PLEASANTON -- Do you have your eye on a new job or perhaps a promotion? You may be the world's greatest candidate, but that won't mean much if you don't know protocol.
Business protocol covers the rules of etiquette for everything from job interviews and meetings to dining and negotiating. Manners and propriety are age-old concepts but definitely not outdated.
In today's casual and competitive world, knowing the value of a good handshake and a handwritten note can separate you -- in a good way -- from the rest of the clueless pack.
"People roll their eyes when you use the word 'manners,' " said business protocol consultant Pat Mayfield. "The reality is that people should never underestimate the power of protocol ... it's simply what is appropriate for the occasion in terms of behavior, dress, knowing the rules and dining manners.
"It's very much like driving. You read a book, learn the rules and practice until you're in the automatic zone. The rules are simple and usually common sense."
Mayfield, a Pleasanton resident who has written several books on business protocol and networking, has built a career helping businesses and individuals regain the decorum necessary to compete in a global economy.
"We are living in a very casual world; we are the most casual of cultures," she said. "People like Casual Friday so much it's become casual Monday through Friday. Some people see commercials and think it's OK to do what's on TV, but it's not.
"If you want to be successful you still have to polish your shoes, act appropriately and treat others with dignity and respect," she said. "You want to know what's proper to do because you respect the other person. To me, that's the real premise. The goal is to make other people feel comfortable ... you never want to make anything you're doing about yourself. Get out of yourself and focus on the other person."
The most important thing for job seekers and those trying to advance their careers is to understand that senior managers understand the value of business protocol and seek out employees who know that and can handle themselves effortlessly and appropriately in all situations.
"This comes from HR executives," she says. "When you work the rules, you distinguish yourself among your competitors." Those rules range from such basics as punctuality, cleanliness and appropriate dress to the ability to introduce yourself easily, converse confidently and always be a gracious guest and caring host.
"The rules are still there," Mayfield said. "It's not just what you do at the office -- it's what you do 24-7. It's a mindset -- caring enough about others to show dignity and respect."
Here are 10 tips to success by business protocol consultant Pat Mayfield, author of books including "Please Don't Drink from the Finger Bowl!"
1) Be on time: Lateness is disrespectful to the other party and in some cultures is considered an insult. In real life, things happen, so prepare. Lay out what you need in advance to minimize problems at the last minute.
2) Dress appropriately: If you're not sure what to wear, call the organizer and ask. For an interview, dress for the job you want. Look at what the company's employees wear, or call the HR department and ask. When in doubt, opt for more formal and conservative.
For men, that means at minimum a collared shirt, pressed pants (no denim) with a good belt and shined shoes. "With women, the more fabric you have the more seriously you're taken in business," Mayfield said. "No low necklines or short skirts -- make sure you pass the sit-down test."
3) Perfect the handshake: Your handshake is important; it indicates your confidence level. Aim for a simple two or three shakes using a firm grip, not too intense and not limp. Don't offer a hot and sweaty hand or a cold, wet one; if you're at a function, hold your cold drink in your left hand and leave your right free for shaking.
4) Optimize the interview: Bring several extra copies of your resume to the interview, and send a handwritten thank-you note afterward. An email note is a second choice. "It's not about the note; it's that the person knows the rules, they did what was appropriate to do," Mayfield said. "It can make the difference in getting the job."
5) Know your place setting: Prepare for the inevitable elegant meal by learning what a formal place setting looks like. That guarantees you'll know which fork to use first and avoid the embarrassment of wiping your mouth on your boss' napkin by mistake. If you're unsure, follow the host's lead.
6) Mind your manners. When dining out, especially at a business-related meal, wait to eat until everyone has been served. Don't chomp ice, sop up gravy with a chunk of bread or bring your face down to the soup bowl.
7) Look away from the screen: Technology is great, but take every chance to polish your conversational skills. Being able to look an interviewer or colleague in the eye, express yourself verbally and hold a conversation is critical to getting a job and scoring promotions.
8) Guard your reputation, especially on social media sites: "A big mistake many people make is thinking when they're on the job they need to be appropriate, but once off the job it's their personal life and they can do what they choose," Mayfield said. "You can't act one way at work and another in your off-hours -- it's a disconnect. What people focus on is the bad. We see it at every level, people making the wrong choice. Do what's appropriate and know what's appropriate."
9) Cast a wide net: Networking events give you a chance to market yourself. Don't focus on the food or drinks. Meet as many people as you can by working the four corners of the room and the center. Chat briefly and move on. Bring plenty of business cards, but do not force them on attendees, and do not immediately write on someone's personal business card -- in some cultures it's considered an insult. Try to focus on the person. Later, you can jot down the event and date on the card for your reference.
10) It's not about you: Remember that etiquette and protocol are all about making the other person feel respected. "Appear genuinely interested in what they're saying," Mayfield says. "Studies have found that the person who does the most listening is the person considered the most intelligent and the most articulate."
-- Beth Jensen, Correspondent