply leaving the flip-flops at home, why not strive to dress as nice as your boss does? Send off that thank you via e-mail or personal call, but pop a note in the mail as well.

These little touches will pay off down the road.

— With reporting by Arielle McGowen

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .