Burns Night traditions and etiquette

This poetic and gastronomic extravaganza pays tribute to the Scottish national poet, Robbie Burns (1759–96). It was first held on 25 January 1801, on Robbie Burns’s birth date, just five years after his death. A group of nine friends and patrons, organised by the Reverend Hamilton Paul, gathered together in his family home, Burns Cottage in Alloway, to memorialise the poet. Even at this stage the celebration embraced many familiar practices: a haggis was ‘addressed’, toasts were drunk, and Burns’s work was extolled.

Within a year, Burns Clubs were springing up all over Paisley and Greenock and an annual tradition was born. As Scottish settlers travelled across the globe, they continued to revere their national poet, adhering to the Burns night tradition, and today there are over 1,000 Burns clubs worldwide.

A Burns night can follow the time-honoured rituals to the letter, and may be quite a formal event. It can also simply be a gathering of friends, who enjoy a genial ‘themed’ get-together in the grim midwinter.  While close adherence to the traditions may not be essential, a number of elements of the evening are de rigueur: the consumption of haggis, cock-a-leekie soup and neeps and tatties, liberal intake of whisky (accompanied by toasts), the recital of choice samples of Burns’s verse, and renditions of his songs.

The host of a Burns night is responsible for orchestrating this gastronomic and poetic jamboree. It is a good idea, therefore, to plan it in advance. Review the traditional order of events (set out below) and decide which elements you want to retain. Burns suppers demand contributions from guests – from reciting, to toasting, to speech-giving. You will need to allocate these roles well in advance and brief your guests carefully, or the whole evening will lose its unique flavour. On the night itself, you will have to be very conscious of timings and your programme, and will need to keep events moving along. Copious intake of Scotch whisky may render your guests raucous and uncooperative, so be prepared to be assertive.

Guests will need to accept that this is an unusual event, requiring more energy and commitment than the average dinner party. If they are asked to contribute, they should dedicate some time to preparing – whether it is a toast, a recital or a witty speech. Don’t be a party-pooper, who undermines the whole event by not fully engaging in the entertainment. Be prepared to cooperate and to follow your host’s lead.

Above all, relax and enjoy a convivial evening, which celebrates the spirit of the Bard and good fellowship.

Burns Night Itinerary

Gathering

As the guests together, they can greet each other , admire each other’s tartan and raise a glass. Some traditional Scottish music playing in the background will set the mood

The Selkirk Grace

The host/chairman offers the opening grace, also known as the ‘Grace at Kircudbright’. Ideally at this point the participants will enjoy their Cock-a-leekie soup.:

Some hae meat and canna eat,

And some wad eat that want it;

But we hae meat, and we can eat,

And sae the Lord be thankit.

Parade of the Haggis

Traditionally the haggis is piped in on a silver platter, accompanied by the chef.  Most home entertainers will not be able to provide a Highland piper, but some traditional Scottish music on an iPad will suffice.

Address to a Haggis

A designated addresser should now embark on a spirited rendition of Burns’s poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ (or an edited version of it): ‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!’  He or she, or the chairman, then slices the haggis open. To avoid an explosion, make a slit in the skin before it reaches the table.

The Toast

A simple toast to ‘The Haggis’, with raised glasses, and the meal is ready to begin.

Immortal Memory

It is now time for a designated speaker to deliver the Immortal Memory address, which outlines the story of Robert Burns and looks his work, ideally highlighting aspects that are relevant to the assembled participants. A further toast to the ‘immortal memory of the Bard of Ayr’ finished this part of the evening.

The Entertainment

Songs, music and readings should now follow and participants should read works of their own choosing – they do not have to be exclusively by Burns, they may be works of other Scottish poets or stories and anecdotes about his life. During this phase of the evening guests can eat pudding or cheese and yet more whisky. This is the point when, the host/chairman must be assertive and organised, ensuring that every speaker is given his/her allocated slot, and is not interrupted when speaking

Toast to the Lassies

This is a light-hearted tribute to the ladies, which pokes affectionate fun at their various foibles and eccentricities, while making occasional reference to the work of Robbie Burns. It should end on a conciliatory note with a toast ‘to the lassies’.

Reply from the Lassies

This should be a witty rejoinder, which decries the men’s social inferiority and lack of refinement. Reference should be made the Bard, perhaps a wry comparison with the men of the day. It should end on a complimentary note.

Closing Remarks

The Chairman thanks the guests for their attendance and good company, and now is a suitable time for a designated guest to voice general thanks for the Chairman’s efforts, proposing a final toast to the Chairman.

Auld Lang Syne

Before finally switching off for the night a rousing rendition of this sentimental Scottish song will cause general hilarity, especially if plenty of whisky has been consumed (make sure to circulate the words, which no one can actually remember!).

Tartan Tips

In the spirit of Robbie Burns, wear at least a bit of tartan – a hat, a tie, a scarf, or even a full kilt. In Robbie Burn’s day this traditional Highland woven cloth, whose pattern identified individual clan affiliations, had fallen into disuse. The British government had banned tartan after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, aiming to crush the rebellious Scottish clan system. Tartan was revived in 1825 when George IV visited Edinburgh, but many of the traditional patterns had been lost, and new ‘original’ tartans had to be reinvented. The Victorians had a passion for all things Scottish, and tartan became hugely popular. Today, it is a symbol of Scottish pride, and therefore a suitable choice for an event honouring Scotland’s most celebrated poet.

The Bill o’Fare

A typical Burns supper consists of the following:

Starter

Cock-a-leekie (chicken, leek and prune soup)

Main course

Haggis (cooked, minced sheep’s offal mixed with suet,  oatmeal and seasoning encased in a sheep’s stomach), neeps and tatties (swedes and potatoes)

Pudding

Clootie Dumpling (a spiced fruit pudding boiled in cloth, or clootie) or Tipsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle).

Cheeseboard

Served with bannocks (oatcakes) accompanied by wine, ale and lashings of whisky.

Why manners matter

Good manners are not about empty gestures, arcane rituals or social exclusivity. They are about being self-aware, keenly observant of other people, and ensuring that all your social interactions are positive and agreeable.

While we respect the etiquette of days gone by, and inevitably retain vestiges of the social codes that were religiously observed by previous generations, it is essential to recognise that we live in a rapidly changing society. The drawn-out, leisurely rituals of greetings, introductions and small talk enjoyed by our ancestors have been diminished and streamlined in our connected, dynamic modern world. Our myriad means of communication – from texts, to emails, to FaceTime – have curtailed the old-fashioned niceties, and we have all had to develop ways of using new technology considerately, and not allowing its speed and convenience to eradicate simple courtesy.

In an increasingly informal society, where hierarchies are not invariably acknowledged and respect is frequently earned, behaviour has been moderated. Many of the social faux-pas of a bygone generation would scarcely cause a raised eyebrow today. At a time when social standing was minutely calibrated and corroborated by every nuance of behaviour, manners were crucial attributes, which were constantly assessed and evaluated. These judgments are increasingly out of place in today’s society, but the positive benefits of good manners are still universally recognised.

There is no denying that the basic ‘toolkit’ of good manners – from saying please and thank you, to graciously introducing people, and making polite small talk – still plays a vital role in human communication. These common courtesies oil the wheels of social intercourse, ensuring that everyone is noted and acknowledged, and that nobody feels dismissed or discounted. 

Despite the increasing informality of society, there are undoubtedly still occasions, such as weddings or white tie dinners, when we rely on well-established conventions to give the events gravitas. At Debrett’s we want to ensure that nobody will ever feel cowed by social anxiety or uncertainty. By providing comprehensive guidance on all kinds of formal events, we hope to equip everyone with the information they will need to negotiate the rituals of answering invitations, adhering to dress codes, and attending a formal dinner.

Good manners are of paramount importance in every aspect of our lives, from our most significant rituals to our mundane, everyday interactions. They will help us to navigate any difficulties that come our way, smooth out conflict, and gloss over social awkwardness. Far from being outdated or outmoded, they are a vital survival tool.

Plant power: the etiquette of Veganuary

There is no better time to review your diet than in January, when you find yourself caught up in the sickly aftermath of carnivorous Christmas excess, replete with resolutions to moderate your intake in the new year, and choose the healthy, rather than the hedonistic, path.

Veganuary’s annual campaign works with businesses to improve provision of vegan food in shops and restaurants, and inspires people to go vegan for the month of January. They aim to create a global movement that campaigns for compassionate food choices and ends animal farming.

Many of us will be inspired by this mission (and indeed for some of us it may be the beginning of a life-long adherence to veganism). But it is important to be conscious of the impact your regime is having on other people, and to ensure that you are not inconveniencing them.

Vegans abstain from all animal by-products – dairy and eggs as well as meat and fish –  and this can certainly give rise to catering challenges. If you are hosting a vegan in the coming weeks, bear in mind that many supermarkets now offer vegan substitutes, and there are a plethora of simple, and delicious, vegan recipes available online, so it is well worth making the effort to accommodate their dietary choices. You might even find your preconceptions and prejudices about vegan food are overturned.

If you are experimenting with veganism, ensure that you warn your hosts that you are doing so well before you arrive for lunch or dinner. A careless ‘oh, didn’t I tell you that I’ve gone vegan in January?’ as you’re confronted by a lovingly-prepared Sunday roast with all the trimmings, will inevitably upset your hosts, and may well send them into a panic. It doesn’t matter how much you protest that you’re happy with the roast vegetables, they will feel that they have fallen short as hosts, even though it is clearly not their fault.

When you do forewarn hosts, it is a good idea to offer them a simple alternative. Explain that you’re eating vegan food, and say ‘but don’t worry about me – I’d be really happy with a vegan ready meal’. It’s very unlikely that you will be offered a ready meal, but it will ensure that the hosts don’t feel too pressurised by your dietary requirements, probably feeling ‘I can do better than that’.

Resist the temptation to lecture or virtue-signal. The unkind characterisations of vegans as holier-than-thou mouthpieces for their cause is less prevalent nowadays, but if you are experimenting with veganism resist the urge to take the moral high ground or to convert others with too much zeal. On the other hand, you should marshal your facts and be ready to defend and explain your choices if people are interested in your diet, or want to challenge or provoke you.

If you genuinely feel that veganism has done you a power of good, then you will naturally be the best ambassador for the cause, and your healthy glow will need no further explanation.

How to say sorry

A sincere apology should always be offered when your actions have had a negative impact on other people. Even if you do not fully understand why someone is so upset, respect their feelings, and accept that your actions are the root of the problem.

Don’t pass the buck, or use your apology as a way of blaming someone else. Don’t plead mitigating or extenuating circumstances, or engage in retrospective regrets: “With hindsight, I should have…” Don’t argue that your misdeeds were essentially based on a misunderstanding of salient circumstances. Take full responsibility for your actions. Never ever use the phrase ”I’m sorry if I offended/disappointed/enraged you.” You must fully own the fault – no ifs, not buts.

An apology will be much more persuasive if you acknowledge, and even reiterate, the nature of the fault: “I’m sorry I was so irritable last night” is more specific than a simple “I’m sorry”, and actually recognises the other person’s grievance. Never temper your apologies with accusations or insinuations: it will negate the impact if an apology is immediately followed by self-justification or further criticism. If you have committed a real faux-pas consider sending a handwritten note – but only after you have offered a verbal apology, otherwise it will look like cowardice.

The British urge to apologise for other people’s actions is famous. If someone barges into you, a muttered “sorry” is misplaced. Constant, needless apologising, when you are not the actual offender, devalues the currency, and will lessen the impact of a genuine, heartfelt mea culpa. It is important that you recognise when an apology is called for and that you sincerely acknowledge the magnitude of the offence.

How to do small talk like the Victorians

It’s party season and it’s perfectly natural to feel the prickling of social anxiety, especially after the strictures of the last two years. Some of us may well feel that our conversational aptitude is diminished, and may be experiencing feelings of dread about social occasions.

But the art of conversation is not particularly arcane. If you follow these basic rules, conversation should flow, and social awkwardness will soon be forgotten:

•Listen carefully, and respond to what people are saying.

•Don’t dominate the conversation; make sure you ask plenty of questions.

•Ask open questions that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.

•Don’t be afraid to open the conversation with observations on well-worn topics: the weather, the surroundings, the food. It will break the ice.

•Don’t try too hard to impress with witticisms or controversial views. Small talk is by its very nature light and inconsequential.

Pity the Victorians, who were confronted by a battery of proscriptions and rules, haughty pronouncements and disapproving observations, all laid out in alarming detail in best-selling etiquette manuals.

We have been browsing through Routledge’s Shilling Manual of Etiquette, published in 1875, an indispensable guide for socially aspiring ladies and gentlemen. While some of the advice is severe and repressive, there are several points that still resonate today:

 “Long arguments in general company, however entertaining to the disputants, are tiresome to the last degree to all others.  You should always endeavour to prevent the conversation from dwelling too long upon one topic.”

“Never interrupt a person who is speaking. It has been aptly said that ‘if you interrupt a speaker in the middle of his sentence, you act almost as rudely as if, when walking with a companion, you were to thrust yourself before him, and stop his progress’.”

“There is a certain distinct but subdued tone of voice which is peculiar to only well-bred persons. A loud voice is both disagreeable and vulgar. It is better to err by the use of too low than too loud a tone.”

“It is considered extremely ill-bred when two persons whisper in society, or converse in a language with which all present are not familiar. If you have private matters to discuss, you should appoint a proper time and place to do so, without paying others the ill compliment of excluding them from your conversation.”

“Do not be always witty, even though you should be so happily gifted as to need the caution. To outshine others on every occasion is the surest road to unpopularity.”

“In order to meet the general needs of conversation in society, it is necessary that a gentlewoman should be acquainted with the current news and historical events of at least the last few years.”

“Scandal is the least excusable of all conversational vulgarities.”

“Never talk upon subjects of which you know nothing, unless it be for the purpose of acquiring information. Many young men imagine that because they frequent exhibitions and operas they are qualified judges of art. No mistake is more egregious or universal.”

“Remember that people take more interest in their own affairs than in anything else which you can name. If you wish your conversation to be thoroughly agreeable, lead a mother to talk of her children, a young lady of her last ball, an author of his forthcoming book, or an artist of his exhibition picture. Having furnished the topic, you need only listen; and you are sure to be thought not only agreeable, but thoroughly sensible and well-informed.”

How to keep calm this Christmas

The festive season all too often strains good manners to the limit. Everyone is expected to behave well on this much-hyped special day, and there are added expectations this year because Christmas 2020 was blighted by the Covid pandemic and imminent lockdown. Fears that this might happen again have intensified our feelings of anticipation and nervousness about the Christmas season.

It is scarcely surprising that, despite our best intentions, claustrophobic family get-togethers and over-indulgence can easily lead to tension, cross words and disharmony. Follow these simple rules to avoid a Christmas Day crisis:

• Don’t be a Scrooge – approach the day with an unerring smile, an optimistic outlook and positive feelings of good will. Remember, it’s only one day out of 365! If you have agreed to be a Christmas guest, you are under a moral obligation to enter into the Christmas spirit – no cynicism, no grumpiness, no sulking.  If you are an irredeemable Scrooge, then don’t inflict yourself, or your negativity, on other people at Christmas time.

• If you’re the Christmas host, beware the tendency to exalt your own time-honoured Christmas rituals (“We always go to midnight mass, open our presents at 11am, eat our lunch at 2pm” etc.). Try and make tentative suggestions (“We normally eat at 2pm, is that OK with you?) rather than confident pronouncements, so that your guests don’t feel like they’re being steamrollered through a sacrosanct routine.

• Grandparents and members of the older generation, even if they’re doting, will soon begin to wilt if they’re cooped up for hours on end with raucous, over-excited children. Always try and provide a quiet space, where the grown-ups can retreat for a restorative drink and civilised conversation. Remember older people may well need to take time out from the festivities – a retreat to their bedroom with a cup of tea for an hour or two, or a nap in front of the television – so ensure that they can do so without interruption or interference.

• Christmas is a special day for small children and you should do your best to accommodate their excitement. Don’t inflict agonisingly long meals on the them – allow them to get down from the table before the adults, as they’ll inevitably be anxious to get back to their presents. If they’re forced to take the day at the adult pace they’ll feel unhappy and restless and you’ll be the first to know about it….

• Give the day some structure. Spread out the main events (present-opening, lunch, games, TV) to ensure there aren’t too many hiatuses.

• Lay in generous supplies of champagne or sparkling wine. Glasses can be dispensed throughout the day when spirits are flagging.

• Always react with surprise and delight, no matter what you’ve been given. Lack of taste is regrettable but it’s not a criminal offence, so you can take the time to be gracious and thankful.

• If you’re in the panic-stricken last stages of lunch-preparation, don’t be a martyr. You might need somebody to help with some pre-emptive washing up or table-laying, so just ask. Most guests will leap to their feet, delighted to have something constructive to do.

• If you’re a Christmas guest, be punctual and arrive laden with goodies. Be assiduous about offering to help, and keep an eye open for signs of panic and hysteria in your host – you might be able to step in and save the day. But if your offers are refused, remember no means no.  For some hosts, a pack of well-meaning guests bumbling around their kitchen making an effort to help is the final straw.

• Go with the flow. Whether it’s charades or cards, an afternoon stroll or the Queen’s Christmas broadcast, it’s good manners to muck in. Remember, it’s only a day or two…

• Ban mobile phones from the lunch table. Christmas is all about conviviality and conversation, and a table-full of screen-fixated guests will instantly extinguish any Christmas spirit. There will inevitably be a plethora of festive texts and photo-sharing throughout the day, but make sure that the ritual of the Christmas meal is respected.

• Letters of thanks for hospitality and presents should be sent promptly and preferably received by the second week of January.

• Finally, don’t expect perfection. Certainly you should make every effort, either as a guest or a host, to help the day go with a swing. Plan ahead meticulously, decorate your home beautifully, cook delicious food, buy well-chosen presents, stock up on excellent drink. But don’t demand too much of yourself, your family or your guests. Building up your expectations of the day to dizzy heights will mean that mishaps and misunderstandings (however minor) are blown up out of all proportion – and that’s not what Christmas is about.

The etiquette of giving Christmas presents

It’s the time of year when we are all contemplating the annual Christmas gift-giving ritual. Buying presents can cause all sorts of anxieties and frustrations, but if you follow some simple guidelines it should be a pleasure for both giver and receiver:

• Ensure that you’re not a competitive present-giver: extravagant presents can cause embarrassment if they have not been reciprocated. Sometimes it’s useful to agree an upper expenditure limit well before Christmas.

• Never fall into the trap of buying a present that you really want for yourself, and that you fully intend to use, borrow or adopt. In many instances, this will be painfully obvious to the recipient, who will rightly feel overlooked and disregarded.

• Spend some time well before Christmas really thinking about your gift recipients. Try and dredge up memories of hobbies and enthusiasms and take careful note of lifestyle choices. That way you will avoid the basic error of giving, for example, a bottle of booze to a teetotaller, sinfully rich chocolate truffles to a weight-obsessed dieter, or the latest recipe book to someone who is allergic to the kitchen.

•If your memory is poor, keep a list of presents you have given. Repeat presents show an insulting lack of care.

• Some families circulate Christmas gift lists, which alleviate stress and ensure that gifts are really hitting the target. Other families will find this practice over-pragmatic and likely to destroy the mystique of the gift-giving season. These practices will be a well-established part of family lore. If you’re visiting another family, or spending Christmas with your in-laws for the first time, you will have to read the runes.  Have a confidential chat with a family member well before Christmas, and check out the prevailing ethos. Then adhere to it – even if it’s not your normal practice, it is only polite to comply.

• If you have guests coming for Christmas day, you must buy them a present, even if it is only a token gift. Sitting out the gift-opening ceremony without anything to open is just too poignant.

• Take time to plan, research online and shop – a last minute shopping expedition to a crowded town-centre will leave you frazzled and grumpy, and waiting for promised online deliveries in the immediate run-up to Christmas is just too stressful. Get gift receipts whenever possible, and keep them to hand.

• If you’re giving cash – often the only thing that moody teenagers crave – think about giving it in the form of a gift token (after checking that it’s for an appropriate store or service). Alternatively, supplement the cash contribution with a small, jokey present; it will soften the transactional nature of the gift.

• Avoid being flummoxed by unexpected gifts by ensuring that you build up a small pre-Christmas store of generic items: toiletries, chocolates or books are all good choices. Make sure you’ve got plenty of spare wrapping paper and you can avoid any last-minute embarrassment

• Even modest gifts will cause a shiver of pleasurable anticipation if they are well-wrapped and presented. Choose good quality wrapping paper, or – if you’re on a recycling binge you can use sensible brown paper and embellish it with glitter, ribbons, or hand-drawn decorations. The main thing is to look like you have taken some trouble.

• When you open presents do so calmly and deliberately. Don’t tear off the wrapping paper in a frenzy of excitement; instead, handle the parcel first and comment on the wrapping. Whatever is then revealed must be greeted with gracious enthusiasm. You can always find something positive to say about even the most unimaginative present. Never allow a crestfallen expression to flicker, even momentarily, across your face.

• Re-gifting is a potential minefield. Of course, recycling is to be applauded, and it’s certainly gratifying for an unwanted gift to find its way to appreciative hands, but employ great caution. You must be absolutely sure that the original present-giver and the recipient of the re-gifting will never cross paths. So don’t re-gift within your immediate social circle. It helps if you’re careful about noting down the provenance of unwanted gifts – re-gifting a present to the original giver is a faux pas that will be hard to forgive.

• The Christmas gift-giving binge may have taken several weeks in the planning, but it will be over in the blink of an eye. As you clear away the ocean of discarded wrapping paper and ripped-up packaging, be very careful to take careful note of the exact provenance of all the Christmas booty, especially if you’ve got small, over-excited children who are all too keen to move on to the next present, without noting who gave them what. Record-keeping is important because you must ensure that thank-you letters are sent out by the first week in January. You should certainly send them yourself, and if you have children, it is your job to ensure that they also comply.

Your embarrassing interview stories

The results are in! We had dozens of brilliant entries for our embarrassing interviews competition, but our judges have chosen a winner (plus two runners-up). Thank you to all those who entered. And here, for your enjoyment, are the top three!

Winner

I was being interviewed for a job via an online platform. I had set the room up nicely and positioned myself well – or so I thought. As I was responding to the fifth or so question, I suddenly noticed in the corner of my screen my dog busy getting jiggy with a floor cushion. Mortified, I adjusted myself discreetly, so my dog was now behind me. I could see the two interviewers on screen trying not to laugh. This was quickly interrupted by my dog breaking wind, which led the interviewers to start laughing and me to turn red. Humiliated I quickly said ‘That wasn’t me!’ Which seemed to make the situation more funny. I asked if I could let my dog out, but the interviewers said I had to introduce him first! Thankfully they had a sense of humour... JD

Runners up

One of the panel asked me what I was doing this week. I replied "Personally or professionally?" It sounded as though I presumed he was asking me on a date. The rest of the panel burst into laughter, and I immediately realised what I'd said. It was extremely awkward. However I did end up working with them for 5 years after that. So I must have said something right. - LB

I had an interview with the local school board after the lunch hour. I was sure my suit was pressed, hair impeccable and my breath fresh! Well imagine my surprise when I got into the car AFTER the interview to find a large piece of lettuce stuck to my tooth, making me look not only toothless but I’m quite sure resembling a pirate!  - KT

Top tips to avoid interview embarrassment

•Check out the company beforehand to ensure that your clothes are in line with the prevailing culture. You’ll want to look smart, but a city suit and tie will look incongruous if everybody is in jeans and trainers.

•Research the route to the office and public transport options. Ensure that you arrive with plenty of time to spare.

•Before you enter the building give yourself a quick check in the mirror so that you can detect any embarrassing defects in your appeareance.

•At the interview, be wary of over-familiarity – it might be a test. It’s best to be polite, but not ingratiatingly so.

• Questions should be answered as directly as possible – experienced panels and interviewers have a built-in radar for recognising waffle.  

•If you don’t understand the question, say so, and ask for it to be repeated, or rephrased or explained.

• A deliberate pause when you are asked a question will not be detrimental – it shows that you are thinking about your answer.

•Sit upright, don’t cross your arms, and if you want to cross your legs be unostentatious about it. Try and keep your hands still and avoid fiddling with your face, hair or nails.

•If you’re really uncomfortable, then say so. Maybe there is something wrong with your chair, or you’re drenched with sweat. If you’re overcome it’s best to ask for a break in proceedings.

• It’s quite permissible to ask about the salary, conditions of employment, whether there is a staff canteen, etc etc. It isn’t a good idea to ask if you can have the first two weeks off in June before you’ve even been offered the job.

•If you’re having a video interview do your best to ensure that your backdrop is neat and tidy; it’s best if it looks bland rather than cluttered and messy.

•Guard against interruptions in video interviews by forewarning everyone in your household. Be especially vigilant about barring entry to small children and pets. If they breach your defences, be upfront and apologetic – don’t try and hide their activities from your interviewers.

How to deal with bullying in the workplace

Bullying is a toxic problem, which can severely impact the cohesion and harmony of the workplace. It may be attributable to one or two bad apples, or may be the symptom of more profound problems within the office culture – intense pressure to out-perform colleagues in order to climb the greasy pole can easily distort and poison office relationships.

Workplace bullying can cover a range of behaviour: verbal abuse, intrusive questions, offensive or sexual remarks, jokes or innuendo-laden remarks made at an individual’s expense. It can happen between colleagues, or a boss can bully a junior.

Some bullying is a group phenomenon: a group of individuals bond together to isolate or freeze out a colleague.

It is generally considered that behaviour is bullying if it is humiliating, offensive, intimidating, hostile or degrading. It can often be a fine line between a tough boss and an abusive one, but this line has to be drawn. Bullies, when called out, will often adopt the ‘can’t you take a joke or a bit of banter?’ defence, but this is open to challenge.

Cyberbullying

Unfortunately, in our online world, bullies have a whole range of new weapons in their armoury. They can take their bullying online, or onto the office intranet, or social networking sites, sharing photos for the purpose of ridicule, spreading scandal and scurrilous rumours, or creating groups that exclude you. They can use a shield of anonymity to undermine you or even create bogus profiles, which they can use to persecute you.

This form of bullying may take place in the virtual world, but it will have a very real life impact on you. In fact the insidious privacy of digital communication can be very sinister, making you feel stalked and persecuted.

Whether you are being bullied in person or online, follow these simple guidelines:

What to Do if You’re Being Bullied

•Corroborate: if you are suffering from bullying and there are witnesses, elicit their opinion.

Consult: if the bullying takes place in a private context, explain what has happened and seek the advice of an objective friend.

Catalogue: make a detailed record of what has happened, including examples of offensive remarks.

Complain: the main priority is to report the problem to a manager, or to Human Resources, and to give them clear instances – and evidence, if it exists – of the behaviour.

How to Deal with Bullying

Employers are held responsible for the wellbeing of their employees. As with all office behaviour, managers need to be vigilant about bullying. Above all, they should never condone the behaviour in the belief that ‘robust’ business relationships get results.

If you have evidence of a case of bullying in the office, it needs to be nipped in the bud, otherwise the situation will escalate and other staff will feel intimidated and discouraged. You need to make it clear to all your staff that you are committed to promoting dignity and respect at work.

•Talk to the bully, and do so as soon as their behaviour comes to your attention.

•Make it clear that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable,

• Where possible, confront the bully with evidence of his or her behaviour.

•Monitor the situation very carefully: if the bullying persists, you may have to escalate procedures against the culprit: from written warnings, to suspension and ultimately dismissal.

•Above all, carry out your threats: it’s no good blustering and saying you’ll take the issue to HR if it doesn’t stop and then failing to do so. This will demotivate everyone in the office, not least the complainant.

The etiquette of office gossip

In any large office, at any given time, there is usually a rumour to be picked up, but be very cautious about joining in the company tittle-tattle.

We all have our moments of weakness when we join the gossiping throng, with cries of ‘did he really? …’, and an occasional lapse is generally forgivable, but there are those who make a regular practice of maligning others or of spreading morale-lowering misinformation about the future of the company. Gaining a reputation as a rumour-monger or gossip is not a wise career move. For a while you may be the centre of attention at every tea break; sooner or later the rumour will reach the wrong ears, and then there will be trouble.

Gagging gossip

If you are in a position of authority, then you are entitled to take all reasonable steps to try to stop gossip proliferating. If you know who is responsible for the rumour-mongering, then you can confront them about what they are doing. If there is an element of truth in the rumour, then this may not be easy, and you may have to embark on a damage-limitation exercise. It may be the best you can do is appeal to whoever is spreading the rumour to stop, on the grounds that it is causing embarrassment or worse to the company. If the rumour is totally false, you may feel free to issue orders and threaten sanctions if the guilty party doesn’t comply.

What to do if you’re a victim of rumour or gossip

•Act quickly to refute the gossip.

Rumour-mongering can be like a drug in many ways – the longer people are allowed to indulge in it, the harder it becomes to give up. Remember that, if you don’t explicitly reject what is being said, many people will interpret your silence as proof that there was some truth in the rumour.

•Enlist a friend

Consult with a colleague whose opinion and advice you really trust. A friend will have a less emotional perspective on the matter, and may be a better judge of what’s really happening. They may know that the wisest thing to do is to let the whole affair blow over, or may offer to intervene on your behalf.

•Take it to a higher authority

If you don't know the source of the scandal, or if your attempts to scotch it are ineffective, then you have to take more serious action. You should go to a manager and explain to him or her what is happening – this is based on the assumption that the rumour is in fact true, but it may be the right thing to do even if it isn’t.

•Ensure that there is an adequate response

If the gossip is not stifled, then tell your manager that you are considering legal action. It may convince them that they really should do something to circumvent this. But remember, you should never threaten any action that you are not prepared to take.

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