To Prosper, Be Proper
Etiquette gurus Peggy and Peter Post on not acting like a boob in the workplace
By Kate Ashford

(MONEY Magazine) – If you think proper behavior is merely a matter of knowing which fork to use for your salad, you are--please forgive us for saying so--sadly mistaken. In a world where people skills are often as important as job skills, your professional success can hinge on an ability to make colleagues and clients feel comfortable. In a new edition of Emily Post's The Etiquette Advantage in Business, Peter Post (he is Emily's great-grandson) and Peggy Post (she is married to his brother) explain how to do the right thing in hundreds of delicate workplace situations.

Q Where do people run into the most trouble these days? PEGGY Cubicle etiquette is a big thing. It's a guy who forgets that he has co-workers around him--eats onions at his desk, clicks his pen all the time, speaks in a loud voice on the phone. It's not that he's a horrible person, but maybe he gets into his own little world.

Q Lots of people find networking uncomfortable. When looking for a job, how much can you ask someone to do for you? PETER Asking a friend or former colleague to make a call or send a letter or an e-mail on your behalf is reasonable. The key is that it's a process. You might call John Smith up because you worked for him before and say, "I'm going to be looking for a new job, and I was hoping we could meet and talk about possible places I might consider." You grease the wheel, so to speak, by having that pre-meeting and asking if he'd be willing to do something for you. So when you actually call to ask for a contact or a recommendation, it's already set up. PEGGY And stay in touch all the way through, not just when you're in trouble and need a job. And always let them know what happened: "I found a job; thank you so much for getting me started."

Q What if someone asks you for a reference, and you don't know him well or don't think he's a good candidate? PETER Be honest. You can say, "I'm probably not the right person to help with that." It's hard to say no, but a reluctant advocate can be worse than none.

Q Is it ever acceptable to take a cell-phone call in a meeting? PETER Yes, but you should let people know about it ahead of time. It's okay to say, "Peter, I'm waiting for some information that we need, so if my phone rings, I'm just going to excuse myself and step out." And put the phone on vibrate.

Q What about answering the phone when someone's in your office? PEGGY Again, explain up front that you're expecting an important call. If there's no reason to think it's important, let it go. PETER And if you take it, don't engage in conversation. Be quick, or say you're in a meeting and that you'll call back later.

Q Is it ever okay to go over your boss' head with a complaint? PETER Only after you've tried to resolve the problem with your boss directly, and even then think twice about whether it's worth it--you may find that your company is onboard with your supervisor's actions. If you go ahead anyway, it's preferable to tell the boss what you're going to do: It's generally a mistake to go over your boss' head and behind his back at the same time. When you take a complaint to the boss' boss, be specific and always keep the tone professional.

Q Should you tell a colleague he's got spinach in his teeth? PETER People want to know, so tell them. But not in an embarrassing way. Catch the person's eye and put your finger to your tooth. Or wait for a private moment.