You give your students the knowledge and skills they need to succeed, but do they have any idea how to conduct themselves in a professional setting? Many faculty members fear that the casual atmosphere in which many young adults have grown up could lead to a lack of professionalism that might hold them back on the job.
“Professionalism is a combination of taught knowledge and skills and experiential learning, so exposure to industry professionals and the ability to observe how to dress, present oneself, join or exit a conversation, and compose well-written emails are not top-of-mind until they are brought to students’ attention,” said Raina Gandhi, assistant dean of career services, Office of Career Engagement at the Kogod School of Business, American University, Washington, D.C.
“It’s important for students to know that they will be judged on their demeanor and their attitude,” said Vicky Oliver, author of 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions. “Every business is a people business, no matter how technical. There are none that are just about numbers, and you will be judged on how you deal with people.” The pillars of etiquette include respect, cordiality, listening without interruption, and respecting boundaries, Oliver said, but most students don’t learn these soft skills in school.
Here are some simple ways to help get your students up to speed on the do’s and don’ts of business decorum and why they matter.
Set standards. Faculty members can begin with a code of conduct that establishes the consequences of lapses in etiquette such as being late, unprepared, or ill-mannered, recommended Gandhi, whose school recently created a required for-credit course for undergraduates on business professionalism.
Focus on communications. “I ask students to turn in homework that is typed and uses complete sentences,” said Dorris Perryman, department chair and assistant professor of accounting at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Mass. She also won’t accept work with the kinds of abbreviations or emojis often seen in social media.
Young professionals need to know that in office emails, “it’s important to maintain a pleasant tone, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when appropriate, and use a friendly sign-off,” said Oliver.
Ellen Bartley, Ph.D., assistant professor of accounting at Farmingdale State College in New York, said that she often sees student communication take an overly familiar or informal tone. For instance, students may address professors by their first names or fail to even capitalize their names in emails.
“It reflects a lack of awareness of the culture of the organization,” she said. “In our school of business, most instructors use Professor, or Doctor, rather than first names. In their future work environments, awareness of organizational culture will be important.”
Make it real. To help students recognize proper business attire, Perryman comes to one class in casual dress and asks students if her outfit is appropriate. After first approving her clothes, the students slowly begin to focus on potential trouble spots such as oversized jewelry, loud patterns, and informal shoes. In her next class, she arrives in a conservative suit with a purse and jewelry. “The students say, ‘Wow, that will get you the interview,’” she said.
Get students talking. Bartley works to inspire conversation among her students. “Ten years ago, when I walked into a classroom, I would find students chatting with each other,” she said. “Today, they’re all sitting in silence looking at their phones. I tell them that they should be starting to develop relationships with their peers, since they are going into the same field.” She also asks students working in groups to introduce themselves to one another and take advantage of the chance to begin developing networking skills.
Perryman takes five minutes during each class to discuss business etiquette, including how to make conversation and discuss current events. “I tell students that if I am paying you $50,000 or $60,000 a year, I want to know that you can communicate about something other than football,” she said.
She believes that the ability to discuss topical issues bolsters the value students offer prospective employers. “Accountants need to know how what’s going on in the news will affect their businesses,” she said.
Share cautionary tales. In class, Perryman circulates articles about the consequences of poor professionalism. One described how a client complained to a firm when he noticed some young auditors sitting in a glass-walled conference room who were apparently spending a lot of time on their cellphones. The firm managing partner came to the client office to collect the phones, leaving them in a basket in the hall. “I pass these articles around so they know I’m not making this up,” she said.
Define proper etiquette and describe the rewards. Some of the basics that accounting faculty can share with students include the importance of following up within a day after an interview or networking event and avoiding social media posts that could hurt you at work, such as rants about your job or other potentially offensive material, Oliver said.
Since many people lack etiquette skills, she said, those who do have them will stand out. “People with good business etiquette are poised. Those around them feel they can be trusted to solve problems, meet with clients, and be the standard-bearer for the organization,” she said.
Perryman, likewise, tells her students that business etiquette “helps you be a better you and a better employee.”
The stakes are high
Ignorance of basic professionalism can hold back promising students before their careers even get started. Without it, “students won’t survive in a conservative business environment,” Perryman said.
“When we send them out into the world, we want them to have a sense of professionalism,” Bartley said, “and to represent us well.” The stakes are high, but promoting business etiquette awareness can give students a better chance of reaching their goals.
Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.