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When to Sweat the Small Stuff


Being considerate of your co-workers may be plain common sense, but etiquette experts are making a killing training employees how to behave at companies across the nation.

In fact, some business leaders are paying up to $100,000 to be tutored by etiquette experts.

"There's more awareness now of etiquette than there has been in the past," said Hilka Klinkenberg, founder of Etiquette International and author of "At Ease . . . Professionally: A Guide to Business Etiquette" (Bonus Books).

"Everyone is complaining about the lack of civility in the universe."'

Here's a sampling of questions etiquette experts are asked to address:


Dear Ms. Work Wise: People sitting near me at work seem to be on the phone on personal calls all day long. I end up learning all sorts of things about their personal lives that I would rather not be privy to. Would it be bad form to complain to my supervisor?

--Getting an Earful in Echo Park

Dear Getting an Earful: Etiquette experts agree that personal calls should be made only in an emergency. If your office mates are spending an inordinate amount of time on the phone talking to friends, it's a good idea to write a note to your supervisor saying that personal conversations are causing disturbances, said Marjabelle Young Stewart, coauthor with Marian Faux of "Executive Etiquette in the New Workplace" (St. Martins Press).

"In this note you should say, 'Could you write a memo to all of us please, saying we are getting too many personal phone calls and we need to keep them to a minimum,' " Stewart said.

Memos are a perfect tool for enforcing manners because they're anonymous and everyone thinks that they weren't the one who prompted the reprimand.


Dear Ms. Work Wise: My diet sodas disappear from the lunchroom refrigerator on a weekly basis. I'm also afraid to put the homemade soup I brought for lunch in the microwave because it's covered with grime from other people's lunches. What can I do?

--Hungry in Huntington Beach

Dear Hungry: Unfortunately, everyone has their own standards of cleanliness. To cope with empty coffee pots, dirty dishes and disappearing delicacies, Stewart suggests a series of "etiquette alerts."

These alerts should feature messages such as, "For health reasons we need you to observe the following" or "To jump-start ourselves on the road to good manners, we will have a contest to see who can be the cleanest." This contest can feature prizes such as coffee cups or insulated lunch bags.

Although these suggestions seem humorous, Stewart said employees will work harder to keep the kitchen clean if they think everyone in the office is paying attention to good manners.

When it comes to lunchtime etiquette, employees should hold each other accountable, said Letitia Baldrige, author of "Baldrige's New Complete Guide to Executive Manners" (Scribner's), a former White House social secretary and chief of staff to Jackie Kennedy.

"People should remind each other that there's an official policy--repeating to the offender whatever this policy may be--when it comes to keeping the kitchen clean," Baldrige said.


Dear Ms. Work Wise: A couple of times a week I come in to find my chair lowered to its lowest level and my computer screen and keyboard all out of whack. There are also pens missing from my desk and litter on the floor. How do I get to these mysterious people who use--and abuse--my space?

--Irked in Irwindale

Dear Irked: With the advent of cubicles, this type of behavior has become more prevalent, experts agree.

"It's like an intruder in your own home," Stewart said.

"It's as offensive as it would be if I went to your house and rifled through your drawers."

Although Stewart counsels against asking to borrow someone's cubicle, Klinkenberg suggests that you should ask someone first, if it's absolutely necessary to borrow a desk or equipment. Make sure you return everything to its proper place, she added.


Dear Ms. Work Wise: I hate speakerphones. I can't hear the person on the other end and I never know who is listening in on the conversation. Is there a polite way to ask the other person to not use these contraptions?

--Losing My Voice in Venice

Dear Losing: It is OK to ask someone calling you by speakerphone if there is a time when you can have a private conversation. By the same token, if you like using a speakerphone, always make sure to place a call with the handset and ask if the person you are calling minds being switched to the speakerphone.

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