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Missed Manners

Young entrepreneurs dress down America's corporate culture.

Quiz time: When you visit an office and see the staff working in jeans and T-shirts, are you shocked at the lack of professionalism, or do you neglect to notice it because you're too impressed by the prompt, friendly service you received?

Not too long ago, the term "casual Fridays" didn't even exist, and it was unheard of to call a client by his or her first name. Today, young business leaders value results above the rules they consider to be outdated. "Most [young entrepreneurs] are determined to create the kind of results-oriented, no-nonsense environment they craved when they weren't in a leadership position," says Bruce Tulgan, author of Work This Way (Hyperion) and co-owner of RainmakerThinking Inc., a New Haven, Connecticut, management consulting firm that specializes in Gen X issues. "They're sidestepping the kind of rules that have no connection to [their goals]."

But as young businesses grow, etiquette may become a necessity when working with international clients. "For a while, it was [only important] who developed the quickest chip," says Lyndy Janes, co-owner of The Workshoppe, an image and etiquette consulting company in Los Gatos, California. The firm caters to Silicon Valley "computer geeks," the mainstay of young, nonconforming entrepreneurs. "But as you grow, you mix with other cultures. You're dealing with other people, and you have to show them respect. I think young [businesspeople] realize that."

So is this another case of growing up and conforming? Not necessarily. Traditionalists may have to loosen up to gain the respect of young entrepreneurs. "If I walk into an environment where everybody looks like a stuffed shirt, I get nervous," says Tulgan. "Are these folks stuck in the workplace of the past?"

As for young entrepreneurs, Bermuda shorts and other casual attire may be acceptable in the office, but eventually they'll need to learn which fork is which for formal business meals. "With personal and dining etiquette, [there are] some basic rules," says Janes. "Once you know them, you can bend them. It's when you don't know the rules and you bend them, you show yourself up."

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This article was originally published in the October 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Missed Manners.

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