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Why manners matter, in business as in life

What America needs now isn’t an economic stimulus plan, a bailout of the auto industry or an end to foreclosures. What will put this country back on the path to prosperity, say management consultants, economics professors and industrial psychologists, may be a good old-fashioned infusion of manners.

“A lot of the people in the financial-services industry have made a lot of money in ways that were not considerate of others,” says Howard Baetjer, lecturer in the economics department at Towson University, located near Baltimore. “The market process, when allowed to run its course, teaches people some humility and that they’ve got to pay attention to the other guy.”

A conversation about manners might seem out of place in an economic climate increasingly characterized by finger-pointing, fiscal irresponsibility and financial turmoil. But experts in business—and business etiquette—link civilized behavior to such economic merits as increased productivity and profit.

A June 2008 study conducted on behalf of the American Management Association found that only 54 percent of managers put forth their maximum effort when working for bosses who they felt were unkind. Only 42 percent of managers said they were able to speak openly and candidly with bosses who were unkind, according to the study.

What does it mean to be unkind? “Overcontrolling, bullying, not listening to people’s opinions and not taking people seriously,” says Michael O’Malley, co-author with William F. Baker of “Leading With Kindness,” a book about companies that have succeeded by focusing on values and not profits alone. Employees work harder for bosses who are kind, the study found, and are more communicative with them.

Baker, an industrial psychologist and executive in residence at Columbia Business School, says lack of communication goes a long way toward explaining today’s economic mess. “It is fair to suggest that one reason Wall Street went off a cliff and all these guys testified that they didn’t know how bad things had gotten is not because they were lying,” he says. “Their employees probably just didn’t feel comfortable presenting them with the reality of where they were at. ... If the line staff are afraid to communicate with you, you are going to be in tough shape.”

One company that has demonstrated this principle is Eileen Fisher, O’Malley believes. “I think Eileen Fisher has done a great job of sticking to their values and letting those values come through in the workplace,” he says.

The women’s clothing company's mission statement stresses collaboration and teamwork as well as a “joyful atmosphere.” It has frequently been named one of the best places to work—spending five straight years on the list—by the Great Place to Work Institute.

That attitude spills over to its sales floors, where it employs artists and therapists as representatives. “There is no hard sell, says Kerri DeVaney, the firm’s public relations manager. “It is very relationship-driven, not sales-driven.” That may be, but it hasn’t hurt the company’s sales; last year was the best in Eileen Fisher’s 25-year history, DeVaney says, bringing in $273 million in revenue, up about 10 percent from 2007. The company is privately held.

“The recession offers new ways for us to be thoughtful to each other. It is not the generosity of being flush. It is the generosity of being thoughtful,” says Faith Salie, an ethics and manners columnist for O magazine, Oprah Winfrey’s monthly publication. “I have felt the pinch of the economy, and I get less patient with stores I go into when I am not treated well. In this economy, if I am choosing to spend money in your store, I expect a little more.”

Etiquette experts say that doing a little bit more—or a lot less—business can come down to basic manners. Lyn Pont, CEO of Manners for Business, a business-etiquette-consulting firm based in Miami, says she was retained by a large hospitality-management firm this January after a faux pas by a newly assigned young sales representative nearly cost it its largest client. The sales rep had coughed into his hand before offering it to the client to shake, slapping him on the back and calling him by his first name. After not hearing anything from the client, the company reached out to him and learned of the etiquette breach.

“This loss of revenue would have been devastating and all because an employee did not know the basic business etiquette skills of first, coughing or sneezing into his left hand or into a handkerchief and second, understanding the concept of seniority and respect,” Pont says via e-mail. “People don’t get it, and they often don’t get that there is a financial impact for good customer service.”

The Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt., has seen a surge in clients with business-etiquette questions over the past six months. “Etiquette, or manners, is about how we interact with one another, how we relate to one another, and about treating people with respect, honesty and sincerity,” says Anna Post, a spokeswoman and author for the institute and great-great-granddaughter of the original Emily Post. “It is a skill that can separate you when competition becomes fierce.”

Indeed, economists say properly functioning markets reward manners. “In a market economy, prudence, thrift, keeping your word, paying attention to other people’s needs—these are the things that yield long-term results,” says Baetjer, who is also a guest lecturer at George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies. “Over time, the only way you can make money is to give very careful consideration to the people you are dealing with. Otherwise you don’t get paid.”

Fortunately for the economy, manners may be enjoying a cultural comeback. President Obama said during his first prime-time news conference, on Feb. 9, that he favored a strategy of “civility” in working toward fixing the economy. A day later, the heads of two of Britain’s largest and hardest-hit banks apologized for the turn of events that occurred under their helm. And there has been a recent bumper crop of etiquette books recently published for men. They include “How to Be a Gentleman”; “The Modern Gentleman”; “Essential Manners for Men”; J. Crew’s first men’s guide, titled “What a Man Should Know”; and Letitia Baldrige’s “New Complete Guide to Executive Manners.”

Of course, that so many books have been published on the subject is telling enough. There is interest because people know so little about etiquette, says Baldrige, former social secretary and chief of staff at the White House for Jacqueline Kennedy and author of 19 books on etiquette. “What is behind the scene in dress and manners and mores is so vast.”

E-mail: rma2122@columbia.edu