Mentoring the Young

How to tactfully promote good business etiquette in young professionals and underlings.

Consider this: Many workplaces now have four generations working side by side. From Baby Boomers and Generation X to Millennials and the group after them — which we media types call Generation Z — there is a profound age range.

According to the Future Workplace 2015 Multi-Generational Leadership Study, “companies should consider more informal learning and development, mentoring and coaching and access to self-directed learning.” But with so many age groups and learning and communication styles in every office, offering guidance can be tricky for even the most well-intentioned managers and senior employees.  

Mentoring new hires may offer a solution. And small stumbles may offer a convenient entrée into such a relationship.

“It’s important for a new hire to know their supervisor might find it radically offensive to text that you are taking a sick day [or] an older person might have expectations about greetings and salutations in emails,” said Daniel Post Senning in a recent phone interview. Senning is co-author of the 18th edition of “Emily Post’s Etiquette,” and co-host of the “Awesome Etiquette” podcast. “Having a mentor or having someone who has experience in the field can go a long way.”

Why should we care so much about the success of underlings and our daily communication methods? After all, we are all adults with a lot of work to do and only so many hours in the day. While it’s tempting to adopt a Darwinian philosophy, taking the time and effort to mentor young coworkers benefits both the company and everyone involved.

“This is not only about you, your success, your organizational success, but also your quality of life every day,” said Senning. “A big picture concept that I love to share is that etiquette is ultimately about relationships.”

It’s important to enter into mentoring with a spirit of altruism. Senning points out that anyone can be rudely honest, so ask yourself: Can I be benevolently honest?

“I call it the ‘broccoli on the teeth’ rule,” said Senning. “Most people would prefer to hear something awkward or embarrassing if it helps them avoid something awkward or embarrassing down the line… Do it in the spirit of and with the intention that it’s for the other person’s benefit.”

He suggested first asking for permission, in order to get their buy-in and also to prepare them for the conversation. Begin with something to the effect of, “There’s something that I’ve noticed and I’m wondering if you are aware of it. Is now a good time?”

Next, create a sense of equality with a statement such as, “If the shoe were on the other foot, I really hope that you would also feel comfortable talking to me about it.”

Finally, Senning said it’s helpful to be explicit about your good intentions. Consider phrases such as, “I’m mentioning this because I care about your success. I wouldn’t want something like this to stand in your way or become a problem for you in the office.”

Be sure to have the conversation in private and if at all possible, in person. It’s so hard to discern tone in an email. Consider a mentor or helpful older colleague from your past and how they approached advising you, especially when offering unsolicited advice.

Senning recalled a time when a colleague helped him buy his first suit.

“I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said. “What’s important is how communication serves our relationships. These are techniques that work well for supporting growing relationships. I caution new hires that it is important to pay attention to tradition. These are things that have worked.”

At the same time, it’s also important for the more experienced and seasoned pros to operate with a two-way street mentality, because our younger counterparts have a lot to offer us in return for our mentorship.

“When that new hire introduces a new document platform for example, listen,” said Senning. “You don’t have to embrace every trend, but being open to change is important.”

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to



Categories: Biz Etiquette, The Magazine