January 22, 2018
What’s the Difference Between Business Etiquette and Business Ethics?
By Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
CEO, The Institute for High-Character LeadershipThe rules of both business ethics and business etiquette are the foundations of strong, productive professional relationships. You wouldn’t want to do business with people who worked for an organization that had little regard for either ethics or etiquette.
Business etiquette is important to commerce, but business ethics is vastly more important.
Definitions And Examples
Business etiquette comprises the rules that govern polite interactions between two or more people. Business ethics comprises the rules that govern the rights and responsibilities business people have with respect to each other and the companies they work for.
Consider the following sets of rules:
- Listen more than you speak.
- Don’t chew with your mouth open.
- Avoid checking your phone while you’re interacting with a colleague or client, unless it’s an emergency.
- Have good personal hygiene.
- Speak respectfully to everyone at your organization, regardless of their position.
- Do not reveal confidential information about your company or its clients.
- Tell the truth.
- Keep the promises you make, and don’t make promises you’re not prepared to honor.
- Don’t sexually harass anyone.
- Don’t offer or accept bribes.
If you violate any of the rules in Group A, the worst that can happen generally is that you’ll be considered rude, self-absorbed, or a slob.
If you violate any of the rules in Group B, you may be fired, lose a business deal, and/or spend a few years in prison.
In most situations, the stakes are much higher in business ethics than in business etiquette.
Exceptions And Nuances
There are exceptions and nuances to the distinctions I’m making between business ethics and business etiquette.
First, cultural differences can make violations of business etiquette a serious matter. William Kane, Senior Vice President & General Manager of the Human Resources Group of the Sumitomo Corporation of Americas, a company whose global headquarters are in Japan, told me:
If the interview candidates I put in front of our Japanese executives don’t demonstrate respect or patience, if they’re not thoughtful with their words, if they don’t allow time for reflection and pause in between questions or answers, that gets picked up. Those attributes of respect, and listening, and patience, ultimately consensus, are very important [in this company]. If the person doesn’t have those attributes, or is maybe challenged [in one], it will cast a shadow on their candidacy.
The rules of both business etiquette and business ethics exist on a continuum; some offenses are more grave than others. In some cultures, speaking disrespectfully on a single occasion is such a serious violation of etiquette that it can quash a job candidacy.
Second, a consistent disregard of the rules of business etiquette can have serious consequences, even if the infraction itself seems relatively minor. If you’re hired for a position in sales, for example, and you routinely have bad breath, dirty fingernails, and a slovenly appearance, you won’t be in sales for very long, because you’re the face of the company, and you risk losing business opportunities for your employer. You may even be shown the door, since you obviously don’t care about honoring your job description.
If you’re in sales, therefore, it pays to remember NBA luminary and motivational speaker Walter Bond’s dictum: “Always look like success! Always look like money.”
A third nuance about the business etiquette/ethics distinction is that in some professional contexts incivility can be harmful and even deadly. In a 2015 article in the journal Pediatrics, a team led by Dr. Arieh Riskin concluded, “Rudeness had adverse consequences on the diagnostic and procedural performance of the [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit] team members.” In the hospital setting, disregarding basic rules of etiquette can have ethical implications.
Finally, if you tend to overpromise and underdeliver, which reveals a lack of concern about a basic rule of business ethics, but you play a crucial role in your company, a smart company will be willing to help you become more conscientious about the rule of promise-keeping. We can all do a better job, and we’re educable in many areas of both business etiquette and business ethics.
The Bottom Line
The best employees, managers, and C-suite executives take the rules of both business etiquette and business ethics seriously. No one is perfect, but respect is a crucial component of leadership at every level of an organization. We show respect for our direct reports, our colleagues, our supervisors, our clients, our company’s reputation, and ourselves by being both polite and ethical.
But it doesn’t matter how well-dressed you are, or how sweet your breath smells, or how clean your fingernails are if you’re also dishonest, reckless, or willing to take a bribe. No company in their right mind will keep you around for long—or hire you in the first place.
This essay was originally published in Forbes onlie as part of my series, “Profiles in High-Character Leadership,” for Forbes online. To read the rest of my columns, click here, and if you’d like to get weekly updates on them, please click “Follow” next to my photo.
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Thank you for reading my newsletter. I hope all is well with you.
Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
The Ethics Guy®
CEO, The Institute for High-Character Leadership™
Author, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees
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