Etiquette coach tries to help job hunters

"Mind your manners" isn't just something your grandma says to you at the dinner table anymore.

With double-digit unemployment and gloomy economic outlook, good manners might be the difference between landing a job and continuing the search. At least that's how Terri Tillman looks at her profession.

The Ceres resident founded The Etiquette & Soft Skills Institute a year and a half ago to, as her mission statement reads, "restore social and professional decorum today for tomorrow."

Since then she has contracted with Alliance Worknet and the Ceres Unified School District Project YES (Youth Employment Services) to provide business etiquette training to young job seekers.

She also offers individual and corporate training, which she says can help people not only get a job but advance their careers.

"People are concerned, they are realizing how ferocious the job market is right now," Tillman said. "The very definition of etiquette is doing what makes other people feel comfortable. Business people like to do business with people they like. That's why you need to understand the rules of etiquette."

Her five-day classes with the Alliance Worknet and Project YES cover everything from office attire to interview skills and the always important business dinner. Students practice how to shake hands and which fork to use.

Students said the lessons are about more than just minding their P's and Q's. The workshops have helped them understand why good etiquette matters in the job market.

"I never really thought about etiquette before," said Katie Holbrook, an 18-year-old Ceres resident who is part of the CareerQuest Green Jobs program. "But going through this, there is a lot to learn, even down to your handshake."

Students learn things from how to address a business letter to what makes an appropriate gift for colleagues.

Tillman stresses that workplace decorum stretches outside the office. Employees, especially those new to the work force, can walk into a minefield when out with co-workers in social settings like parties, sporting events and even the gym.

"We hear how to dress, how to answer questions," said 19-year-old Modesto resident Esmaralda Arevalo, who is looking for work. "Hopefully it will make us look better and the employers will want us (instead of) someone else."

Job loss led to idea

Tillman started the school after losing her own job with AT&T because of downsizing. It was during her 23 years with the company that she began taking note of how people handled themselves in business situations.

"I always thought I'd love to help keep people from making those mistakes," she said. She received her certification from a longtime professional etiquette consultant and then started the school out of her home.

Tillman stressed that even those who currently have jobs could use a refresher on workplace decorum. Tillman said she hears from employers all the time about problems in the office ranging from misuse of cell phones to improper work attire.

She said with 15.3 percent unemployment in Stanislaus County, employers have plenty of options to replace underperforming or badly behaving workers.

"Etiquette isn't inherent, it needs to be learned," she said. "People need to practice (good manners) and constantly update them. At the end of our sessions, I emphasize that these are the skills that will help them outshine their competition."

Private sessions with Tillman begin at $99. She has worked with companies such as Macy's and spoken to the Modesto Chamber of Commerce and Rotary clubs in the past.

"People ask me, 'So what is it about manners?' " Tillman said. "It's not about teetotaling or petit fours. It's about establishing a rapport. And that's just good business."

For more on The Etiquette and Soft Skills Institute call 531-9910 or visit

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at or 578-2284.