Office Etiquette & Manners

Rules of Civility: Business Etiquette At The Office

In a 2011 survey publish at the blog, 71% of survey respondents found their coworker’s manners needing improvement or “downright rude.” More than one quarter of respondents’ co-workers fell into this downright rude category. In this guide to business etiquette in the office, we will show you what your coworkers dislike, how you can improve your manners and you can approach coworkers about problems.

Do we save manners for our personal lives? And if we did, who can blame us? We have little choice at work with whom we work, to whom we report; how many hours we work; what to wear; where to eat; how long we may eat; and whether a company observes and complies with their own policies and procedures.

How Polite Are You & What Your Coworkers Hate The Most

How Polite Are You & What Your Coworkers Hate The Most

We spend more time with co-workers than we do our partners, spouses, family and friends. Permission to speak freely disappears at work. We often go along to get along, not wishing to antagonize an office or cubicle mate. At work, did French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre have it right? That hell is other people?

Bosses who don’t supervise but instead take hostages; the effluvium put forth by co-workers, whether the stale tang of the not-recently washed or a devotion to Axe body products; other co-workers grousing about the boss, their job, their kids, their body size, their love life, their lack of love life; the seemingly endless improvement programs promulgated by the herd of independent thinking reflected in upper management – decry all of it in the most florid, foulest and loudest terms possible and you will quickly find kindred spirits. Decry you might but at what cost to you? How much stress do we create for ourselves because of how we react to our co-workers?

How can etiquette matter in (American) work environments?

Etiquette at work now seems quaint, like a rotary telephone or manual typewriter. This quaintness may lead us to conclude that the decline of manners has befallen us (again!). But the protean nature of our existence – a relaxed, concerned behavior directed to loved ones and friends versus an uptight, sometimes seething personality at work, cannot hide this simple truth: How we do anything is how we do everything.

How we act at work influences how we act at home. A commitment to better relations at work will improve your love life. But how?

We can master ourselves, only. How we manage ourselves on the job can ensure greater self-confidence, a more relaxed attitude, and, indeed, even a promotion. We endeavor to create an aura of sociability and likebility. If we arrive to work late, we want to have others assume a favorable opinion about us despite the uncertainty of character our lateness suggests.

From the hell of our own co-workers, we may find that etiquette saves us. Whether you view manners as a mask or as a path to increasing enlightenment, acting with regard for others and ourselves will help to create a kinder and nicer office workers.

Business Etiquette Is All About Managing Oneself

1. Gossip

Gossip gets a bad rap, but gossip can keep us safe. A coworker may steal ideas or work or worse, haze new employees or harangue certain types of co-workers. Sharing these insights, if you think you can do so, can save another coworker from this bully’s actions.

The idle tittle-tattle, though? Proceed cautiously. Loose lips may sink your ship. Sharing facts about another coworker differs from whispered rumor. Both, however, may cause your boss to question you; but fact-based gossip possesses a kind of evenhandedness. Idle rumor seems like whining.

Gossip is not appropriate

Gossip is not appropriate

2. Lateness

Timeliness suggests reliability. If you cannot arrive to work on time, what else can’t you do? We would all delight in a work-place where our co-workers accept all our failings. Better yet, they should make no assumptions about us when we do misstep. Something about pigs flying comes to mind here.

We control many variables in our lives. Timeliness tops the list.

Lateness also suggests you think your time more worthwhile than others. Lateness suggests a kind of time thievery. Perceptions of slackness and lack of attention to detail can also result from lateness.

Lateness practiced with diligence breeds resentment. When you find you legitimately need support from co-workers, less scrupulous co-workers may use the opportunity to expose you even further. Their long-standing resentment has now found an outlet. And thanks to your continued lateness, your boss may very well believe your co-worker. You’ve conditioned your boss to believe you aren’t reliable.

If you find yourself constantly late, determine why. Do you need to set your alarm 10 minutes earlier? Lay out your work clothes before retiring? Prepare your lunch after dinner?

3. Personal Grooming

Care about your appearance and bodily odors? Good. Your co-workers won’t notice your foul odor. They also won’t stare at the quarter-sized stain on your tie or shirt, either.

Personal grooming says I care enough about me to care about you. If you choose not to bathe, claims of snobbery don’t and won’t matter. Humans judge, constantly. And we judge harshly people who smell, have bad breath, open sores or bite /cut their fingernails at the office. Two men familiar to me refused the habit of regular bathing. Both lost lucrative job promotions to people who clearly had less skill.

Be well groomed but don't do it at the office

Be well groomed but don’t do it at the office

Strong Colognes, Soaps and Antiperspirants

We in the U.S. exhibit the doubly odd behavior of washing frequently only to swathe ourselves in a mixture of unnatural, “spring scent” body products.

As with liquor and clothing buy the very best cologne and bathing products you can afford. The better the ingredients, the better the smell. Cheap ingredients create smells that linger, cloy and in more extreme cases, cause eye-tearing and sneezing.

Consider spending more for these products and buy quality products.

4. Generosity and Helpfulness

There exists a type of coworker who delights in making others, especially new co-workers, ask questions repeatedly; the kinds of questions that have you thinking, “why didn’t he tell me that when I asked the last question?” To which, if you were to ask, he would reply, “Because you did not ask.”

To be perceived as helpful, we must discern people’s foibles and anxieties and act in ways they find helpful. Have a boss that always forgets to create the agenda for the meeting? Send a reminder to her a week before the meeting. Is a coworker trying to finish up a big project before he leaves on vacation? Offer to take meeting minutes or make copies for the next meeting. After lunch meetings stick around to help clean up.

A willingness to help shows people no task is beneath you. Helpfulness becomes generosity when you offer assistance without another person asking.

5. Personal Disclosure

The Art of Conversation describes the function of small talk in American culture: We use it as a path to creating greater conversational intimacy. At work, however, our conversations rarely go beyond small talk, and with good reason.

Disclosing personal information at work puts us at risk with co-workers with less than noble characters. We cannot choose our co-workers. In our private lives, we choose our friends and life partners with care. Are they kind? Do they listen? Can they keep my confidence?

At work, whether or not your cubicle mate behaves kindly has no bearing on anything. You still must work with him, and work well, too, if you don’t want to hear from your boss. The long hours we spend at work tempt us to share of ourselves details we really ought to share only with significant others or close friends.

We are human. We crave connection and meaning from other humans. But the seemingly idle disclosure about the time you cheated at golf in high school, and even though you are now past 40, can explode in your face. Stories become twisted and misused. People want to behave correctly, but many people think very little of themselves, sadly, and so act accordingly.

Consider yourself lucky if you find a confident at work. In the meantime, chat with co-workers, contribute to conversations and share of yourself information you feel comfortable sharing with anyone.

6. Humor

We can use humor to ease tense interactions, redirect criticism and avoid sounding defensive. We can also use humor to help co-workers to make light of an uncomfortable personal situation.

Sarcasm and irony, two cornerstones of American humor, can be easily misunderstood, even by speakers on of American English. Save that humor for like-minded co-workers. For everyone else, make jokes at your own expense and never make jokes at another’s expense for any reason, ever.

7. Messiness

You may live a minimalistic, neatnik life. Others may live maximally. If a coworker’s messiness impacts your job performance, say something. If you find the messiness offensive for aesthetic reasons, you have to address these feelings on your own.

If you can keep yourself organized, do so. We in the U.S. tend to add a veneer of positive ethical behavior to people who keep their offices neat and tidy, regardless of the actual truth of that belief. As with personal grooming, neatness exudes order and morality. To the degree you can do this, others will think positively of you, too.

8. Patience

It seems we want endless patience from others yet struggle to extend such kindness to others. If we don’t like the person trying our patience, we lose our tempers more quickly. Losing our cool makes us look bad.

If you find yourself short of patience, and want to have more of it, spend a week or two doing the following:

  1. Notice your triggers and what causes you to lose patience.
  2. Write down your triggers and determine patterns (time of day, behavior-specific, person-specific).
  3. Vow to change and accept that you may fail.
  4. Try again.
Be considerate of others when having lunch

Be considerate of others when having lunch

9. Eating

Food Smells and Eating at the Desk

According to a DailyMail study commissioned by a soup company, respondents ranked noisy eating as more bothersome than messy, habitually late or whiny co-workers. Sometimes people eat at their desk because they find no peace in the staff lunch room. Other times they do so because they may work for a company that really believes in working lunches.

Just don’t eat loudly.

Food smells also irritate co-workers. What we find tasty and nice smelling we know because of our cultural upbringing. Most Americans wax poetic about bacon; the Spanish feel similarly about olive oil. Microwaving fish in the staff kitchen can cause discord and set the gossip train to run.

Perhaps you can ask your boss to stagger your lunch break so that you won’t be around the offending smells. Or dive deep into yourself. Remind yourself we have no guarantees in life, least of all a life free of things we find stinky.

Consider going retro and actually take a lunch break. You know the one where you get up from your cubicle and leave the building? Might do wonders for both your nose and your stress!

10. Honesty

When might one lie at work reasonably? When does tact become inexpedient?

Some manners experts will tell you never to lie at work. Depending on your cultural context, you may have greater or lesser latitude to fib about people’s hair cuts, clothes, family photos, cat videos and other questions you may be asked. In America we lie constantly on the job. When asked by a coworker how we are are, the social script dictates we answer positively. To answer negatively suggests we have a bad attitude. A certain amount of lying comes with working in America.

In more serious matters (financial improprieties, sexual harassment) honesty is probably the best course of action. Exposing a peer may seem easier than a superior. Having discussed such behaviors with the appropriate parties won’t always mean you win, though. Corporate ethics vary. If you work at an unethical company, you may need to polish your resume and seek employment elsewhere.

12. Friendships on the Job

Neither your superiors nor subordinates are your pals. Your boss can fire you, and you may have to fire people who report to you.
And peers, the ones you party with, may engage in unethical or illegal behavior that you will then need to report. They also may have seen you drunk and may use that information against you in the future.

Our relationships on the job remain economic ones. Money mediates all of them. Who can be hired, can be fired. By superior, subordinate or peer.

Romance at the Office - Don't Do It

Romance at the Office – Don’t Do It

13. Intimate Relationships with Co-Workers

Don’t do it. With a superior or subordinate, never. With a peer, what happens if he gets promoted over you and you break up? What if she decides to spread rumors about you to your co-workers, or worse, future employer? Unless you sell your body for a living, sex and work don’t mingle. Just ask those secret service agents about sex and work.

Approaching Co-workers About Problems (a Simple How-to Guide Based on the Principles of Non-violent Communication)

Sometimes we may need to have a difficult conversation with a coworker. We need not suffer in silence. Approach a coworker first to resolve a conflict, before going to your boss. Doing so will show that you have attempted to resolve the problem as professionally as possible.

Ask Yourself Why

As it pertains to other’s behavior, ask yourself why their behavior annoys you. Why, for example, does your co-worker’s messiness irritate you? If you judge her as a slob, then you have little room to discuss changing behaviors because you attack her.

If, however, her disorganization enrages you because it makes you late to meetings or causes you to miss important work deadlines, then you can ask her if she can change her behavior. You have a factual reason for wanting her to modify her behavior.

There are better ways to solve problems at the office - Don't imitate Mad Men

There are better ways to solve problems at the office – Don’t imitate Mad Men

The Mechanics of the Conversation

a. Make Factual Observations

Make factual observations that make you feel a need to speak now. (“Jane, our meeting is in ten minutes and we were supposed to have the agenda to Bob day before yesterday.”) You don’t make an evaluative statement (“That is way too late to get me these agenda items.”)

We value things differently (Jane may have higher priority projects on her list, or she doesn’t report to Bob) but by sharing your observations, you can find common ground with Jane.

b. State How the Observation Makes You Feel

“When you give me the agenda items ten minutes before the meeting and Bob wants them two days ago, I feel anxious. I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble, and I’m afraid my co-workers will think poorly of me.”

c. What Need is Not Being Met

We all have needs on the job, many in fact. For the purposes of this script, needs are always valid. In this particular scenario you have a need to be seen as considerate and competent
(“I have a need for consideration and competence.”)

d. Ask a Request (Not Make a Request)

“Would you be willing to give me the agenda items a week before the meeting?” To make a genuine request, and not a demand, you must allow Jane to say no. If she does, then you might ask when she can get you those agenda items. If she replies ten minutes before the meeting, and you find you cannot tolerate such behavior, quietly approach Bob and inform him of your communication with Jane. He may decide to approach Jane or her boss (if she reports to someone else) or tell you it isn’t a problem or tell you tough, deal with it. At least you’ve asked respectfully.

Etiquette on the job can help us have better working relationships.

How have you handled difficult co-workers? What behavior at the office bothers you the most? Please reply in the comments below!

Article Name
Business Etiquette At The Office
Business Etiquette Guide to Working Successfully With Co-Workers, What TO DO or NOT TO DO & a Script for Having Difficult Conversations.
10 replies
  1. Charles-Philippe says:

    As much of some of this article was an informative insight into office behaviour, I thought some advice to be outright dogmatic from an utterly subjective perspective.

    I was particularly bothered by No. 13 where readers were warned that on no grounds they should engage in an intimate relationship with a co-worker. Firstly, nearly 20% of couples meet at work – that’s a considerable proportion of people who’ve apparently been breaking said rules. Moreover, I know many people who have met through work and are now getting married including my wife who was not only a colleague but also my superior when we met. Are you telling me that I shouldn’t have?

    It may be argued that we are but a few examples where the romance has drawn to a positive conclusion. However, in my own experience, I would suggest that it’s quite the contrary. Nevertheless, nobody should discourage someone from entering a romantic relationship – even if it is against better judgement, they do not have the right to intervene. After all, it’s the gentlemanly thing to do, no?

    Otherwise, this is indeed a worthwhile article on a subject that is often overlooked and insufficiently covered elsewhere. I am glad to see several other points being raised.

    (I initially posted this as a comment on Facebook, but thought to copy it here.)

  2. Jay Sennett says:


    Thank you for responding. I appreciate your comment that the manners may be very dogmatic, especially as you point out, from a subjective perspective.

    In the U.S., according to some quick research, of the 50% of all workers surveyed dated and/or had intimate relations with a coworker. Of those 50%, 25% of the relationships led to a long-term relationship or marriage.

    The remaining 75% ended badly in one way or another. Badly ended relationships can wreak havoc on a person’s career, especially in the U.S. We are, I believe, the world’s most litigious society. And failed relationships can form the basis of a variety of lawsuits – sexual harassment; favoritism (especially if the affair is between a worker and a superior); public humiliation; emotional distress and career complications (you career moved is blocked because of your affair).

    In order to offset the potential threat of lawsuits, human resource offices are now resorting to requiring loving coworkers to sign love contracts. These contracts state that both parties are freely consenting to the relationship. Even then, a lawsuit may result. And employees in the U.S. increasingly believe such contracts invade their privacy and their freedom of association.

    When we fall in love, we all believe this relationship will be the one. We believe our lover will never hurt us, even if we break up, no matter how badly. Our own experiences of failed relationships and those of our friends and family suggest a far greater truth: Most relationships fail. I counsel not engaging in work relationships in the U.S. because the risks are too high and the reality is that most relationships on the job or otherwise will fail.

    As to whether or not anyone has a right to intervene, I think it depends. In the U.S. a privately held corporation operating in an at-will employment state can say to me, “Either your stop this relationship or you will be fired.” I then must decide what to do. If it is friends or family, probably not. I would not listen to them anyway.


    • Charles-Philippe says:

      Hello Jay,

      Thank you for your prompt response and apologies in my delay in getting back to you.

      You present a compelling case but I’m afraid I can’t agree with the principle of “when in doubt there is no doubt” (call it naivety, call it European romanticism). Although the circumstances to appear to be rather problematic for a romantic relationship in the States, I’m sure that these are the risks in any starting any relationship in any environment anywhere in the world.

      I cannot find statistics on the matter, but the average person has around 8 partners in his or her lifetime. So when entering a relationship, there’s a high probability that it’ll fail at one point with just as much heart-ache or bitterness as any other unless one is particularly lucky. The States being such a litigious society as you suggested, I imagine that such lawsuits aren’t restricted to just the workplace and could consequently be provoked by the failure of any relationship.

      Nevertheless, there does seem to be an underlying issue here regardless of the subject at hand. Perhaps it is not purely a reflection of the principle but mainly the individuals who have difficulty in separating and managing their personal and professional lives. Until that is resolved, at least for the majority of your readers who reside in the USA, you are probably right in gently advising that it is a situation best avoided – for better or for worse.

  3. James Brown says:

    The content of the newsletter “Business Etiquette At The Office” reflects the HR practices and guidelines of most major corporations and government agencies. You have done an excellent job of synthesizing those 400+ page Policy and Procedure manuals into some key point. One issue that is frequently overlooked in HR Guidelines or Manuals for Employees, is the Problem Resolution protocol that you’ve articulated at the end of the article. You’ve outlined the steps that are usually required in a mediated settlement, in an easily consumable manner. These are great guidelines for every workplace, and while we may not want to believe we need to act like this in the workplace (the rules are too draconian; too structured; too rigid), many of these are the same rules that the mediator, conciliator or legal counsel will look at when the matter is in dispute. A well put together article. Thank you..

    • Jay Sennett says:

      Thank you for your kind words. “[W]hile we may not want to believe we need to act like this in the workplace (the rules are too draconian; too structured; too rigid), many of these are the same rules that the mediator, conciliator or legal counsel will look at when the matter is in dispute.” You have articulated well employee struggles with workplace rules. Here in the U.S., judges have given businesses great latitude in enforcing workplace behavior. That employees feel these rules, especially love contracts, infringe of their freedom of association suggests that a fundamental misunderstanding about what the first amendment of the U.S. constitution protects and does not protect. I sometimes think we cannot or will not how much control businesses can exert on our work lives here.

  4. Jonathan says:


    You said yourself in the “Art of conversation” guide not to ever gossip.

    “Never gossip, ever. Even if everyone else is doing so. If those people are gossiping about someone not present, what might they say about you when you’re not around?” *

    …though in this guide you are not totally unfavorable about the idea of gossiping. Is there an explanation?
    I am of the opinion that a gentleman should never gossip on any given occasion but should rather redirect the conversation.


    *Cited from: Conversation Topics & The Art of Conversation — Gentleman’s Gazette

    • Jay Sennett says:


      I agree with your point about always redirecting gossip.

      Clearly my attempt to distinguish between a kind of talk that may offer assistance to someone and gossip – a type of speech that really does nothing but undermine another person – failed.

      Language that is attempting to be helpful (i.e. “I’ve found it is better to approach the Managing Director about new projects after the annual budget review is complete.”) slips into a much greyer area than gossip (i.e. The Managing Director is always roaring drunk after lunch!”). I’m not sure what to call this first example and am open to suggestions. What do you think?

  5. Hristo says:

    Thank you for your article.
    I would like to share my personal opinion on the matter of meal time at work.
    Here on this website we are discussing style, beautiful and expensive clothes, expensive drinks, cigars, watches.
    And at the same time many people does not give enough importance to the ritual of having a lunch break. You even called lunch breaks “retro”.
    To be honest, I would not work a job that would not give me the opportunity of a lunch break with healthy freshly cooked warm meal and enough time to enjoy it. And I think it is an insanely perverted lifestyle if someone could afford the luxury stuff discussed on this website but could not afford a lunch break.
    Lunch breaks are:
    1. A healthy pause from the work at the computer – We stand up and walk. Maybe even on fresh air. It is highly recommended to have regular pauses every hour then working at a computer as most people nowadays do.
    Living with style does not mean wearing a nice watch – it means being an example for your children. I want them to live healthy and not spend too much time at the computer and not too much time sitting – than I should also not spend too much time at the computer and have regular walks.
    2. The only way to have a healthy meal – Our body can not truly digest our food when we are still at the computer or the smart phone. As funny as it sounds our stomach really needs relaxation and concentration on the meal.
    And warm cooked food could not be compared with sandwiches or microwave half-ready food.
    I want my children to eat healthy and to grow without junk-food addiction and without over-weight – then I should also eat healthy and give them example that this is completely possible even in the 21st century.
    3. A great management tool. As an IT project manager I know how important is the ritual of having long lunch breaks with colleagues. This does not mean talking about work. Simply chilling, having fun together and enjoying a wonderful meal is a team building measure more valuable than some pre-organized team building events.
    And the positive effects of this lunch break joy for the company are much higher than the costs of time or food (my company by the way pays a substantial part of our lunches).
    Also for conflict solving a manager could detect a problem in an early stage during a lunch break observations and intervene at the time when the conflict is easy to solve and harmless.

    I understand that the reality in the US may be very different than the work lifestyle in Europe where I live. But is it really worth it to ruin your health and dignity and use the money they pay you as a compensation to drink a scotch and smoke a cigar recommended by Gentleman’s Gazette wearing a bespoke hat? No. Get a lunch break with real healthy food. No such possibility? Change your job! Or maybe move to Europe.

  6. Sven Raphael Schneider says:

    Hristo, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Of course, you only describe Joe Average here because there are many professions where lunch breaks are not feasible. For example my father is a surgery assistant, and sometimes he can’t even drink for 8 hours, let alone eat something. Interrupting surgery for a lunch break is not an option. The same is true for doctors, pilots…
    For regular office workers, you can have a lunch break, even in the U.S. and employers offer that. Most people chose to go home earlier or do something else with their time. We all have different priorities, and I enjoy good lunches but in Spain you can spend two hours for lunch, in Germany it would never take that long, in Italy, business close down for lunch… Lunch and the way it is consumed are different in each culture. With the same intensity you argue for a lunch break, many American joke about Europeans taking long lunch breaks.
    Personally, I enjoy longer lunch breaks and my wife and I like to cook but sometimes it isn’t feasible.

    • Hristo says:

      Thank you, Sven! You are absolutely right, that it is a very culture related issue. And even within one culture there are huge differences within the population. I know a lot of people in Germany which despite of excellent education and good income are not giving enough importance to their food habits. Maybe some of them are limited by their profession as you correctly mentioned.
      My mother as an oncologist has a similar profession as your father and she has often long operations as well. But nevertheless in my childhood my day usually started with freshly pressed carrot juice, we have never owned a microwave and she cooked warm meals and made salads every day. I have never eaten pizza or a burger with her.
      And I dream that in our society we take our health(which is directly related to our eating habits and sport) more seriously before the first signs of illness or overweight and that we give more attention to our family and that an additional child has a higher priority than an additional car.
      Sven, you and the GG team publish in Gentleman’s Gazette all these articles about etiquette exactly because you realise that not only the clothes make the gentleman but also the behaviour which is based on values and personal priorities.
      Many people for example believe that they do not have time or enough money for a large family exactly as they believe that they do not have the time and money for healthy eating habits. But it is much more in our heads than in the reality. On average project managers work 50-60 hours per week and think that doing this job in part time is impossible. I have a colleague which works 32 hours a week has whole 4 children and is a wonderful and very successful project manager.
      Yes, I know. One could maybe give a lot of counter arguments to my thoughts.
      But I truly believe that a true gentleman does not follow preconceived ideas about how one should behave(like that working more and having shorter lunch breaks will get you higher), but follows his believes of how his world should look like and do everything possible to make it reality.
      One could even round this argumentation back to the lunch break. It maybe sounds funny, but when you do your lunch break with the thought that you do something good for your body and soul you feel satisfaction. And this satisfaction makes you happier. And when you are happy you are automatically nicer and politer with your colleagues at work. Our inappropriate behaviour does not come from intrinsic evilness but from stress and bad mood. Stress could be lowered and mood could be improved with good food. 🙂 And about going half an hour earlier instead of having a lunch break – maybe half an hour less time per day with a less stressed, healthier and happier father has a higher utility for the whole family.

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