When Mike Meyers started his internship at the Middlesex West Chamber of Commerce in Acton, Massachusetts, he knew his college courses in business administration and marketing would serve him well. The Northeastern University (www.northeastern.edu) sophomore was confident he could handle his assigned tasks. But, despite taking a class that covered proper dress and creating a stellar resume, his experience didn’t really cover the ins and outs of business etiquette.
Much more than just saying “please” and “thank you,” proper business etiquette is the nuanced combination of manners, attitude and social graces that forms others’ impressions of you. For interns, good business etiquette could mean the difference between being offered a job or not. As Meyers learned, the skills may not come naturally, but they can be mastered with practice.
“My biggest challenge is when I go to events,” said Meyers. “I am not the best at starting conversations. It is the social interaction that is hardest.”
Most students starting out in internships know the basics. You need to get to work on time, dress professionally, be polite and be diligent about your work. But business etiquette encompasses more than good manners, said Judith Bowman, president and CEO of Protocol Consultants International and author of “Don’t Take the Last Donut.”
When you are in your first real work setting, everything you do as an intern is going to be judged. Because many companies eventually offer interns employment, your supervisors are going to note every detail to see if you are a good, long-term match for the organization.
“In the past few years, it has gotten so competitive, it is so important for people to be at the top of their game,” said Tamara Gegg-LaPlume, director of career services at Webster University (www.webster.edu). “An internship is the point of entry into the professional workplace.”
Faultless communication skills will help you shine in the workplace. For Meyers, that meant he had to know how to mingle successfully with business owners. He knows if he forgets someone’s name, he might be seen as inattentive, so he works hard to remember names and to think ahead about generic, open-ended conversation topics. By making others feel at ease with him, he found new confidence and represented his organization positively.
People are not born with social graces, but you do not need a Rockefeller pedigree to have impeccable etiquette. “Most successful people come from humble roots,” said Bowman. They have learned how to emulate the qualities they want to project.
Gegg-LaPlume reports many employers are finding written communication skills sorely lacking in the office. So if you are sending an email, be sure to include a proper greeting, use complete sentences and pay attention to wording and structure.
And raise the bar when it comes to the basics. Make sure your appearance includes everything from clean fingernails down to nice shoes, not flip flops or sandals. “The way you look is huge,” said Bowman. “Go for professional. It is never wrong.”
Expert Lydia Ramsey, author of “Manners That Sell — Adding the Polish That Builds Profits,” said interns represent the company as much as an employee. “People who take the time to impress and dress appropriately are sending a message of respect,” she said. As with any other skill, practice and prepare until you get it right. Read books about business etiquette, study how others act, and ask questions if you are unsure about your work or a situation.
Defiance College (www.defiance.edu) senior Katie Heitkamp learned that polite inquiries are part of the larger impression you make. As an intern with General Motors studying workplace organization, Heitkamp said she was a little nervous about approaching her supervisor at first, but then realized it is for everyone’s benefit. “If you have an internship, do not be afraid to ask questions,” she said. ”You want to be able to do your job. If you ask questions, your supervisors will see you are learning how to do things.”
Starr Miyata, a senior at the University of Richmond (www.richmond.edu) in Richmond, Virginia, has two internships under her belt, one at the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston and one at Fruitlands Museums in Harvard, Mass. Miyata said she observed the hierarchy in each office carefully so she would get a sense for the office structure. “Each office is different and each culture is different,” she said.
Miyata realized interns are in a unique position. “It is hard, as an intern, to know where your place is,” she said. When she had an idea to streamline a process, she was careful to present it in a way that showed she had additional skills to use and not that the current way of doing things was incorrect. Miyata is also diligent about social media saying she would never send an email or post something on Facebook that implies anything negative about her workplace. “It is about knowing those boundaries,” she said.
More than anything — expect to work at developing business etiquette skills. An internship is a great place to start, so prepare before you show up for your first day. Take advantage of any etiquette classes offered at your school. Think of some easy conversation starters if you happen to get stuck on an elevator with the CEO. Practice mingling at an event while you are balancing a plate and a glass. You should even consider an informational interview with someone you admire in the business world. Bring your polished skills for a 15-minute conversation and study how that person acts and looks. And, do not forget to send a thank you note.
“Anyone can have that winning factor,” said Bowman. “You have to want it and practice it all the time and have it become authentic.”
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer in Massachusetts who writes frequently about career and college.
Spotlight: Dining Etiquette
Amy Rowell, assistant director of career services at Georgia Southern University (www.georgiasouthern.edu), said most people think about dining when they think about etiquette. And although it is only one piece of the etiquette picture, it is a big one. “It is incredibly important,” Rowell said. Interns often attend meals out with clients and business associates, and they might have good manners. But higher ups take notice of the little things, like if you pass food properly or accidentally use your neighbor’s bread plate. They might even notice if you salt your food before tasting it and will judge you for that. “I always tell students there are so many rules you may not know about,” said Rowell. Consider a dining etiquette class as essential as your required classwork.