Business etiquette: You're so vain



From my front-row seat as an executive recruiter, it has been fascinating to watch the ever-changing fashions for business etiquette. Letitia Baldrige-a personal favorite of mine-implies that the rules of professional conduct are carved on hefty stone tablets. But many of the principles once considered timeless were for an anxious period regarded as merely quaint-sort of like Brooks Brothers suits.

Please don't misunderstand-I never recommended that all "new economy" executives be rounded up and herded into finishing schools. And I certainly enjoy breaking dishes as much as the next guy. There does seem to be a mysterious relationship, however, between good times and bad manners. More to the point: Aren't you glad everyone has their humility back, even if the new "new economy" really stinks?

By way of illustration, allow me to guide you-forcibly, if necessary-behind the scenes of an actual executive search. You'll need a hardhat and shovel.

Recruiting gone south
During the summer of 2000, the nationwide hiring frenzy approached toxic levels. I had been retained to recruit a general manager for the northeast region of a highly publicized blue chip venture startup located in Silicon Valley. Money was no object for the right person-within reason. After rounds of grueling interviews with the leading road-warrior types, my client narrowed in on an executive from a major telecom provider and offered him an irresistible package. The candidate was ready to sign when I issued my standard warning: "Don't accept unless you are absolutely firm in your decision. It has to be a solid gold 'yes' or nothing."

"Mark," he said, "you haven't read me very well if you're worried about that. My word is my bond."

We met less than a week later in Manhattan to toast the deal. "You might be a little upset," he blurted out immediately. "My employer couldn't afford to lose me right now. I've taken a substantial retention bonus to stay on for another year."

"But your word was your bond," I managed to say.

"Please don't make it worse," he whimpered, his face turning green.

Exactly a year later, he contacted me. Now a layoff casualty dripping with good-natured camaraderie, he wanted to know if I "had anything" for him. He could probably hear my choking sounds through the phone when he added, "I also wanted to make sure that you and I are, you know, okay professionally."

This is the part where I really should assume a posture of moral superiority. Don't count on it. I'm not as limber as I used to be.

Social graces
Is it just my skewed perception, or were egos running completely amok a few short minutes ago? And have you noticed the most recent change? There's still no shortfall of "lie now and we'll deal with it later." But a fundamental shift in attitude has occurred somewhere in our collective conscience, lending businesspeople a not completely unattractive new aura of fallibility. Look at Kenneth Lay's troubled complexion for a moment under the flattering spotlight of shame. See how lifelike and human he appears?

This transmigration of mood and deportment extends to dress codes as well. Since no one knows how to repair the market, an increasingly widespread superstition suggests that abolishing casual attire at the office will somehow restore our self-respect and thereby our prosperity. I'd be willing to give it a try if I could only find my Chesterfield coat.

Today, just about everybody returns e-mails and phone calls-more or less. There may be a slight residue of hubris lingering. Still, mending poorly managed relationships has become top priority. I know several CEOs who have even taken to calling their mothers on a weekly basis.

It wasn't simply about greed, though, was it? That was a different administration. Now, as the flotsam and jetsam clear, we remember that integrity and modesty are not strictly anathema to sound enterprise. Yet, when professionalism and ethical practices lose their currency again, I bet you'll find the economic recovery is well underway.

Mark Jaffe is president of Wyatt & Jaffe, an executive search firm in Minneapolis. He can be reached via the company's Website,

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