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This article was first published 17 years ago  » Business » Dos and don'ts of office communication

Dos and don'ts of office communication

By Tom Van Riper, Forbes
August 25, 2006 11:40 IST
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Office communication just isn't what it used to be. For folks over 40, the following instant message may look like nothing more than gobbledygook: "#s look gd. lnch @ 1/ back l8r."

But for younger employees, it's just simple shorthand for: "The numbers look good. I'm leaving for lunch at 1 p.m., and I'll be back later."

Instant messaging isn't just a new technology, it's also a new language. One that's especially easy to over rely on, misinterpret and misuse. That goes for co-workers of all ages.

The recent crop of grads, those born in the early 1980s, a.k.a Generation Y, has marched boldly into the adult workforce over the past four years. They've brought with them a set of technological tools that makes fax machines, voice mail and spreadsheet software look positively quaint. They've grown up with scanning, text messaging and Googling, and they're not about to stop once they've hit the working world.

Nor should they. Those skills are big assets when it comes to multi-tasking and productivity. But they're also a nightmare for many of their bosses, those over 35 who understand that while technology is a useful tool, it doesn't replace relationship building as a primary means for doing business.

Today's bosses can't understand why their young recruits, for all their brains and technical acumen, hardly ever come over and actually talk to them.

"I hear from clients that [young professionals'] first instinct is to IM rather than walk over to their boss's office. That can be OK for a quick question, but when you're planning something, you need to talk face-to-face," says Steven Rothberg, founder of, who places recent graduates into corporate jobs.

The tech disparity between 20-somethings and 40-somethings is far greater today than it was 20 years ago, when today's 40-somethings were the young turks.

Over 17% of today's workforce in the US is between the ages of 25 and 34, while another 28% is made up of employees 55 and over, Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show.

That breakdown is not much different than in many past years. But what is different is the speed of technological progress since the mid-1990s, from the Internet and e-mail to cell phones and instant messaging. A recent survey by outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison shows that 60% of U.S. corporations acknowledge having workplace tensions among generations.

Ruth Sherman, a Greenwich, Connecticut-based communications consultant whose client roster includes Deloitte, Pfizer and Bank of America, says common complaints about younger workers range from lame handshakes and poor conversational skills to super-casual attire and personal use of company e-mail.


show up at job interviews in tee shirts. What the Gen Yers don't see, she says, is the meaning and value of gestures and other non-verbal skills that don't come through in a text message.

"My clients are frustrated; a lot of them are throwing up their hands because they can't persuade young people to get it," Sherman says.

Carl Tyler, a veteran of Lotus and IBM who now runs Instant Technologies, an enterprise IM software group, thinks one of the biggest etiquette breaches by Gen Y recruits involves newbies typing paragraph upon paragraph of chat.

"It's a new medium, don't treat it like e-mail," Tyler says."

In other areas, many major companies are doing their best to train their Gen Y hires in traditional business practices. At Deloitte, the accounting and consulting firm which hires thousands of college grads each year, managers' tweaking of young subordinates' habits sometimes includes reminders to use complete sentences in memos, while Googling a topic doesn't qualify as research, according to human resources executive Stan Smith.

He adds, though, that while the Gen Y crowd has shown a wider gap than their predecessors between college life and readiness for the workforce, they do generally show a willingness to learn.

"A lot of them actually do want to be mentored; they respond well to smart adults," Smith says.

Other firms--particularly sales and consulting operations that require a lot of client contact--are also making the effort to adjust their training for the new breed. Big Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase and UBS all hold communications classes for new recruits.

MetLife this year began a program that sends college interns out on client calls with veteran sales reps, giving them a first hand look at the face-to-face selling process.

MetLife's insurance competitor, The Hartford, emphasizes face-to-face and telephone skills, which they see as lacking in IM-happy recruits. The good news, according to Jim Greising, a vice president for the company's Property & Casualty sales team, is that most recruits are smart, talented and open to learning.

Where they differ from their predecessors, he says, is in their requests for more hands on, interactive training. Few have the patience to sit through an eight hour class.

And some newbies, according to Greising, have no problem casually talking to the president of the company the same way they talk to a peer. And while that may ruffle some feathers among the old guard, it's not necessarily all bad.

"It shows they're willing to say what's on their mind," he says.

Is it possible that it's the older workers who will ultimately have to adjust, forced to do away with the personal touch in favor of pure speed and efficiency?

After all, the young tech-savvy recruits of today are the company bosses of tomorrow. The answer is yes -- and no. While increasingly faster communications are here to stay, face-to-face skills have been a staple for getting business done for too long to think they will ever go out of style altogether.

"There will likely be a happy medium," Sherman says. "If you can't build relationships with people, you can't do business."

Carl Tyler, a veteran of Lotus and IBM and founder of the Web site Instant Technology, recommends these rules when using instant messaging at work: Instant Messaging Etiquette.

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Tom Van Riper, Forbes

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