Your Easy Guide to Workplace Etiquette

The word “etiquette” may conjure up the mental image of fancy dinners with too many forks or seemingly inane trivia, like how long guests have to send wedding gifts.

But at its heart, etiquette is a system of agreed upon behaviors that help human beings consistently treat other human beings with graciousness and consideration. In that respect, etiquette is just as relevant to modern business life as ever. In fact, with the rise of social media and open-plan offices, etiquette may be more important now than ever before.

The good news is that abiding by proper workplace etiquette is not difficult. Adopting a few simple attitudes, behaviors and habits can be all it takes to make you stand out as the thoughtful, well-mannered colleague with whom everyone wants to work. To make the biggest impact in the shortest time, focus your efforts on the three common faux pas that research shows have the most serious consequences in the workplace: inappropriate use of technology, unprofessionalism and careless discourtesy.

Use Your Technology Appropriately

There will always be differences of opinion, particularly between generations, about what constitutes appropriate engagement with technology in the workplace or in public places more generally. Experts, researchers and corporate policy makers agree, however, on some basic universal points of etiquette when it comes to workers using devices on the job. Consider:

  • Unplugging in meetings, shared spaces and work events. Browsing your email, sending texts or taking calls while in a meeting or business lunch signals to everyone else in the room that they are less important than whatever else you are doing. It can also lead to distractions and miscommunications if it causes you to miss part of what is being said. Wearing headphones or being glued to your devices while in public spaces, such as lobbies and elevators, sends the message that you are not interested in engaging with others. Workers who isolate themselves that way routinely miss opportunities for the types of brief, positive interactions that promote comfort and comradery among teams. If you must engage with your devices while with others, do so as discretely as possible and excuse yourself to your colleagues ahead of time. (E.g. “I apologize for having my phone out today – I’m assisting with another project on a tight deadline, and it is essential that I respond immediately to the project leader’s questions if they come up.”)
  • Using common sense and discretion when posting to social media. Regardless of whether you are using social media apps personally or professionally, it is never appropriate to insult or rant about your employer, your workplace or your coworkers on any public site. Never post photos of your coworkers without their permission and avoid posting crude or risqué photos of yourself and your activities on public sites. If you have access to a company social media account, familiarize yourself with corporate posting policy guidelines and follow them carefully.
  • Being polite when making and taking phone calls. Be respectful of your colleagues’ time by keeping your phone calls and voicemail messages brief. If you miss coworkers’ calls, return them as soon as possible. Never ignore them. Do not take calls while actively engaged with someone in person. If you must take a call, apologize to the person you are with and end the call as soon as possible. Avoid yelling, swearing and discussing personal or graphic subjects during phone calls if you are in public, in a cubicle or in any other place where your conversation might be overhead and create a distraction or give offense to others.

It may take some time to integrate these habits and practices into your daily routine, but they are guaranteed to improve your relationships with your coworkers and reduce strife in your workplace.

Avoid Offensive and Unprofessional Behaviors

Professionalism is an attitude. It is a code of conduct that demonstrates respect for oneself and others. Even workers in the most casual and flexible work environments benefit from consistently applying the basic tenets of professional behavior in the workplace. Think about:

  • Dressing for success. When dressing for work, choose clothing that is comfortable, functional and modest. Outfits that are racy or prone to “wardrobe malfunctions” can make your coworkers uncomfortable and lower their opinions of you, your judgement and your abilities. Even simple actions, such as wearing layers or taking a sweater, can go a long way toward keeping everyone comfortable and preventing unnecessary conflicts in the workplace.
  • Being respectful of others’ beliefs. Politics and religion are notoriously volatile subjects. While it is fine to have strong beliefs, it is never acceptable to assert your own opinions in ways that are derogatory of others’ beliefs or that will make your coworkers ill at ease. Never pressure others to debate sensitive subjects, push them to accept your views or put them on the spot about their own views.
  • Steering clear of gossip. Speaking badly of others is rude, and creates rifts and disharmony in the workplace that can cause serious and long-lasting consequences. Do not engage with the office “rumor mill,” and practice politely, but firmly, stopping and redirecting conversations when others try to gossip to you.
  • Remembering that presentation counts. Slang terms and a lack of punctuation, capitalization and grammar may be fine for personal text messaging and emails, but in professional settings, it almost always sends the wrong message. Make sure your coworkers know that you are an intelligent and capable professional, and that you respect them by using proper writing conventions in all forms of text-based communication. It takes only a few extra seconds to write full sentences with appropriate grammar and punctuation, and to check the message for typos and autocorrect gaffs before hitting “send,” but the recipients will certainly notice and appreciate your efforts.

Be Courteous of Others

At first glance, “courtesy” may sound like a vague and hard-to-swallow concept. In practice, however, it simply means being conscious of one’s actions, and considering how those actions might affect others nearby. Some of the most common and aggravating discourtesies that employees report encountering in the workplace (and easy ways to avoid being guilty of them) include:

  • Punctuality issues. Showing up late to meetings or letting meetings run over their scheduled end-time demonstrates a lack of respect for others and their schedules. Give yourself plenty of time between appointments and, if you are delayed, contact the individual(s) with whom you are meeting to let them know and apologize. Keep your meetings on track. If you cannot cover all of the necessary material, make alternative arrangements, rather than letting the meeting carry on over its scheduled end-time. This allows other groups who may have reserved the space to conduct their meetings on time, and permits meeting attendees who have other commitments to make those appointments on time.
  • Strong noises and smells. Both noises and smells carry in communal workspaces. Loud noises and strong smells can be unpleasant and distracting to your coworkers, negatively affecting their abilities to work and the atmosphere of the work environment. Show respect for others by keeping your music and conversations at reasonable levels. Do not wear heavily scented perfumes, colognes or lotions to work. Avoid eating strong-smelling foods at your desk.
  • Showing up to work while ill. Some employees continue to go to work when they are sick, because they believe that doing so will impress their superiors. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. People who work while sick generally have very low productivity, distract other workers and spread illness around the worksite. If you are sick, stay home and recover.
  • “Borrowing” or tampering with other people’s belongings. Taking food from shared spaces, borrowing tools or supplies without permission and failing to put shared resources back where they belong when you are done using them is disrespectful and rude. Do not touch items that are not yours. If you need to use communal supplies or borrow something from a coworker, promptly return the item when you are finished with it in the same condition in which you received it.

 Related Article: When do a company’s employee handbook rules cross the line into being illegal?

It might also interest you: