How to be a business grown-up in 23 easy steps

How do you learn business etiquette? In my 15 years of professional experience, the only formal courses my colleagues attended were the ones where they’re taught to bow, say “domo arigato” and accept business cards reverently, with both hands.

I am a curmudgeon, but this isn’t a you-business-kids-get-off-my-lawn critique of millennials in the workplace. I just have a lot of rules of thumb on workplace protocol. While many of these rules seem obvious, I’ve been a consultant for the past decade, and experienced all sorts of different work cultures, from tiny startups to multi-nationals. I’ve routinely seen every one of these rules disregarded. So maybe they’re worth repeating.

I’m guilty of occasionally breaking these rules. But as the business cliche goes, if you hit all the time, the target’s too near. Also, something about a hockey puck and Wayne Gretzky.

The title of this post is inspired by this excellent xkcd comic:


  1. Reply to every email sent only to you by a person you know. Unless, of course, the message is a lolcat or the subject line includes FWD: FWD: FWD:. Unless the message demands it, you don’t have to write a long or detailed reply, but take 15 seconds to acknowledge receipt of the email. My default response is “thanks for that–I’ll check it out. DB”. I look forward to a future when we can favourite emails the way I favourite tweets, as if to say “I saw and appreciated your message”. Until then, you should answer every single one of these emails.
  2. Conversely, you are free to ignore every commercial email sent from a stranger.
  3. Think carefully before responding to an email message sent to many people. Does everybody absolutely need to hear what you have to say?
  4. Email is an asynchronous medium. Unless your employer imposes rules on you, set your own response rate for replying to email. For example, I try to respond to emails within 24 hours of receiving them. It’s important to be consistent in this, so that your colleagues will know when to expect a response. Be wary of responding too quickly all the time, or that will become the new normal for you.
  5. Do you need feedback from a colleague? How much?
    • A short answer to a quick question? Use instant messenger or send a text message. Your workplace isn’t using instant messenger? Get them to start.
    • A longer response to a couple of paragraphs of text? Use email.
    • Anything longer, for either party? Pick up the phone.
  6. If your email message is more than three or four paragraphs, it should probably be a document instead.
  7. Always tell people why you’re sending them an email. Do you just need to convey information to them? Do you need feedback or questions answered? Don’t make them guess.
  8. Unless there’s an established practice at your workplace for it, don’t use the ‘High Priority’ feature in Microsoft Outlook. Twitter assures me that people still do this.
  9. The only person responsible for your out-of-control email inbox is you. If that’s a problem, address it.


  1. Unless you have access to all the attendees’ schedules, don’t send out a meeting invitation without discussing an appropriate time first. Use Doodle or a similar app to quickly and easily gather attendees’ availability.
  2. Every meeting starts and ends on time.
  3. If you’re running the meeting, begin by describing the desired outcomes. I like to say something like, “by the end of this meeting, we hope to…”. If you can’t identify those outcomes, then why are you having a meeting?
  4. Embrace the 10-minute daily stand-up meeting for status updates. We had one former client who held a three-hour, rambling weekly meeting just so that everyone could update everybody else on their work.
  5. Create an agenda for every meeting (except for the aforementioned 10-minute one).
  6. Come prepared. Review relevant documents before the meeting. I know somebody who allots the first ten minutes of meetings for people to do just this. This seems like lowered expectations and an admission of defeat.
  7. Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can put your feet on the desk and screw around with your phone during meetings. Model good behaviour.

Everything else

  1. Spellcheck is baked into everything. Use it.
  2. Meet the deadlines you commit to. When I work with subcontractors and vendors, this is the most important criteria after the quality of their work. I’ll take a good designer who meets every deadline over a great designer who misses deadlines every single time.
  3. It’s 2013, people. Stop emailing around documents to multiple parties for review. Use your intranet or Google Drive or a hundred other alternatives.
  4. Remove that ‘Sent from my iPhone’ signature from the footer of your email. It’s just marketing for Apple. Are you concerned about typos while tapping away on your mobile device? Practice and get better instead of sending an apology in every email.
  5. Don’t gossip. As George Harrison said, it’s the devil’s radio.
  6. Customize your workspace. Make it your own. You’ll be happier working there, and your workmates will think you’re a more interesting person.
  7. Bathe regularly.

What are your rules for being a business grown-up?


  1. Show up on time for meetings. If you are running late or can’t make it, contact the meeting organizer – phone, quick email, text message – anything so folks aren’t waiting around for you.

  2. understand that people make mistakes and that most of them are honest mistakes. only children believe that dad is perfect.

    understand that different people have different personalities and needs. maybe your coworker who hardly says a word to you is an introvert who can’t do good work if he has too many distractions. read up on meyers briggs personality types. only teenagers believe that everyone else is normal.

    don’t always wait for permission. your boss is not your dad.

    clean your lunch dishes! your mom doesn’t work at your office (and even at home that long ceased to be her job but that’s another story)

    think twice before saying “that’s not my job”. your coworker isn’t your 7-year-old sister.

  3. All of these. Plus, learn how to use and manage your instant messenger status. It is an excellent way to teach people about when you’re actually free vs. busy.

    On the flip side, if you leave yourself as ‘available’ or ‘busy’ all the time, people will assume your IM is a lie, and bother you in more reliable (for them) / frustraing (for you) ways.

    Unless you hate IM. In which case, may we never share a common workplace.

  4. Darren

    Good work. . Might you be writing a book on the subject matter posted in the Post above ? Please elaborate.


    1. I think a book might try my patience–I don’t know that I have enough interest in the topic for more than the occasional blog post.

  5. Great list Darren. Lots of common sense stuff but what I’ve learned is how little of that there seems to be in most offices. This is a keeper.

  6. Darren

    That would be understandable. Perhaps over time as you collate and share more of this and similar subject matter that you be inclined for it to evolve into a book


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