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Don't Eat Soup with a Fork: Etiquette Tips from HR’s Own Miss Manners

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In this article, you'll discover how Colleen Rickenbacher took her passion for people and turned it into an HR etiquette business. Today, after opening her own business and receiving numerous awards, she continues to thrive in the HR industry.

Imagine Miss Manners in an HR department, and you might get an image of Colleen Rickenbacher. With a unique twist on a relatively typical field, Rickenbacher applies her HR expertise to a setting outside the office and breakroom: the dinner table. Yes, the lost art of etiquette has returned, and this HR star thrives at dishing it out to needy companies and corporations.

Her Journey Begins: Education and Experience

A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, Rickenbacher began her unconventional HR career as a secretary and quickly acquired great insights about the “abilities and knowledge of the support team in companies.” Next, she moved into event planning and the hospitality field, working in incentive travel and eventually with the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I was [also] the VP of customer service but basically an event planner for 35 years,” she says. “I loved this job, especially the creativity of designing and implementing a complete event.”

However, her career path was soon to change. And all it took was one meal.

“I was at lunch with the team from the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, and I was watching everyone eat and order off the menu at the expense of our host. The excessive meals weren’t so bad until I watched them ask for a doggy bag. That’s what threw me over the edge.

“I went back to our human resources person, Sherry Andrus, and told her how someone needed to come into our offices and train our staff to dress more [appropriately for] business…meal[s], and how we desperately needed a course in dining etiquette,” Rickenbacher continues. “I stressed how important this was because of our exposure to our clients and just the public. After she listened to me, she then responded, ‘Good, you do it!’ I looked at her and told her I didn’t know how to do this training, and she only responded [with], ‘You did a good job just telling me.’ That was the start of my career.”

Wouldn’t Miss Manners be proud?

Rickenbacher continues, “I will always thank Sherry for leading me in the right direction [for] my career. Maybe we didn’t have the budget to bring in a person, but she trusted me and allowed me to start a whole new career.”

Opening Her Own Business: The Rewards and Challenges

And she did. On September 1, 2001, Rickenbacher began her own company, a feat she deems her greatest accomplishment. However, she admits that “[It probably wasn’t] the best time for anyone to start a new company, especially as a speaker. Not a great demand at that time in our country for etiquette.”

It took almost five years for her business to boom, but Rickenbacher persevered, and today, she is the president of a thriving company.

“I absolutely love my job,” she says, her enthusiasm almost palpable. “I enjoy the interaction with the audience. I love their reaction to what I’m teaching them, and I truly think we all need a little more etiquette in all we do. I especially love it when I see people a year or more later and they come up to me to tell me stories about things they saw people do or how they remembered a few things that I taught them. That makes it all worthwhile.”

But despite the positives, this HR etiquette expert has faced adversaries as well. Trying to convince companies and corporations of the importance of staff training, for example, has been one challenge Rickenbacher has faced throughout her career.

Regarding the naivety of companies, she says, “They want to be the [most] competitive companies and reach their bottom lines, but without a well-educated, trained staff, that’ll be difficult. Your team needs to work and act like professionals, and that [includes] their email etiquette, their phone manners, their global interactions, their [attire]…[and] their [dining etiquette]. It all makes a big difference in this very competitive world.”

The Importance of Customer Service and Leadership Skills

Beyond these professional struggles, Rickenbacher acknowledges grander HR issues as well. Customer service and leadership skills are two areas she believes lack attention.

“We are working in a fast-paced, no-time-to-stop-and-think society,” she says. “A lot of us are now doing the jobs of two to three [people] and have stringent deadlines. It becomes difficult to be nice to the person sitting next to you in the office, or the person you are talking to on the phone, when we set ourselves up with such high expectations and timelines.”

Her solution?

“I promise it doesn’t take any longer to give a smile than a frown, or to be rough and mean to a person than it does to offer a bit of advice or assistance. We just need to breathe and stop for a second, and think how you would like to be treated.”

Proof of Her Success: Publications and Achievements

Her expertise in etiquette has gained recognition in numerous ways, including awards for her programs and leadership skills. And while rewards have come to Rickenbacher through her training and speaking, success has also come to her through her writing.

“I [wrote] one book, Be On Your Best Business Behavior, back in 2002, and now it is in its third edition. So that’s a great accomplishment. I am literally in the middle of writing my next book, Be On Your Best Cultural Behavior, [which] will be released in July 2008.”

Her own accomplishments aside, Rickenbacher herself offers praise to someone in her life who has influenced her the most: her mom.

“She was such a great lady. She was classy and lead purely by example. She taught me from a very young age the right and wrong. As my career advanced, the thought I always kept in the back of my mind is that I wanted my mother to be proud of me, and I never wanted her to see my name in the paper for the wrong reason. That pretty much worked and still keeps me extremely ethical and considerate of other people.”

HR Advice: All Those Interested in HR, Listen Up!

From the office to the breakroom to the dinner table, Rickenbacher’s unique HR expertise covers it all. What advice, then, does she have for young professionals interested in an HR career?

“My best advice to people starting out in this field is know what your audience wants. You can't do the same program or speech for everyone. It just doesn't work. It applies the same [to] HR. You might have rules and guidelines, but people are all different. You need to know what makes them the way they are and what they want to see, hear, and learn. Once you understand that, then you are one with your audience.”

Q. What do you like to do outside of your job? Any odd hobbies/interests?
Are you married? Do you have children? Can you explain a little about your personal life outside of work?

A. Believe it or not, I love to bowl. I just don't get to do it too often, but at least I always break 100. I love to read and do it everyday, no matter how tired or late it might be. I love a good romance novel or suspense thriller. I also love to see a good movie, and dance. Married 14 years to Steve, and we have three kids, but more importantly we have three grandchildren that we love to spend time with as much as possible. Two of the grandkids live in Dallas…and one is in Nashville…They are absolutely grand.

Q. What CD is in your CD player right now?
A. I actually listen to books on tape and [am currently] listening to 7th Heaven by James Patterson. But if it were a music CD, it would be Motown or oldies. I have always loved that music.

Q. What is the last magazine you read?
A. I do read O magazine and Southern Living for fun, and then National Speakers magazine and most of the trade journals for business.

Q. What is your favorite TV show?
A. I honestly don’t have a show that I watch regularly. I am more [into] movies and love Lifetime. I also love to cry, but it has to have a happy ending. I am definitely not into the reality shows, except of course Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Squad — which appears regularly on Country Music Television (CMT) — because I am part of that show.

Q. Who is your role model?
A. I have a few personal mentors and role models that have helped me tremendously with my career, and I will forever be indebted to them. My other role models are two total opposites but yet have some similarities. My first is Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan. I read her book several years ago and just loved everything she stands for and has done internationally for education, peace, and development. My other is Bette Midler. I told you they were different! I just absolutely love Bette Midler and her “do-it-all attitude.” Plus, I love her songs and acting. She is close to my age (she is actually older!!), and I have just followed her in her career. I did get to see her perform and totally enjoyed her show. Would love to meet both of my role models, but I guess I'll be happy with just seeing Bette Midler.

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 experts  settings  right and wrong  exposure  VP  Pennsylvania State University  graduates  HR  creativity  industry

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