Some might scoff at the notion of etiquette training in 2017, but they won't laugh at the results, according to a Gen X entrepreneur.
Naretha Hopson of Ever-Appropriate Etiquette Institute started her business working with middle schoolers but her message resonated with corporate leaders and job training agencies developing millennials and Gen Z talent, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Among the young, there's often a perception that "traditional" means "out-of-date" or "stodgy," but Hopson, who is also launching online courses at ever-appropriate.com, said that young professionals ignore her advice at their own peril.
There's a widespread perception that millennials and Gen Z professionals are entering the workforce more immature than previous generations. Hopson said it's a sign of a difference in etiquette training.
"A lot of people don't know what they don't know," Hopson said. She noted that too often a candidate can be discounted for a simple social mistake because it's a cue that they won't be a good representative of a company that's looking to appear savvy, confident and competent.
"It's a game and it's not fair — it's not fair — but if you know the rules, you can increase your chance of success," Hopson explains.
"Increase," she said, not ensure.
She's heard the refrain that someone did everything right and someone else seemed to do everything wrong, but they achieved X, Y or Z.
Her explanation is not comforting: That's life.
She also said, that's no reason to handicap yourself further. Just because you think someone isn't following the rules and benefits from the lucky gene pool club, doesn't mean that they haven't mastered some secret code.
You can fight the rules, decide that being true to yourself means that you're above the rules, or insist that the rules are discriminatory and don't apply to you, but that means you are likely compromising your next job, raise or promotion opportunity.
Jennifer M. Davis, assistant director of Business Career Services at the University of Missouri-Columbia Trulaske College of Business, said that they don't necessarily use the word "etiquette" to define corporate soft skills but it's one of the most important business skills students acquire.
Etiquette, not just good grades or a résumé, make the difference between getting an internship or a job and ending up in the "thank you for applying, but ." category.
"We're in a tech savvy world, but the ability to write and craft a good email is sometimes lacking," Davis said. A casual, overly familiar tone can be detrimental.
"I can see students saying that the 'Dear Mr. or Ms. whoever" letter is old-fashioned, but you might be walking into a generation of 'yes, sir' and 'yes, ma'am.'" She coaches students to be aware of the generation, culture and expectations of the hiring agent.
Rules vary, but it's almost never a bad idea to err on the side of formality.
Hopson adds that no one is going to tell you that you don't meet the unspoken criteria of what they consider executive behavior or bearing. You'll just find yourself pigeonholed and confused by a lack of mobility.
Everyone needs to know the rules and everyone has to learn the rules, it's not necessarily an innate cultural communication, Hopson said. But depending on your exposure to elite social circles, you might be at a disadvantage. She said she helps level the playing field.
Hopson, 39, is the oldest of her siblings. She graduated from McCluer North High School, a public school populated by working-class families in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. She worked the retail counter at the family business during high school and learned to interact with adults on a professional level early.
Thanks to the family's success, her two brothers who are six to seven years younger graduated from Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School and Westminster Christian Academy, both elite private schools in cities known for being economically advantaged.
She said her whole journey as an etiquette specialist and cultural rules decoder started when she noticed the differences in their school experiences. Her brothers went on ski trips, attended parties at exclusive country clubs and were surrounded by classmates moving on to high-ranking universities.
She had a more typical high school experience, but said having an entrepreneurial family gave her skills and confidence that opened doors she saw many of her peers stumble on.
"I really wouldn't trade it, I loved working with my family," Hopson said. "I've got entrepreneurship in my blood."
She launched her business in 2010.
At the Mosaic Ceiling 2017 Women of Color & Culture Power Summit, Hopson gave a presentation on executive presence, including modern etiquette considerations, to some of the 150 attendees. Speaking from a sixth-floor conference room at the Four Seasons St. Louis she asked the group assembled: How many have a personal brand? A few hands went up.
She asked again with a little more emphasis on the words "personal brand." A few more hands went up.
Then she asked again making it clear that she wasn't going to stop until everyone lifted a palm skyward.
She quoted Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who stated that a personal brand is what people say about you when you leave the room.
Davis of Mizzou said years of schooling and stellar grades can go for naught if a job candidate sends an ill-conceived text message to a recruiter instead of a well-thought-out email or better yet a handwritten note.
And posting a tongue-out selfie with a chief executive officer who you've tagged in a typo-riddled Twitter message conveys that you might not have the judgment or decorum to be a junior executive.
Many of the etiquette "rules" are common sense, but that doesn't mean that they are common, said Nicci Roach of Mosaic Ceiling. She also works as an associate vice president for diversity and inclusion at Webster University.
"Many people entering the business executive world think, 'I have a degree therefore I'm good to go,' but there's a lot more to succeeding," said Roach, who noted that she and Lorie Jackson banded together to develop Mosaic Ceiling to provide resources, networking opportunities and strategies for advancement to women of color who tend to be the most economically disadvantaged.
Having a degree, skills and expertise are important factors to advancement, but Roach said so is the way you are perceived. She told the story of an executive who was taken aback when a vice president at her corporation corrected her pronunciation.
"She corrected the way she verbalized a word," and the executive took it as an attempt to belittle her or question her position and authority, Roach said.
There's an etiquette to dealing with this situation as well.
"It's a very sensitive space, because who's to say what executive presence is anyway," Roach said. "But at the same time, we know."
And she said that for some that means exceeding expectations not just meeting them.
"You don't have to agree with the established rules, but if you enter the workforce you are already playing by those rules, and you need to know them before you can break them," Hopson said. You're competing with people who know the rules — from a proper handshake and polished shoes to name tag placement and how to navigate a conversation about European travel. It all counts.
"My point and mission is not to make someone assimilate but instead to present their very best self to the world," Hopson said.
Adopting different behaviors at a networking event is not being false to yourself, she said, it's about making choices depending on the situation.
"How many promotions are lost at a holiday office party, I wonder," Hopson said. You don't get a timeout for bad behavior, she said, especially if you're just starting out. That kind of show will become the topic of Monday morning conversation and that can quickly become your personal brand.
"It all comes down to people figuring out if you belong here in this space or not," Hopson said. There are dozens of little unspoken etiquette cues that can be a walking billboard for your lack of status or poise. She notes that despite the fact that many, many executives come from lower- or middle-class backgrounds, it's typically wise to avoid glaring cues that you won't fit in with wealthy clients.
Down to earth, yes. Unaware, no.
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.