Business Etiquette - Morals And Manners
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
It has become a habit of late years for people to argue at great length about right and wrong, and what with complexes and psychoanalysis and what with this and that, they have almost come to the conclusion that there is no right and wrong. Man, so they have decided, is a frail and tender being completely at the mercy of the traits he has inherited from his ancestors and those he has acquired from his neighbors. What he does is simply the result of the combination of circumstances that have made him what he is. There is some truth in it, of course, but what' there is is no bigger than a mustard seed, and all the volumes that have been written about it, all the sermons that have been preached upon it, and all the miles of space that have been devoted to it in the newspapers and magazines have not served to increase it. Most of us never give any one else credit for our achievements and there is no more reason for giving them blame for our failures. A gentleman is "lord of his own actions." He balances his own account, and whether there is a debit or a credit is a matter squarely up to him.
The pivot upon which all right-thinking conduct involving relations with other people turns is the Golden Rule, "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." It is to the moral what the sun is to the physical world, and just as we have never made full use of the heat and light which we derive from the sun but could not live without that which we do use, so we have never realized more than a small part of the possibilities of the Golden Rule, but at the same time could not get along together in the world without the meagre part of it that we do make use of. The principle is older than the Christian Era, older than the sequoias of California, older than the Pyramids, older than Chinese civilization. It is the most precious abstract truth that man has yet discovered. It contains the germ of all that has been said and written about human brotherhood and all that has been done toward making it an accomplished fact. And if to-morrow it were to vanish from the earth we should miss it almost, if not quite, as much as we should the sun if it were to go hurtling off into space so far away that we could neither see nor feel it. In the one ease there would be no life at all on earth, in the other there would be none worth living.
The Golden Rule amounts to no more than putting yourself into another person's place. It is not always easy to do, Half of the people in the United States have very little idea of what the lives of the other half are like and have no special interest in knowing.
"What," we asked the manager of a bookshop which caters to a large high-grade clientele, "do you find your greatest trouble?"
"Lack of imagination on the part of our customers," he answered promptly, "a total inability to put themselves into our place, to realize that we have our lives to live just as they have theirs. If we haven't a book in stock they want to know why. If we don't drop everything to attend to them they want to know why. If anything goes wrong they want to know why, but they won't listen to explanations and won't accept them when they do. They simply can't see our side of it. And they make such unreason-able demands. Why, last year during the Christmas rush when the shop was fairly jammed to the door and we were all in a perfect frenzy trying to wait on them all, a man called up to know if his wife was here!"
It is not always easy to see life, or even a small section of life, from another person's point of view. A man very often thinks housework practically no work at all (the drudgery of it he has never realized because he has never had to do it) and a woman very often underestimates the wear and tear and strain of working in an office and getting a living out of it in competition with hundreds of other men. Marie Antoinette had no conception of what it meant when the French people cried for bread. It seemed impossible to her that a person could actually be hungry. "Why, give them cake!" she exclaimed. It may be pretty hard for a man who is making $10,000 a year to sympathize with the stenographer he hires for $600 or $700 a year, or for her to see his side of things. But it is not impossible.
Very few of us could honestly go as far as the novelist who recently advocated the motto: "My neighbor is perfect" or the governor who set aside a day for the people in his state to put it into practice. We happen to know that our neighbors are, like ourselves, astonishing compounds of vice and virtue in whom any number of improvements might be made. It is not necessary to think them perfect, only to remember that each one of us, each one of them, is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, that every man has a right to a square deal.
In the ancient world there were four cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, and discretion. In the modern world of business there are only two. Others may follow, but these two must come first. Justice, we mean, and kindness. No man was ever really a gentleman who was not just and kind, and we think it would be almost impossible for one who is, whatever his minor shortcomings may be, not to be a gentleman. Just to his employees (or to his employer) , to his customers, to his friends, to himself, and this justice always tempered with kindness, the one quality giving the firmness necessary in dealing with people, the other the gentleness which is no less necessary.
In the first place, and this is one of the corner stones of justice, industrial life must be made safe for the worker. And it is a job in which he has as large a part as the man who hires him. Under present conditions one workman out of every eight is injured during the year and the accident is as often his fault as it is that of his employer. In some instances efficient safety devices are not provided, in others they are not made use of.
Special kinds of work, such as that in which the laborer is exposed to poisonous fumes, to sand blasts, dangerous chemicals or mineral dusts, need special protective devices and men with sense enough to use them. The employer can-not do his share unless the worker does his, and the worker is too quick to take a chance. The apprentice is usually cautious enough, but the old hand grows unwary. Ninety-nine times he thrusts his arm in among belts whirling at lightning speed and escapes, but the hundredth time the arm is caught and mangled. And there is nothing to blame but his own carelessness.
WHO AM I?
I am more powerful than the combined armies of the world.
I have destroyed more men than all the wars of the nations.
I am more deadly than bullets, and I have wrecked more homes than the mightiest of siege guns.
I steal, in the United States, alone, over $300,000,000 each year.
I spare no one, and I find my victims among the rich and poor alike, the young and old, the strong and weak. Widows and orphans know me.
I loom up to such proportions that I cast my shadow over every field of labor, from the turning of the grindstone to the moving of every railroad train.
I massacre thousands upon thousands of wage earners a year.
I lurk in unseen places and do most of my work silently. You are warned against me but you heed not.
I am relentless.
I am everywhere—in the house, on the streets, in the factory, at the railroad crossings, and on the sea.
I bring sickness, degradation and death, and yet few seek to avoid me.
I destroy, crush or maim; I give nothing but take all.
I am your worst enemy.
I AM CARELESSNESS
Any kind of carelessness which results in injury (or is likely to result in it), whether the injury is mental or physical, is criminal. No plea can justify building a theatre which cannot stand a snowstorm, a school which cannot give a maximum of safety to the children who are in it, a factory which does not provide comfortable working conditions for the people employed there, or allowing any unsafe building or part of a building to stand.
There is a factory (this story is true) which , places the lives of the majority of its employees in jeopardy twice a day. There are two sets of elevators, one at the front of the building for the executives and their secretaries and visitors, one at the rear for the rank and file of the employees. Since there are several hundred of the latter the advantages of the division are too obvious to need discussion. We have no quarrel with it. But the apparatus upon which the elevators in the rear run is so old and so rotten and so rusty that there is constant danger of its breaking down. Three times already there have been serious accidents. The men who are hired to operate the ears rarely stay more than a week or so. Protests have been sent in but nothing has been done. The management knows what the conditions are but they have never stopped to realize the horror of it. It is not that they value a few dollars more than they do human life, but that they simply do not stop to think or to imagine what it would be like to have to ride in the ramshackle elevator themselves. In the offices of this factory there is an atmosphere of courtesy and good breeding far beyond the ordinary—in justice to the people there it must be said that they do not know the conditions in the rear, but the management does. And the management is polite in most of its dealings, both with its employees and outside, but polish laid over a cancerous growth like this is not courtesy.
There are three essentials for good work: good lighting '(it must be remembered that a light that is too glaring is as bad as one that is too dim), fresh air (air that is hot and damp or dry and dusty is not fresh), and cleanliness (clean workrooms—and workers—clean drinking water with individual drinking cups, and in places where the work is unusually dirty, plenty of clean water for bathing purposes.)
In the matter of salaries—economically one of the most important questions in the world—the employer should pay, not as little, but as much as he can afford. No man has a right to hire a girl (or a boy either) at less than a living wage and expect her to live on it. The pitiless publicity which was given the evil of hiring girls at starvation wages some years ago (in particular through the short stories of O. Henry, "the little shop-girl's knight" which, according to Colonel Roosevelt, suggested all the reforms which he undertook in behalf of the working girls of New York) did much in the way of reform, but there is much yet to be done.
Money has been called the root of all evil. It is not money, but greed. Greed and thoughtlessness. Sir James Barrie says stupidity and jealousy, but both these might be included under thoughtlessness. Men who are generous almost to a fault when a case of individual need is brought before them will hire girls at less than any one could exist on in decency. When they meet these same girls in the hall or when they come directly into contact with them in their work they may be polite enough, but their politeness is not worth a tinker's curse. Justice mast come first. Only if the employer pays a fair day's wage can he expect a fair day's work. "Even then," he protests, "I can't get it. And this is, unfortunately, in large measure true. As Kipling said some few years ago, and it still holds,
From forge and farm and mine and bench Deck, altar, outpost lone Mill, school, battalion, counter, trench, Rail, senate, sheepfold, throne Creation's cry goes up on high From age to cheated age: "Send us the men who do the work For which they draw the wage."
"I can't even get them here on time," the employer's wail continues. The employee may respond that the employer is not there, but this has nothing to do with it. Most people are paid to get to their work at a certain hour. They have a daily appointment with their business at a specified time. It is wise and honorable to keep it. Tardiness is a habit, and, like most others, considerably harder to break than to form, but punctuality also is a habit, not quite so easy to establish as tardiness because it is based on strength while the other is based on weakness. Most of us hate to get up in the morning, but it is good discipline for the soul, and we have the words of poets as well as of business men that
Early to bed and early to rise Is the way to be healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Time is one of the most valuable of commodities. More people are discharged for coming in late than for any other reason, not excepting (we believe this no exaggeration) "lay-offs" during dull seasons. Slipping out before the regular time and soldiering on the job fall into the same classification with tardiness. Such practices the employee too often looks upon as a smart way of getting around authority, blithely ignoring the fact which has so many times been called to our attention: that what a man does to a job is not half so important as what the job does to him.
The material loss which comes from it is the least of its harms.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but he is duller yet if he tries to mix them. Intense concentration during working hours followed by complete rest is the only way to make a contented workman, and it is the happy work-man (just as it is the happy warrior) , in spite of all that is said about divine discontent, who counts for most both to himself and to his community. There is a gladness about earnest eager work which is hard to find in anything else. "I know what pleasure is," declared Robert Louis Stevenson, "because I have done good work."
Gossiping, idling, smoking, writing personal letters during working hours (these usually on the firm's stationery), and a thousand and one other petty acts of dishonesty are ruinous, not so much to the house which tolerates them (because it cannot help itself) as to the person who commits them. Telephones are the cause of a good deal of disturbance during business hours in places where employees spend an appreciable amount of time on personal calls. In some organizations they are prohibited altogether; but in most they are allowed if not carried to excess. It is not business people who need education in this so much as their friends who have never been in business and seem unable to realize that personal calls are not only annoying, but time-killing and distracting.
Part of the unrest and unhappiness among employees is due to the fact that vast numbers of them are working not at what they want to do but at what they have to do, marking time until they can get something better. It is very commendable for a man to be constantly watching out to improve himself, but it does not in the meanwhile excuse him from doing his best at the job for which he is drawing pay. It is dishonest. It is unsportsmanlike. It is unmanly.
The question of salary is, from whatever angle it is approached, a delicate one. "My experience is," observed David Harum, "that most men's hearts is located ruther closter to their britchis pockets than they are to their vest pockets." It is a tender subject, and one that causes more trouble than almost any other in the world. Employees who are trusted with the payroll should not divulge figures and employees who are on the payroll should not discuss and compare salaries. Jones cannot understand why Brown gets more than he does when he knows that Brown's work is not so good, Brown cannot see why Smith gets as much as he does when he is out two or three days in the week, and Smith cannot see why he has not been made an executive after all the years he has worked in the place. There are many sides to the matter of salary adjustment and they all have to be taken into consideration. And the petty jealousies that employees arouse by matching salaries against one another only serve to make a complex problem more difficult.
There is only one base upon which a man should rest his plea for an increase in salary, and that is good work. The fact that he has a family dependent upon him, that he is ill or hard up may be ample reason for giving him financial help or offering him a loan, but it is no reason why his salary should be increased unless his work de-serves it. Paternalism is more unfair than most systems of reward, and the man who comes whimpering with a tale of hard luck is usually (but not always) not worth coddling. Years of experience, even though they stretch out to three score and ten, are not in themselves sufficient argument for promotion. Sometimes the mere fact that a man has been content to stay in one place year after year shows that he has too little initiative to rise in that particular kind of work and is too timid to try something else.
Another big cause of trouble among men working in the same organization is rigid class distinction. When a man hires others to work for him he invites discontent; when he hires them to work with him there may be dissatisfaction, but the chances of it are lessened. A business well knit together is like any other group, an army or a football team, bound into a unit to achieve a result. At its best each person in it feels a responsibility toward each one of the others ; each realizes that who a man is is not half so important as what he does, and that the game is more than the player of the game And the ship is more than the crew, or, as another poet with a Kiplingesque turn of mind and phrase has it,
It is not the guns or armament Or the money they can pay. It's the close cooperation That makes them win the day. It is not the individual Or the army as a whole, But the everlastin team work Of every blooming soul.
Each man is directly responsible to his immediate superior. He should never, unless the circumstances are unusual, go over his head and he should never do so without letting him know.
It should be impossible, and is, in a well-organ, ized house, for men coming from the outside to appeal over a member of a firm. Responsible men should be placed in the contact positions and their responsibility should be respected. Salesmen are warned not to bother with the little fellow but to go straight to the head of a firm. Like most general advice, it is dangerous to put into universal practice. The heads of most firms have men to take care of visitors, and in a good many instances, the salesman helps his cause by going to the proper subordinate in the first place. It is all very well to go to the head of a firm but to do it at the expense of the dignity of one of the smaller executives is doubtful business policy and doubtful ethics.
"Passing the buck" is a gentle vice practised in certain loosely hung together concerns. It is a strong temptation to shift the accountability for a mistake to the shoulders of the person on the step below, but it is to be remembered that temptations, like obstacles, are things to 'be over-come. "The "buck," as has been pointed out, always passes down and not up, a fact which makes a detestable practice all the more odious. One of the first laws of knighthood was to defend the weak and to protect the poor and helpless; it still holds, though knighthood has passed out of existence ; and the creature (he is not even good red herring) who blames some one else for a fault of his, or allows him to take the blame, is beneath contempt.
When a mistake has been made and the responsibility fixed on the right person the penalty may be inflicted. If it is a scolding or a "bawling out" it should be done quietly. Good managers do not shout their reprimands. They do not need to. The reproof for a fault is a matter between the offender and the "boss." No one else has any concern with it, and there is no reason why the instinct for gossip or the appetite for malicious reports on the part of the other employees should be satisfied. The world would be happier and business would be infinitely more harmonious if each person in it could realize that his chief aim in life should be to mind his own business or, at least, to let other people's alone.
Private secretaries and other people in more or less confidential positions are many times tempted to give away secret information, not so much for the benefit of the person to whom it is given as to show how much they themselves are trusted. Nearly every one who holds a responsible business position receives items of information which are best not repeated, and if common sense does not teach him what should be kept private and what should be told, nothing will. It should not be necessary for the superior to preface each of his remarks with, "Now, this must go no further."
Matters concerning salaries should always be confidential, and so should personal items such as health reports, character references, and so on, credit reports, blacklists, and other information of a similar nature. It is compiled for a definite purpose and for the use of a limited group of people. It is unethical to use it in any other way.
The reason for dismissing a person from a business organization should be kept private, especially if it is something that reflects unfavorably on his character. But the reason should always be given to the employee himself. He may not listen, and most of the men who have had experience in hiring and firing say that he will not, but that is his own responsibility. The employer has no right to let him go without letting him know why. And the employee should listen—it may not be his fault but he should check up honestly with himself and find out. The same thing that lost him this place may lose him another, and a good many times all that he can get out of being discharged is a purification of soul. It is a pity if he misses that.
Discharging a person is a serious matter, serious from both sides, and it is not a thing to be done lightly. Most houses try to obviate it in so far as possible by hiring only the kind of people they want to keep. "Our efforts toward efficiency" (we quote from one manager who is typical of thousands) "begin at the front door. We try to eliminate the unfit there. We do not employ any one who happens to come along. We try by means of an interview and references and psychological tests to get the very highest type of employee." No human test is perfect, however, and there are times, even in the best regulated houses, when it becomes necessary to dismiss persons who have shown themselves unfit.
It is not always a disgrace to be discharged and it is not always a step downward. It may be because of business depression or it may be because the man is a square peg in a round hole. Sometimes it is the only experience that will reduce a man's, especially a young man's, idea of his own importance to something like normal proportions, the only one that will clear his mind of the delusion that he is himself the only person who is keeping off the rocks the business for which he is working, in which case it is one of the best things that could have happened to him.
A roll call of famous or successful men who were fired would take up several reams of paper, and it is a pretty rash personnel manager (not to say brutal and unfair) who will throw a man out like a rotten potato and declare that he is absolutely no good. Besides, he does not know. All that he can be sure of is that the man was not qualified for the job he was holding. And he should think twice before giving a man a bad name even if he feels certain that he deserves it. At the same time he must protect himself and other business men from incompetent, weak, or vicious employees. If after his dismissal a man sends back to his former employer for a recommendation, the recommendation should be as favorable as possible without sacrificing the truth.
When a man breaks his connection with a business house, whether he does so voluntarily or involuntarily, his departure should be pleas-ant, or at the least dignified. It is childish to take advantage of the fact that you are going away to tell all of the people you have grudges against how you feel about them, and it is worse than a mere breach of good manners to abuse the house that has asked you to leave. If it has done some one else an injustice, talk about that all you please, but on your own account be silent. Even if the fault has been altogether with the house it does not help to call it names. Self-respect should come to the rescue here. This is the time when it is right to be too proud' to fight.
For a long time it has been held bad ethics for the members of one trade or profession to speak disparagingly of their competitors, and we have grown accustomed to say that you can judge a man by the way he speaks of his rivals. This has limits, however, and in some instances a mistaken idea of loyalty to one's calling has led' to the glossing over of certain evils which could have been cured much earlier if they had been made public. It is all very well to be generous and courteous toward one's competitors but the finest courtesy in any business consists of doing whatever tends to elevate the standard of that business.
Every man likes his business to be well thought of, and most businesses have organized for the promotion of a high standard of ethics as well as for the development of more efficient methods. Notable among these, to mention one of the most recent ones, is the Advertisers' Association. There was a time when the whole profession was menaced by the swindlers who were exploiting fraudulent schemes by means of advertising in magazines and newspapers, but today no reputable periodical will accept an advertisement without investigating its source and most of them will back up the guarantee of the advertiser that his goods are what he represents them to be with a guarantee of their own. No publication which intends to keep alive can afford a reputation of dishonesty, and the efforts of the publishers toward cleaning up have been seconded by the association to such an extent that any person or corporation that issues a deceptive advertisement, whether or not there was intent to deceive, will be prosecuted and punished.
There was a time when a man could do almost anything within the law in a commercial transaction and excuse himself by saying "business is business." Happily this is no longer true. Business men have not grown perfect but they have raised their standards of business morality as high as their standards of personal morality. They have learned that business and life are one, that our lives cannot-and this has a number of disadvantages—be separated into compartments like so many tightly corked bottles on a shelf. We have only one vessel and whatever goes into it colors what is already there. And it is significant to remember that muddy water poured into clean water will make it muddy, but that clean water poured into muddy water will not make it dean. It takes very little ink in a pail of milk to color the whole of it, but it takes an enormous amount of milk to have any effect on a bottle of ink.
Business men have also learned that the only way to build a business that will last is to lay its foundation on the Golden Rule, and many a man who might otherwise sidetrack the principles of integrity holds by them for this reason. "Honesty," declared one of the most insufferable prigs America ever produced, "is the best policy." He was right. Prigs usually are. It is only be-cause they are so sure of it themselves that they irritate us.
It is a fact, in spite of the difficulty Diogenes had when he took up his lantern and set out to find an honest man, that most people like to pay their way as they go, and the business men who recognize this are the ones who come out on top. They do not say that the customer is always right nor that he is perfect, but they assume that he is honest and trust him until he has proved himself otherwise. The biggest mail order house in America never questions a check. As soon as an order is received they fill it and attend to the check afterward. Their percentage of loss is extraordinarily small. Distrust begets distrust, and the perversity of human nature is such that even an honest man will be tempted to cheat if he knows another suspects him of it. The con-verse is equally true. There are, of course, exceptions. But the only rule in the world to which there are no exceptions is that there is no rule that holds good under all conditions.