10 Business Etiquette Rules You Should Never Break

Being able to develop great products and sell them to customers is important in business, but you shouldn’t discount etiquette. Here are 10 business etiquette guidelines to follow for success.

We may receive compensation from partners and advertisers whose products appear here. Compensation may impact where products are placed on our site, but editorial opinions, scores, and reviews are independent from, and never influenced by, any advertiser or partner.

Respect, kindness, empathy — these qualities don’t really come to mind when you talk about business. The business world has a reputation for cutthroat competition, dog-eat-dog actions, hostile takeovers, and all sorts of other things that don’t seem particularly nice.

But how you treat people has a big impact on how successful you are in the business world, so if you struggle to connect with people, it may be due to your own behavior.

One of the best small business tips you can get is to focus on your office etiquette. While many discount the impact of following etiquette rules, it can mean the difference between success or failure in your business. After all, no one wants to buy from someone they consider rude or off-putting.

Fortunately, these rules are simple and mostly require common sense. Here are 10 business etiquette guidelines to work on if you want to improve how you come across to business partners and clients.

10 business etiquette rules you should never break:

  • Make eye contact
  • Greet people properly
  • Send signals of engagement
  • Be open with others
  • Dress to impress
  • Be punctual
  • Be generous
  • Make “thank you” count
  • Be discreet
  • Maintain professionalism in all areas

1. Make eye contact

Perhaps chief among the business etiquette tips is eye contact. Any face-to-face communication you have with someone will be negatively affected by a lack of eye contact since you will come across as disrespectful, untrustworthy, or both.

Make strong eye contact upon meeting people, which shows that you have respect for them and you are trying to understand their point of view. Eye contact reflects genuine interest and investment in the interaction, and it leaves a lasting effect on the other person. It’s one of the best ways to make a good first impression, which is crucial in business.


2. Greet people properly

Once again, first impressions are key in the business world, so you must get your greeting right. In the past, a firm handshake was the best way to convey professionalism and signal seriousness and respect to the other person, and therefore it has become a vital part of business protocol.

The recent pandemic changed that dynamic, and now greetings are often done via video conferencing as in-person handshakes have fallen out of favor. Also, people from other countries have different greeting styles (e.g., it is customary to bow rather than to shake hands in Japan).

Research the individual’s culture and customs if they come from a different background. Also, determine what makes the most sense for a greeting if you cannot meet face to face. As long as you convey respect and warmth to the person, you’re doing it right.


3. Send signals of engagement

It is vital to be engaged with the other person, but sometimes that doesn’t come across even if you actually are listening and taking the person’s words seriously. Pay attention to yourself and reflect investment in the conversation while talking to others. Practice in front of a mirror to see how you come across.

Nod in accord with their comments and smile genuinely when appropriate. Ask questions to show you’ve been listening and processing the information and offer follow-up points.


4. Be open with others

Openness and communication matter in business, so demonstrate sincerity during a conversation. Network with others and bring other people into the conversation. Be open to meeting new people. For those you already have relationships with, develop communication strategies and seek to improve team communication so everyone is in the loop and no one feels like you’re excluding them from important activities.


5. Dress to impress

As the saying goes, “Clothes make the man.” And while that may not be entirely true, in the business world, people often judge a person based on how they’re dressed. Convey professionalism with your clothing, although that doesn’t mean wearing a business suit all the time.

Understand what the dress code is for specific events and dress appropriately. If it’s business casual, don’t wear jeans, but don’t put on a jacket and tie either or you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. And pay attention to the details: Keep your clothes clean and pressed to avoid a sloppy appearance. Avoid bold colors and patterns that appear distracting or flamboyant.


6. Be punctual

Some people are early to everything, while others are constantly just a few minutes behind. And trust me, the former are really annoyed with the latter. Punctuality is a big deal because it shows that you respect other people’s time. Arrive at meetings five minutes early. Meet deadlines for projects and other assignments.

And if you do expect delays, communicate them as early as possible and offer to make alternate arrangements. This is fundamental to team collaboration because, if you can’t be depended upon, you’re not a good team player.


7. Be generous

Generosity is often overlooked but is an important part of business etiquette. Grab the check at lunch or dinner and offer to cover it. Give someone a ride to the airport. Take a task off a co-worker’s plate if you see they’re swamped. Demonstrating generosity leaves a positive impression.

However, don’t use your generous actions to keep score. If co-workers and clients get the sense that you’ve got an angle, it will have a negative effect rather than a positive one. Instead, have a genuine desire to help your fellow humans, and enjoy a good relationship with everyone you come into contact with.


8. Make ‘“thank you” count

Even in this digital world of text messages and emails, a thoughtful “thank you” makes a difference. After an important meeting or a job interview, send a handwritten thank-you note, which makes a big impression — especially because they’re so rare these days.

It conveys a personal connection and shows that you valued the interaction. Investing the time helps to create a long-term relationship with an important individual. It also reveals more of yourself that is likely to impress others.


9. Be discreet

It’s tempting to gossip, and sometimes it even seems like you’re building a relationship with the person you gossip to because you’re looping them in on a secret. But while they may seem to welcome the interaction, you could be planting a seed in the back of their minds (e.g., “What is this person saying about me behind my back?”).

Discretion enables you to build trust, and it is vital to keep secrets in the business world. Use your emotional intelligence to know when to be more open and personable and when to carefully guard privileged information.


10. Maintain professionalism in all areas

These tips all involve maintaining professionalism, but this one is more about your broader approach to dealing with people in the business world and overall corporate etiquette. Keep a high standard of professionalism in all scenarios, which shapes in-person interactions, but avoid becoming overly rigid.

Be professional in your casual conversations at work, in your emails, in your punctuality, and everything else. Demonstrate your emotional intelligence by balancing a personal approach with your professionalism to create a complete picture of a real human being who respects others.


Struggling with etiquette? Roll up your sleeves and get to work

The appropriate etiquette makes all the difference in the business world. It communicates that you can be trusted, that you respect the client or partner, and that you know what you’re doing. If you feel like you fall short when it comes to etiquette, there’s only one solution: Learn, practice, and be self-aware.

Learn by talking to friends or colleagues you trust about ways you could improve. Practice by working on your greetings or conversational skills in front of a mirror. And be self-aware in your interactions by examining how you come off to people during conversations.

Like anything, etiquette is a skill that must be learned and practiced, and hard work is the only way to make it second nature. So if you struggle now, don’t get discouraged. Just get to work.

The Ultimate Guide to Building Virtual Teams

Knowing how to build a strong virtual team is more important today than ever -- and there are six critical things you must do to succeed. That's why we've created this ultra-timely 19-page report on what you should be doing now to set your virtual team up to win.

Enter your email below to access our (no-strings-attached) free report, "The Ultimate SMB Guide to Building High-Performing Virtual Teams."

The Motley Fool has a Disclosure Policy. The Author and/or The Motley Fool may have an interest in companies mentioned.