3 things your teen needs to know about business etiquette

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Picture this: your high school student is applying to college or for a summer job. With your help he decides to send a thank you note by “snail mail” since it’s so easy for e-mails to get lost or blocked. Great idea, you think. Until you see the letter he has typed.

It has no name and address. It has no date. It is single-spaced. And it’s not signed by hand.
And that is just the letter.

The envelope? It has the address, for sure. But what it lacks is a title, a name and the name of the organization. Oops.

The ubiquity of e-mail has made the use of the phone or the mail seem a bit novel. But how do you capitalize on “old school” techniques while hammering home the importance of knowing correct business etiquette – all while maintaining your cool so it becomes a teaching moment?

As multiple generations—three and sometimes four-- interact in a school or workplace setting, frequent opportunities for embarrassment and misunderstanding exist.

What is considered basic professional behavior to Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers, not to mention members of the Greatest Generation, is often not even on the radar of Gen Y’s. We see this in speech patterns, ways of dressing, e-mail and texting trends, use of headphones while working…the list goes on.

This territory has been covered extensively so I won’t belabor the point too much here. What concerns me more are the para-professional things that can really hurt a young adult finding his way before he’s had a “real” job.

Letter writing is certainly one of those skills. Your teen may be an excellent writer, but business writing of course has its own rules. Make sure she understands the importance of being more formal when it’s required—and be certain he understands when that is the case.

Other items on this list include phone etiquette. How do your teen answer the phone, if at all?

As teens are now growing up with their own cell phones from an early age, the home phone has become less used.  Caller ID often takes the serendipity out of the call. And unless your teen has been in a work environment, she may not be exposed to formal phone conversations.

Don’t wait until she’s calling the college admissions office to find out that her phone skills are deficient.

Finally, consider your teen's attire, a potential minefield. With so many organizations having shifted to casual dress, it’s tough for even the most seasoned professionals to always get it right. This is where parents can help.

The rule of thumb is that, even if a company has a casual dress code, a candidate should still wear a suit for an interview. This goes for either a job or an internship, unless the internship involves physical and/or outdoor work.

However, if the interview is for a college interview or a volunteer position, khakis and a button-down shirt with a belt and shoes, not sneakers, are usually fine. In the case of a college interview, have him refer to the website for instructions.

You can also help him develop impeccable hygiene by suggesting he attend to facial hair, nails, etc. Girls should avoid heavy makeup, fragrance or dangly earrings or piercings. We’ve all heard about Gen Y’s going to interviews with nose rings, heavy tattoos and low-cut tank tops! The goal is to project a clean, well-groomed, fresh appearance.

If you help your child learn good business communication skills and manners and a professional look early, you will provide him or her with early access to all of the career-building tools.

When he wants to find a job or an internship, or seek a volunteer gig, he’ll have a much better chance of making a good impression.

The more exposure your son or daughter gets to the world of work, the more directed they will be as they move from college to career. --  And what parent doesn't want that?!

Allison Cheston is a New York City-based career adviser who works with mid-career executives and young adults who are in high school, college or are recent graduates. She blogs on career issues for young adults at In the Driver’s Seat, as well as at Forbes.com. And she blogs for mid-career professionals at The Examiner. A marketer and inveterate networker with a background in executive search, Cheston is the author of an upcoming book designed to help young adults from late high school through college develop strengths and interests and match them to internships, coursework and, ultimately, the right career.