A brief conversation with Rosanne J. Thomas

Rosanne J. Thomas is the author of Excuse Me: The Survival Guide to Modern Business Etiquette. She is also founder and president of Protocol Advisors, Inc., specialists in providing business etiquette training to professionals at respected organizations from Tiffany & Co. to Boeing. She also helps prepare students at top colleges and universities to achieve the highest degree of workplace success.

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What do you now know about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time?

This a great question! I remember feeling like I had missed a critical college course about successfully maneuvering in the real business world. In college, it was all about where people went to school, their majors, GPAs, sports, activities, awards, etc., There was no mention made that the real business world doesn’t care about these things all that much. It is presumed you are smart and qualified; otherwise you would not have gotten the job. Resting on the laurels of college achievements doesn’t cut it. What new employers wants to know is how you can help them now, and how you fit into their corporate culture. What kind of attitude do you have? How collegial and respectful are you? Do others gravitate toward you or away from you? Are you a team player?

I actually asked this very question of a friend of mine who went to one of the top professional schools in the world. Midway through his career, he said, “I wish I had known that as one tries to ascend the corporate ladder, he (or she) needs to go through finer and finer filters.” And no one tells you what these filter are! But it essentially all comes down to relationships. It has been said that “People don’t leave jobs; people leave people.” Or they are asked to leave. Success without mutually respectful and healthy relationships is practically impossible

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and personal development are most likely to survive?

It starts with decisions made at the top. The only time employees are motivated to do their best is when they feel safe and valued at work. This means executives need to instill a culture of respect and inclusion in their organizations and model behaviors that support these cultures each and every day. Bosses who espouse the importance of respectful interpersonal interactions but do not engage in them are better off having said nothing at all. If higher-ups expect appropriate language, they must first use it. If they want their employees to listen, give credit where credit is due, not play favorites, engage in ethical business behaviors, etc. they themselves must consistently do these things. They must make clear the codes of conduct they expect, as well as the consequences of not adhering to them. And if disrespect in any form is reported to them, they must take swift and appropriate action. When these things are in place, employees do not have to guard against unnecessary, distracting, upsetting and demotivating workplace situations and instead, have the opportunity to do and be their best.

Over the years, I have worked with several thousand C-level executives and almost all of them were ladies and gentlemen. What do you make of that?

In my opinion, your experience supports the notion that most people get to the executive level because they are smart. They know what matters most for success in the professional arena: relationships. Yes, education, technical skill and experience are all important, but without well-developed social skills, many would not have had the opportunity to let their talents be known. They know how to develop and maintain relationships in a 360º manner, recognizing that everyone at every level has a voice. They understand that it’s nice to be nice, but it’s also smart to be nice, and rewards accrue to those who not only get the jobs done, but get them done with relationships intact. This means showing respect and consideration for other, always.

Not everyone has had the experience of higher-ups exhibiting such behavior. Indeed, there are many more stories about how bosses are actually the main culprits in displaying and allowing disrespectful behavior. They got to the top not because of their social skills but because they had something – familial or personal connections, expertise, education, etc., – that set them apart, despite their lack of interpersonal skills. Or, as founders, they started at the top.

But relying upon a captive audience for anything that is replaceable, including expertise and education, is a risky strategy. More and more, companies are hiring for attitude, training for skill. They have decided it is easier to teach technology skills than it is to imbue individuals with the qualities of empathy and respect. The most successful will continue to hone their social skills, knowing that these are the ones that truly matter.

Which specific behaviors seem to do the most damage to careers? Why?

Certainly, anything illegal is at the top of the list, as these behaviors can put both companies and individuals at huge financial and reputational risk. CFOs know that sexual harassment not only does irreparable damage to the reputations of those accused of it, it also exposes companies to enormous legal fees and potential payouts to victims. Bullying, intimidation and any actions that make other employees feel disrespected or excluded can also have financial ramifications to employers in terms of health care costs and lost productivity. And anything deemed to compromise a company’s bottom line makes the perpetrator’s career very vulnerable.

But these obvious transgressions do not blunt the impact of everyday behaviors that can, in the long run, (or short run) be very damaging to morale. Lying, stealing, excluding others, gossiping, undermining, and sabotaging co-workers do enormous harm. Annoying behaviors, such as habitual lateness, and inconsideration, such as holding loud conversations in open-plan spaces can do serious damage to personal brands. Even poor personal hygiene can factor into a less than secure future for the person.

Employing the “Golden Rule: by treating others as we would like to be treated goes a long way toward career security. Employing the “Platinum Rule” of treating others as they would like to be treated virtually ensures it.

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Rosanne Thomas cordially invites you to check out the resources at her website.

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