Showing Deference in the Workplace

In this business casual world we now work in, it’s startling how casual we’ve also become with our behavior and communication.  A relaxed work environment can be good – to a point.  Too much informality can lead to careless remarks, absent manners, and ill feelings.  It isn’t long before misunderstandings, rudeness, negligence, and even lawsuits enter the picture.  According to Rude Awakenings: Overcoming the Civility Crisis in the Workplace (Dearborn Trade, 2002), 78% of respondents to one study reported aggressive and disrespectful behavior in the workplace.  There is a real need to create a work environment filled with courtesy, self-restraint, and respect.  A good way to start is with how you show deference to others.

Deference is an act of high regard and respect owed an elder, superior or visitor.  You show respect in the ways you stand for others, take a seat at a table, move through doors, shake hands, and orchestrate introductions.  In a purely social situation, defer to the females or elders in the group and help them with doors, taking a seat, etc.  In business settings, deference is based upon rank.

Who has the higher rank?  Defer to clients and prospects because they’re the people who keep you in business.  Visitors require respect because, until you are introduced to them, you don’t know who they are in relation to yourself and your organization.  Superiors within your company deserve special regard because they outrank you.  Many American businesses operate as flat organizations with no traditional hierarchy, but there are still employees with titles and positions above you that call for special honors.

One of the biggest blunders people make in the workplace is assuming they are on a first name basis with everyone else.  Don’t make this mistake!  Until you have an established business relationship with someone or have been invited to do otherwise, address others using an honorific (“Mr.”, “Ms”, “Dr.”, etc.) with their last name.  This holds true even if they call you by your first name.  Using honorifics and last names displays class and sophistication.  Exception: If you can quickly surmise that you are about the same age and rank as the other person, you may call them by their first name.

Here are some additional tips for showing respect in the workplace:


  • When anyone of a higher rank (superior, customer, visitor) enters an office or meeting room, the people present in the room should stand, regardless of gender.  The exception to this rule is when that higher-ranking person frequents that space on a regular basis.
  • Be sure to stand whenever you are introduced to someone.


  • Do not take a seat in an office or meeting room until the senior employees or key players have themselves taken a seat.  Wait to be motioned to a seat or simply fill in the seats around them.


  • Do not keep customers or visitors waiting.  Greet them yourself in the reception area or arrange to have them escorted to you.  When they leave, escort them out personally.
  • When you are handed a business card, take the time to look it over carefully.  Do not immediately stuff it away in a pocket or bag.  Ask questions about it, comment on the logo or advertising slogan, or verify the web site or email address.  Asking questions about the information on their card can be the starting point for interesting small talk.
  • When a customer flies in from another city, consider meeting them at the airport and driving them to the office yourself.  This is common practice in many other countries; Americans would be wise to adopt this practice.  It makes a great first impression.

    © 2017 Jill Bremer • All Rights Reserved