Why good manners are good for business

Rudeness may make for great TV, but politeness helps employees perform better and reduces churn.

by Philip Delves Broughton

Manners matter. For anyone on the inside of a particular culture, they are simply assumed. Barristers know how to deal with other barristers, investment bankers with investment bankers, clerics with clerics. But for anyone trying to enter these worlds, manners can seem like a secret code barring entry to an elite. They help define the lines between 'them' and 'us'.

A recent government-commissioned report, written by former minister Alan Milburn, argued that access to the professions was often confined to those who understood the social codes of business. It was not enough for a candidate to have the right education; they also had to possess social skills such as articulacy, the ability to work in a team, and tact. If one wasn't from this class, one had to figure out how to understand its members and to behave like them. An affluent class defined 'manners' in the professions and expected others to adhere to their code. Yet in the UK, members of lower social or economic classes or new immigrants are given little help trying to crack the social codes required to succeed.

In Britain and in the US, many business executives have been taught to eschew manners, in the sense of politeness, as a waste of time. Manners are often seen as grit in the machinery of capitalism. Those who practise or demand them are regarded as soft. The tough-talking CEO with no time for niceties has become a heroic figure. Bluntness is considered a virtue. And in the US - a society that prizes classlessness - manners are seen as a way of reinforcing class distinctions.

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