Cultivating etiquette in the business world

If the junior executives at your firm chew gum, neglect the RSVP on invitations, or show up for business lunches in Levis and T-shirts, don't despair - an armload of help has arrived.

Books, magazine articles, and even consulting services are now (politely, of course) preaching the word that it's rude to tell ethnic jokes; smoke on elevators; or, worse, fail to introduce your boss in business situations.

''There's been a social revolution in the last 20 years, with a lot of new money, and people unaware of even the basics - introductions, the art of conversation, and so on,'' says socially skillful Letitia Baldridge, who tidied up the social arrangements for the likes of Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, and now would like to do the same for corporations.

A new consulting service she runs called ''Corporate Manners,'' based loosely on an eventually-to-be-published, 2,000-plus-page book she's written, will speak firmly to managers about dress, table manners, ''the thoughtful corporate host, '' and (most requested) ''relationships between senior and junior managers.''

This last item is of particular concern, because, Ms. Baldridge says, junior managers fail to defer to their elders in business these days. Does that mean she's going to teach these youngsters how to grovel?

''Not at all - we're talking about merited respect. [Senior executives] have been there longer and worked harder to get to the top, and they deserve the little things - walking into a room first, having people introduced to them. It's just good manners.''

Perhaps you've noticed a certain dog-eat-dogness about the business world, a certain tendency toward competition that the polite person would have to label, well, rude. George Mazzei, author of ''The New Office Etiquette,'' certainly calls it that. ''It is extremely wrong to make an office a battleground during an interoffice power struggle,'' he writes in a seemingly endless description of ''don'ts'' that includes quitting on the spot, telling off your boss, or asking your co-workers how much money they make.

But others would say that business competition lies entirely outside the field of social niceties. Mr. Mazzei admits: ''Business is not always fair. It does what is most expedient at times and often appears brutal or unfair in the process,'' something you would hardly expect to fix through sheer good manners.

''You're confusing business manners with social manners,'' says Judith Martin , alias Miss Manners, who has spent less than one day in her life in the business world, but is nevertheless willing to provide a guide to ''excruciatingly correct behavior'' for all occasions. ''There have always been these two sets of behavior,'' she says. ''The difference today is women.''

''In former times, it was assumed that women had no part in the business world and so were always supposed to be on their best social - ladylike - behavior, which included things like never talking about money and never bragging or telling people the good things you've done.''

These attributes got women in the working world all the way to the typing pool, Ms. Martin says. ''It was a disaster.'' Women are now scrambling to learn that ''it's all right to go into your boss's office and ask for a raise, pointing out all the wonderful things you've done for the company,'' she adds.

Ms. Baldridge agrees with the example but disagrees with the premise. ''Quality people never talk about money,'' she says, ''and they never brag.'' People who do so, she believes, ''show that they're insecure.''

Etiquette, as your mother always told you, is more than just using the right fork. Michelle Green, writing in the August issue of Working Woman Magazine, also tells how to use it to discourage inappropriate behavior by men who come to conventions ''with more than pork futures on their mind.''

She recommends an icy stare in the elevator, businesslike clothing at parties , and a firm ''no'' to any untoward suggestions. Ms. Baldridge adds: ''I always tell them to never, ever discuss the incident again after they get back to the office.'' Ms. Green also says women should identify themselves and their titles quickly at conventions, because they ''tend to be reduced to the level of an attractive female rather than a peer'' - a reduction that complicates any dealings you must have with others. Says Kate Rand Lloyd, editor of Working Woman Magazine: ''If the man thinks you're a secretary, it may louse up your relationship from the start by humiliating him when he finds out you're the president, and then you can't make a deal. If you identify yourself quickly, it eliminates any misunderstanding.''

Of course, if you're talking about someone who already has good manners, you'll never know if he thinks you're ''just a secretary'' or not. Says Mr. Mazzei, ''People who matter are always aware that everyone else matters, too.''

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