Etiquette at work

A lesson from failure of New York’s ‘Don’t Honk’ rule

In The New York Times last Tuesday, a headline announced, “Stop the Honking. New York Suggests It’s a Lost Cause.” The article explained that the Big Apple has a noise ordinance banning honking, but that it is rarely enforced. In fact, it is so rarely enforced (only 206 summonses were issued in 2012 compared with 141,000 summonses issued for the use of cellphones by drivers) that the Transportation Department is removing signs from lampposts across the city that say “Don’t Honk, $350 Penalty.”

“The move,” the Times reported, “was part of an effort to declutter the streets of often ignored signs.”

New York’s “Signgate” reminded me of a key point I make in every seminar I teach: the importance of being on time. As part of the discussion, I recount the experience I had with one of our first clients. The organization had about 250 employees, and we were to teach our business etiquette program to them in groups of 25, beginning with the most senior people. Start time was 2 p.m., but at 2, the room was virtually empty.


People straggled in, and finally we got started at 2:20 p.m. Apologies were mixed with explanations that meetings routinely did not start on time. This pattern of behavior was ingrained in the organization. Being late is nothing more than being disrespectful of others and demonstrates your disorganization.

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I then pointed out that culture change was possible. To do it they needed to establish a clear expectation and then abide by it. Nobody would be held accountable for past transgressions, but from here on forward, the expectation would be that people arrive on time and meetings start on time.

By the next scheduled session word had gotten out and most participants arrived by 2 p.m., and the presentation started on time. By the third session, everybody was on time. The key here was to set an expectation and hold people accountable. One of the biggest mistakes companies can make is to make rules or set expectations and then not abide by them.

The organization was willing to change and in the process became a better place for establishing an on-time culture. New York set an expectation about establishing a tolerable street-noise culture but was unwilling to enforce it. As long as that’s the case, it’s time for the signs to come down.

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