Business Etiquette of Saying No

“Can I ask you a favor?”

Do you get a rush of adrenaline when you hear this question…or do you feel a pang of dread?

For many of us, the chance to provide a career-related kindness is an opportunity to savor, the business etiquette equivalent of helping jump start the battery of a friend’s stuck car.

On the other hand, in business, we also encounter scenarios when we simply cannot (or would prefer not) to assist.

There are perfectly legitimate reasons for feeling this way and yet, for someone who’s a giver, saying “no” can be far more difficult than saying “um, okay.”

Have you ever been asked for a reference by a former employee whose abilities you don’t hold in high regard? Or for an introduction to a valued connection by someone you barely know (or trust)? What would you do with a request to pass along the résumé of a candidate whose abilities you know to be subpar?

It’s human nature to want to help, and yet when assisting also means ignoring our own best instincts, an uncomfortable paradox is typically the result. Having been in all of the situations above, here is my best personal manners and business etiquette advice:

The Recommendation Request
You detract from your own credibility when you provide a glowing reference for a former employee whose work performance was anything but. Difficult though it may be, professional ethics dictate you decline this request—gracefully, of course. I suggest responding along these lines:

“I’m honored you’ve asked me to recommend you and would be happy to confirm your position and dates of employment. With respect to a recommendation, it’s probably best for you to seek one from someone who can better represent your skills than I can.”

Your honest but sensitive reply should serve to prevent a similar request from this individual in the future.

My Daughter’s Roommate’s Boyfriend Needs a Job
“You know lots of influential people, right? Can you help him?” More often than not, this sort of ask comes from an acquaintance who saved your business card from a chance meeting at a trade conference eight years ago. You barely recall the acquaintance and of course, know less than zero about his daughter’s roommate’s boyfriend.

I’m a big believer in karma and doing good things for others without any expectation of reciprocation. And yet, your network of contacts, a coterie of individuals you’ve likely spent years establishing, is not something to treat cavalierly. The response to this request should also be a graceful “no.” I recommend a variation on:

“Much as I’d like to assist your daughter’s roommate’s boyfriend, I make it a policy only to connect individuals I’ve met and can unequivocally recommend. I hope you understand.” Leave it at that; no further elaboration is necessary.

The Résumé Referral
“Could you pass my C.V. along to your human resources department?” Although in your eyes an acquaintance may not be suited for a particular position, in this case, you can leave it to the hiring manager to make this determination. Don’t promise a glowing referral, and certainly don’t make one if you are not feeling it. I propose:

“Of course I can pass your résumé along.” (A true statement of fact.)


“I’ve been asked to forward this résumé for your consideration.” Full stop. Where it goes from there is out of your hands.

Bottom line? Tough as it may be not to go out of your way for those who ask for your business help, for others to continue to trust you, you must trust your own gut. Adhere to that standard and your network of contacts will continue to value your referrals, knowing they are heartfelt, genuine and truly worthy.

Thanksgiving etiquette, family dinner table

Not in recent memory has there been a Thanksgiving so needed (and simultaneously dreaded) by so many. Coming on the heels of one of the most contentious election seasons in American history, this year’s holiday brings with it more than just stuffing and yams—it also brings the threat of family arguments and hurt feelings. Will politics be broached at your dinner table this week? Here are some ways to put partisanship aside and focus on counting our blessings:

1. Establish a Politics-Free Zone
The dinner table should be a place where all feel comfortable and welcome, with no one held captive to a heated political conversation. If this is a concern, the host should request in advance (whether by email, phone or text) that there be no political chatter at the table and instead request that guests arrive prepared to discuss something in their life for which they are thankful.

2. Use Placecards to Help Keep the Peace
If there are two or more relatives who are sure to lock horns over politics no matter what rules are set in advance, the host should prepare a seating plan and use place cards to ensure the two combatants are neither next to one another during the meal, nor across from one another.

3. Bring on the Blessings
Ask one or more of the younger members of the family to say a prayer to begin the meal. This will help kick the celebration off on the right foot. If they enjoy craft activities, at the start of the gathering, have the children (and any creative adults) make signs with tongue depressors that have fun slogans on them, such as “Poultry, Not Politics” and “Gobble, Don’t Squabble.” Have the young children hold these signs up anytime they hear a heated political conversation brewing.

4. Let the Music Play
Remember that Saturday Night Live skit where the arguing family turned happy and non-contentious every time Adele’s “Hello” played? I think that skit was on to something. If not Adele, create a Thanksgiving music playlist with an emphasis on music that calms nerves rather than rattles them. Suggestions: instrumental soft jazz, classical piano or, for something completely unexpected—Hawaiian music.

5. Create a Personal Tagline
Try as you might, you know there will be one family member who insists on broaching the peace with unwanted political chatter. Unless you can engage in a way that is respectful and one that will not result in hard feelings, you are best to avoid the bait. One of my favorite strategies for doing so is to have a mantra that you stick to verbatim any time someone tries to lure you in to a conversation you’d rather avoid. Suggestions: “I choose to avoid talking politics today” or “Let’s table this for another time.”

Don’t fear your family on Thursday—embrace them. If not their beliefs, for their better qualities. Challenge yourself to re-discover what they are and be the one to create that fresh start.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!



Manners Regarding Colds and Sniffles

In one of the most poignant vignettes in her terrific book Quick Before the Music Stops, my former Town & Country magazine colleague Janet Carlson recollects a daily commute next to her husband—a man with whom she was very much in love. Even during his occasional bouts of sniffling. As the years go by and the ardor evaporates from their marriage, the sniffles that once elicited a thoughtfully given, just-in-time tissue now produce in his wife feelings of annoyance. Hurtling toward Manhattan side-by-side on a commuter train each day, Janet begins to ponder why, after all this time, her spouse simply doesn’t bring a pack of tissues and clean his own nose.

I was reminded of that anecdote while watching last night’s presidential debate. With the first of several very pronounced sniffs (magnified by his wireless and podium microphones), Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump startled the television audience and unwittingly unleashed a torrent of Twitter jokes and memes about his sudden case of the sniffles.

Regardless of which side of the political fence you are on, chances are you can relate to having a runny nose (or the hiccups…or an uncontrollable cough). It’s embarrassing and absolutely no fun——particularly when exiting the room is easier said than done. Such was the case last night during a ninety-minute debate with no commercials and unceasing, close-up camerawork that refused to blink.

Sniffles Etiquette

Chances are you won’t ever find yourself presenting in front of a TV audience of 80 million. Nonetheless, what are some best practices for preventing your allergy or seasonal cold from distracting from your otherwise professional presence and remaining mindful of business etiquette? Here are my 5 tips:

Consider the Disruption

If your malady has the potential to become the focus and distract from your presence at an event (whether as a guest or as a host), consider canceling or sending someone else in your stead. Better you stay home and get the rest you need than attempt to soldier through it and turn in a poor performance.

Come Prepared

If you’ve determined your’re up to the task, be sure to give your body the help it needs. Don’t be caught without a packet of tissues, cough drops, ample water, hand sanitizer and perhaps an antihistamine tablet. And please, please, please, save the hanky for sartorial flourish…not for cleaning your nose.

Acknowledge, Don’t Dwell

If you are presenting in front of a group, defray the distraction by acknowledging the elephant in the room (“Please forgive my froggy voice…I’m just getting over laryngitis,”) and move on. Making a bigger deal out of your temporary affliction will only further distract from your message.

Keep it Brief

If you’re genuinely up to it and not contagious, commit to being at the function just long enough to fulfill your duties and then make a gracious exit. If you’re making remarks, keep them short. (Few will mind.) If you simply need to make an appearance, see the folks you need to see and then leave. Don’t feel the need to remain until the bitter end.

Play the Good Samaritan

In the same way your own first-aid kit can save you from embarrassment, be generous and offer your resources to anyone else in the room facing similar misery. A considerately provided cough drop or tissue is worth its weight in gold to someone muddling his or way through as you are.

As for the candidates themselves, come time for the next debate, I suggest both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton sniff out their opponent’s weaknesses and come equipped with a pack of tissues.

As more than 231 million passengers take to the skies aboard U.S. airlines this summer—a four-percent jump over last year’s record number of 222 million—lines are long, gates are jammed and flights are packed. (And let's not even get started on those notorious TSA lines.)

All of this means tensions are high for business travelers and leisure fliers alike. So what’s a mild-mannered passenger like you to do? Let's take a look at some of the most common etiquette dilemmas you’ll encounter when you get to the airport.

Dilemma: They’re boarding Group 2 and the "line" is a giant horde of passengers waiting to pounce when their group is called. You’re in Group 3.

Solution: You do no one (including yourself) any favors by trying to board with a group that is not your own. Be ready to step in to that "line" but in the interim, keep a safe distance, allowing each group to trudge forward as it is called. When the time comes, if you’re in doubt about the line assignment of the people staring into space in front of you, inquire of them politely: “Excuse me, are you also in Group 3?

Dilemma: The gate agent has just announced there is no more room in the overhead bins. You’ll now have to check your bag at the gate and pick it up at luggage claim once you reach your destination.

Solution: Grumbling to the gate agent will solve nothing. Neither will writing a furious letter to the president of the airline. Smile and get used to it. This is air travel in 2016. Unless you're in first or business class, any time you journey with a large carry-on, put yourself in the mindset that you will most likely have to check it. Then you can be pleasantly surprised if you don’t.

Dilemma: You’re in the jetway, which is backlogged and feeling like a sauna. As you stand in the queue, you feel your phone vibrating and see it’s your boss. You just know it’s not going to be a brief conversation.

Solution: This is what voicemail is for. No one on that jetway wants to be beholden to your work issues. Send the boss a brief email or text letting her know you are moments from takeoff and that you’ll be in contact while en-route (if your flight has WiFi) or once you land. Then immediately switch your phone to airplane mode, knowing you've done so with the business etiquette seal of approval.

Dilemma: You are assigned to a middle seat and the passengers on either side of you are using the armrests.

Solution: The one silver lining (and I mean the one silver lining) of having the middle seat is your right to both armrests. First try reason: “We have a long flight and I want to be sure we are all as comfortable as possible. Sitting here in the middle, I’d appreciate full access to this armrest if you don’t mind." You can follow that up with..."Although if you’d prefer to have the armrest, maybe you’d like to switch seats?”Once you have the armrests, forfeit them at your own risk—you may not have the chance to reclaim them later in the flight. Just be sure to keep your arms and elbows in your own space–don’t jab your seatmates.

Dilemma: The passenger on the aisle has fallen asleep and you’ve been in great need of a bathroom break for the past 30 minutes.

Solution: Unless you are in the exit row or in a row with ample clearance, do not attempt to hop over the aisle blocker next to you. This can only end badly—especially if the plane suddenly hits turbulence. Instead, tap the person gently on the shoulder and thank him or her as you exit and reenter the aisle. We’ve all been there.

Dilemma: The toddler behind you is alternating between wailing at the top of his lungs, kicking your seat and tapping on the LCD screen encased in your headrest.

Solution: Do not scold the child directly. Speak with the little one’s parent in a gentle way (“I’m so sorry to bother you with this…is there any way you could have your son/daughter be a bit gentler with the LCD screen? I’m hoping for a nap and it’s hard to do when my seat is getting rocked like this.” Do not mention the crying (this is what headphones are for—particularly the noise-cancelling variety). If the parent seems unwilling or unable to correct the problem, call the flight attendant. Explain the situation in an understanding manner (e.g.: “I realize the mother in the seat behind me certainly has her hands full, however….”)

Dilemma: You’ve finally made it to your destination and the plane had to wait on the tarmac for 90 minutes because the gate wasn’t available for your plane to park. Now that the cabin doors are open, all anyone can think about is getting off the aircraft. ASAP.

Solution: Rein in your instinct to dash out of your row before the people across the aisle from you. Let them go ahead of you and when you step into the aisle, help anyone in the immediate vicinity who is having difficulty pulling a bag down from the overhead compartment. So what if this delays your exit by thirty seconds? Practicing patience is a good thing, because you’re going to need it again very soon. Next up: the rental car counter!