Following our article on how to behave in New York City, it’s time to turn to the sometimes more challenging unwritten rules of doing business in the U.S. Business etiquette can be a crucial part of successfully establishing yourself in NYC; small misunderstandings and offenses can affect your ability to network and establish relationships.
Since offense is easily avoided by remembering a few simple rules, it’s worth your time making sure you’re up to date on modern U.S. norms.
Depending on the type of business and the work you’re engaged in, rules and expectations may vary. For example, dress codes depend on the type of industry you’re in. The rise of digital and tech start-ups and the increasing focus on flexibility and adaptable hours has done away with the older image of a businessperson in a suit working 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. In a way, this is the first thing to know about etiquette in New York City; you have to know your audience and be aware of the business type.
Dressing for Business
If you’re asked to wear “business clothes,” for work the expectation is that you’ll be presentable and well dressed. For men this generally means a suit with a collared shirt, tie, and dress shoes. For women this means a business dress or suit, or a skirt and blouse, and nice shoes. Colors tend to be conservative – black, gray, and navy blue. During meetings, take your cues from others, but it’s normally perfectly fine to take off your jacket.
Wearing khakis with a shirt and jacket is considered casual dress, but is often fine for meetings in NYC. For women, casual dress would involve much the same: trousers, button down shirts, and nicer sweaters. It’s simpler to focus on what you shouldn’t wear: no t-shirts, sweatshirts, jeans, baseball caps, short skirts, or Capri pants.
It goes without saying that part of being dressed well for work is being clean and presentable. Facial hair, as long as it’s trimmed and neat, is fine in NYC. Tattoos should be hidden under clothing when possible. In the same way, piercings should be kept to a minimum – in more formal work environments such as banking, insurance, and legal we wouldn’t recommend men having any piercings or women having piercings beyond a set of earrings.
Many companies now allow for a relaxed wardrobe in the office but ask that you dress smarter if meeting clients. In many offices Fridays are “dress down day” when jeans and relaxed clothes are common.
For the tech and start up industry of New York, different rules apply altogether. You can expect even the leadership team to come into the office in jeans. But even here, the dress code needs to be adjusted when meeting with clients coming from other industries. We always recommend inquiring about the dress code before your first day of work.
Greetings, Conversation, and Customs
Shakings hands firmly and meeting people eye to eye are important parts of greeting colleagues and new business contacts. To not offer your hand can be seen as rude. Stand when you greet people or when they walk into the room. It’s rarely polite to stay seated when others are standing. If someone offers you a seat, take it, and if they are visiting you, be sure to indicate where they can sit.
Certain topics are best avoided when you’re talking to people you don’t know – especially in a business environment. Religion, politics, and personal information (such as health or relationship issues) shouldn’t be discussed. Equally, don’t comment on anyone else’s appearance – sometimes even compliments can go awry.
Contrary to many Asian countries, gift giving is not a part of U.S. business etiquette. There’s no need to take anything with you to a company’s headquarters or a meeting.
The use of first names without any titles is increasingly common in the U.S. Still, it doesn’t hurt to start formally until prompted to do otherwise (and remember, women often use the more neutral “Ms.,” rather than Miss or Mrs.)
Men and women in the workplace are legally and socially equal, and the U.S. has a long history of equality and civil rights movements. You should always treat everyone in a meeting as equal, regardless of their gender, race, sexual identification, or age.
While you might be in the habit of avoiding topics such as family and hobbies in a business environment, you’ll find many meetings start with small talk and family anecdotes. Family news and inoffensive observations are pretty normal. In the same way, sports are a common topic, so familiarize yourself with NYC’s major sports teams: The Knicks, Jets, Giants, Yankees, Mets, and Rangers would be a good start.
Perhaps the most attractive part of working in New York City is the vibrant, international world you’re exposed to. The role of networking in NYC shouldn’t be underestimated. This mix of socialization and building business contacts allows for a relaxed environment in which you can meet people who may become vital to you later. The etiquette of networking is surprisingly simple: be friendly and open, but don’t impose upon those you meet. Small talk and casual introductions are a big part of the NYC networking scene. You need to be knowledgeable about the industry you’re in – being able to comment on recent changes or industry news is important, as well as finding out who the key players are in the city. There’s also a lot of give and take – you should be willing and available to do favors, volunteer your time and skills, and share others’ details. If you do swap business cards with someone at a networking event, it’s fine (but not required) to e-mail them with a quick note saying it was nice to meet them, but don’t immediately impose requests or a large string of e-mails with ideas or suggestions. New Yorkers are generally very busy, and time can be precious.
On the other hand, if someone has agreed to meet with you or has given you advice, an immediate thank you note is customary and expected. In many industries, such as real estate, hand-written notes are common.
Lunch or dinner meetings aren’t very common in NYC. If you do go out for a meal with colleagues or business partners, don’t assume they’re paying. You may be splitting the bill – and if you do so, remember to factor in the tip and tax as well.
In New York City time is tight and it’s expected that you’ll be professional and, above all, prompt and timely in all your business dealings. When meeting a potential investor or partner, having an “elevator pitch” – a concise summation of your thoughts – prepared beforehand is a good idea. If pressed, you should be able to present your ideas in no more than a few minutes.
During business meetings it is considered rude to answer phone calls or send e-mails. Generally your phone should remain out of sight. You should always be alert and paying attention to whoever is speaking – never tip back in your chair or stretch your arms over your head during a meeting – this indicates a bored state of mind and is very rude.
Social Media for Business
On LinkedIn it is customary to connect with anyone you have met at business meeting or networking event, or anyone you have corresponded with for business.
E-mails should always be responded to immediately. With people so pushed for time, you risk getting sidelined if you don’t stay in the loop, and colleagues and contacts will expect a quick reply to simple e-mails.
It sounds simple, but a lot of the business world in NYC, with the emphasis on contacts and shared friendships and experience, does rely on general courtesy. Treat others with respect, don’t “pull rank” on those younger than you, and remember that in a busy city filled with busy people, patience can go a long way. Take your cues from your coworkers, and you’ll soon fit in wherever you work.
Updated June 6, 2014