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A few summers ago, Google (GOOG) intern Gregory Duncan was receiving instruction at his workstation in the company's New York office when a visitor swung by for a chat. Duncan remembers that his engineer-supervisor wasn't very gracious about the social call. "Just a minute," he hissed at the visitor, holding up an index finger in the universal signal for 'I have way more important things to deal with.' The visitor? Sergey Brin.
Civility in the workplace has been on the decline since Emily Post published her primer on the topic, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, in 1922. Even books about etiquette—like the current best-seller The No Asshole Rule—lack a certain polish. Yet as hoodie-wearing, emoticon-tweeting millennials graduate college and prepare for the workforce, the low point may just be arriving. In other words, it's a great time to be a professional etiquette coach.
Lyudmila Bloch, a founder of Etiquette Outreach in New York, has seen a significant rise in enrollment at her school—where initial sessions cost $395—since April. Etiquette School of New York founder Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick has also seen matriculation growth for services that can run up to $300 per hour. "I've been doing this for 14½ years," says Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Marblehead (Mass.)-based etiquette consulting firm Mannersmith, which deals with personal and corporate clients. "Every year has gotten better." Although many of Smith's younger clients vanished during the late '90s and early 2000s, she's now winning back their business. "When we hit the recession, they suddenly started coming again!" she says. After a 30 percent drop in business from 2008 to 2009, even the Protocol School of Washington—which trains etiquette instructors—has grown in size each month this year. "Ten years ago, it was popular in the over-50 crowd," says Pamela Eyring, the school's president and director. Now, "there's a nice sprinkling of 25- to 30-year-olds." The school currently has a waiting list for protocol officer training.
The surge in enrollment may be the result of job hunters trying to work every angle, but it's also highlighted the professional shortcomings of a generation raised without handwriting classes. While plenty of millennials blame their unemployment on the recession, many aren't exactly helping their cause. "They've grown up with this Web 2.0 mentality that there's complete equality in the world," says Patricia L. Bower, clinical associate professor of management communication at New York University's Stern School of Business. "They think, 'If everyone has access to the same information, then we're all equal, so I know as much as you do even though I'm 20 and you're 55.' " Some lack basic office skills—like experience with a landline. "A lot of kids just text or talk online now. They're not actually talking to people," says Napier-Fitzpatrick, who coaches clients on how to modulate their tone in the office. Not surprisingly, many students are clueless about their cell-phone privileges. "A young man came to me and said everyone in the office keeps their phones on in meetings, especially the head of the company," she says. That's when Napier-Fitzpatrick reminded the pupil, "He's the CEO, and you just started!"
Juanita Ecker, whose Professional Image Management etiquette service has offices in Troy, N.Y., and Lexington, S.C., points out a generational rift in the notion of building business relationships. "Boomers want young people to establish relationships the way they do it," she says. "And that's not going to happen. They haven't been coached on how to send an e-mail with complete sentences that's not filled with acronyms."
Another potentially menacing complication is Facebook—and the need to teach young professionals how to avoid getting fired for oversharing. (The phenomenon has become so common that there's even a Facebook group, Fired Because of Facebook, devoted to it.) Ecker cautions her students about the crafty surveillance methods employed by some companies. "Don't assume just because your boss isn't one of your friends that he or she won't eventually see a message you post," she tells them. "Employers sometimes hire college-age people to befriend potential hires so they can check them out. They take it into account when they see pictures of drunken parties—and nudity."
Such nuggets of common sense do not dissuade many young workers from the view that etiquette training, or any form of behavior modification, is uncool. William Gruger, a 22-year-old graduate of the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, says: "There are people who actually delete themselves from Facebook altogether during their job application process. Personally, I think that's crap. If I didn't get a job because of what somebody sees on Facebook, then I don't think I would have been very happy working there in the first place."
Still, Gruger acknowledges that as he and his friends segue into employment, their Facebook walls display fewer salacious photos. "Most people are at that point where they've realized that having pictures of themselves with illegal drugs is somewhat incriminating," he says. "Holding a beer vs. holding a bong is a censorship line people tend to follow." Still, even those who do self-censor remain at the mercy of their friends. "Someone wrote on a friend's Facebook wall, 'I just bought NyQuil for the first time—thinking of you,'" says Robyn Bohn, a 24-year-old corporate trainee at the Sussex (Wis.)-based Quad/Graphics printing company. "It's a long story," Bohn says—one that forced her friend to explain to her colleagues that she's not a cough syrup addict.
Offline, poor wardrobe choices are the most common millennial trouble spot. "The biggest complaint I've heard is that young women are dressed like they're going to a club," says Ecker. Even companies with casual dress standards can have clothing confrontations. When Gregory Duncan attended an intern open house at Google, the receptionist asked him to wear a "Google Open-House Intern" T-shirt. Duncan asked if she was joking. She wasn't. "She said that she was on to me," he recalls, "and that I was disrespectful. I e-mailed her to apologize and said I'd be happy to have a meeting and take her thoughts about that into consideration." She didn't write back.
The receptionist may have been overly attuned to a prevailing sentiment that today's kids aren't all right. Though, when it comes to finger pointing, an old rule applies: Blame the parents. "Helicopter parents' upbringing of this generation, where everything they said from day one was praiseworthy and encouraged, has produced students who are still calling their parents every day and continually receiving positive reinforcement," says NYU's Bower. "I don't think prior generations entered the workforce with this entitlement." That's more good news for the etiquette business. "Parents are taking the initiative to send their kids here," says Bloch. "Some will give it as a gift to a young adult." Such was the case with 20-year-old Elaine Hedaya, whose mother enrolled her in Bloch's Etiquette Outreach. Though its impact on her future employment currently remains unclear, "Now I know how to cut a tomato so it doesn't squirt," says Hedaya. "It's the small things."