Do Employees Need Etiquette Class or Clearer Expectations?

By Katie Navarra August 10, 2023

Employees who are returning to the office after working remotely and newcomers to the job market are struggling to adjust to in-person work, according to a survey of 1,548 business leaders.

Burping, walking barefoot and microwaving smelly foods in the office kitchen are surfacing as indicators that some people may have forgotten how to act or dress professionally. Leaders also note that some individuals do not remember what qualifies as appropriate small talk and professional communication, among other soft skills.

"There is prevalent and consistent feedback that people have lost common courtesies such as, you don't call in sick five minutes before your shift starts," said Tom Lemmey, director of sales for Ethan Allen Workforce Solutions, a training provider for sales teams.

According to the survey, nearly half of responding business leaders have implemented etiquette classes, and another 18 percent plan to implement them by 2024. Of those, 60 percent will require training for all employees, and 10 percent say it will be required for Generation Z employees and recent college graduates.

Without a doubt, boundaries and expectations are necessary to create a safe and comfortable work environment for employees and clients. But is etiquette class—and especially mandated training—the right solution?

"My first thoughts are whose etiquette are we basing this on," said Sam Wise, SHRM-CP, HR project leader at Clarity HR Solutions. "That always sticks out to me when we talk about professionalism and different cultural standards and beliefs. It's also important to talk with your firm's general counsel before implementing a new training tied to cultural norms."

New entrants to the workforce may have missed valuable internships during the pandemic that would have prepared them for everyday work expectations. Employers can't assume that these employees' soft skills are on par with their hard skills, and may need to articulate expectations very clearly, including why some of these rules are in place.

Remembering What It's Like to Be the Youngest Generation

Every generation to enter the workplace has been labeled in some way. Generation Z workers are the most recent cohort to be pegged with certain characteristics, especially regarding etiquette. Looking back, the Baby Boomers were "hippies," Generation X were "slackers," and Millennials were considered "entitled and lazy," according to Dave Collins, founder and CEO of Oak and Reeds, a business training provider.

"It's not a generational thing. … It's that 22- to 25-year-olds take a little seasoning," Collins said. "Remember what people were saying about you when you were 23, and that might be the same thing coming out of your mouth now, so take a step back and remember that."

Traditionally, college and internships provided the next generation of workers with coaching and skills to prepare them for the job. The pandemic interrupted that proving ground.

"School trained people to be online workers [during the pandemic]," Collins added. "They missed the training on how to show up to an office four to five days a week and behave without embarrassing themselves."

Looking at the Big Picture

Lemmey sees etiquette being tied to a bigger picture related to setting boundaries and expectations. He suggests HR leaders consider:

  • What are the minimum requirements that you have for the job?
  • Do you have performance standards set for interaction with other staff members?
  • Are the employees doing their job well and delivering results? 

If you have a high-performing employee who you don't think is engaging with their co-workers, you may want to ask:

  • What am I willing to accept from this person?
  • Am I willing to let others exhibit this same behavior if they perform at this level?  

"Then it becomes have you met with the individual, talked about what's important to them and tried to have a relationship with them," Lemmey said. "It's got to be a two-way street to help this person become a part of the team. We often find that a leader hasn't even spoken to them because they're afraid of the conversation, mostly because they're afraid of the turnover."

Getting Up to Speed

Rather than spending your budget on etiquette training, Collins suggests mentorships or a "buddy system" may have a more lasting impact.

"Pairing someone with another person in their age cohort but a couple of years ahead in their career is much more impactful and cost-effective," he said. "Taking this person out to lunch once a month, teaching by doing, and networking at the peer-to-peer level is important."

Wise added that transparency around etiquette expectations, specifically a dress code, is essential for all generations.

"I worked with college students and often had conversations about just rolling out of bed and coming to work," he said. "The bigger thing now is that it is now crossing into the broader workforce and is less about people entering the workforce for the first time."

He points to a recent conversation with a director about attire such as tank tops and shorts and employees pushing back on dress codes not allowing them.

"I think there is a growing trend around managers and direct employees wanting explanations for the why behind these policies," Wise said. "Prior to COVID, no one would bat an eye about tank tops and shorts being in a dress code. Now we're looking at why we don't want people to wear shorts. Is it a safety issue? Is it because we don't want to be policing the length of shorts?"

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer based in New York state.



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