You Smell Nice! – Professional etiquette for young lawyers (1)

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Professional circles and social media in Nigeria went agog with the above captioned phrase for different reasons some weeks ago. If there ever was a case study for interview protocol, it would be this set of facts. Following the conclusion of an interview, both interviewer and interviewee post a snippet of the proceedings on social media.

As reported, the interviewee had shared a supposed compliment with the interviewer and the recipient found the comment rude and shared sentiments on the phrase, “You smell nice”. For many, it became a gender argument and several diatribes were served on both men and women creating blurred lines as to what really was in issue.

The primary question was and remains the propriety or otherwise of the “compliment” made by a candidate following a job interview. Social media has democratised access and, in many cases, it may be difficult to discern what is right to do. More so, there are several unwritten rules and protocol which are no longer taught and especially in professional settings, people often learn by winging it or after many blunders. As a young lawyer, the concept of ethics is not strange.

A significant part of our curriculum in law school speaks to rules of professional conduct and what is considered fit and proper behaviour. Nonetheless, when many young lawyers get into the world of work, they are often confused and at loss as to the protocol for engagement in such spaces. I make a few points in the following paragraphs and I hope that they provide reasonable guidance on some of this elephant in the room called professional etiquette.

Using social media

I will like to start with the issue of the use of social media; social media is a very excellent tool for personal enhancement, but it is to be properly managed. The lines are often unclear because of the interweave of our basic activities with social media. Notwithstanding this, there are unwritten rules about the kind of information that is to be shared about professional activities. Interviews or the outcomes of these and similar activities relating to employment relations are best kept discreet

. There are several examples of candidates and employees who have lost jobs or opportunities just because of an indiscreet post or share on social media. Your digital track is very critical, and you have to intentionally curate the content you share, endorse or publish.


Job interviews are mostly feared because candidates do not often get insight into what the details of the interview could be and, in many cases, the performance pressure on candidates makes them flustered or flippant. Some in trying to cover fear up share compliments, speak about unnecessary points and are generally intrusive and patronising because they are trying to compensate for the apprehension felt.

Like with any other professional forum, first impressions matter and you should come off as confident and comfortable, but a line is always to be drawn between confidence and intrusion and it truly can be confusing. For instance, when you walk into an office (especially that of a superior), it is not appropriate to take a seat without being invited to do so.

This is not indicative of a lack of confidence or weakness, it is one of those unwritten rules. Also, avoid personal comments like a plague; “you smell nice” may be a compliment but where you are not aware of the emotional disposition of your subject, it may be the gateway to trouble. Keep it strictly formal, if per chance, the conversation is largely convivial, it is still not a licence to make personal comments.

Relationships are organic, and they naturally evolve in the work space as well. It is important to keep it formal until it is clear that there is a mutually acceptance of the nature and extent of the relationship. The rule of thumb is to keep it formal until there is a mutual acknowledgement of a relationship. It is better to err on the side of caution than to be caught in an inappropriate situation.

 Speak rig

With the advent of several social media platforms, speech in the workplace could be conflated with a group of friends chatting. The use of “hi guys” addressing formal colleagues is not ordinarily not appropriate but is now commonplace. The use of slangs and nicknames in formal correspondence is also inappropriate.

It is important to be professional and cautious and err on the side of caution than be caught in weird situations because the subject or recipient takes exception to the speech. Again, who your subject is, is as important as what you are saying. The rule of thumb is to stay conservative and respectful. This would create a safety net and prevent verbal gaffes at work.

While the lines seem to be slightly blurred, being professional in communication is critical to personal growth and perception and should not be taken lightly. Even with the familiar, it is important to be tactful in speech and communication.

OYEYEMI ADERIBIGBE is a Senior Associate at Templars. She is also the current Vice-Chairman of the Young Lawyers’ Forum of the Nigerian Bar Association -Section on Business Law and the Young Lawyers’ Committee Liaison Officer of the African Regional Forum of the International Bar Association.

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