In a 2011 survey publish at the Monster.com 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Notice your triggers and what causes you to lose patience.
- Write down your triggers and determine patterns (time of day, behavior-specific, person-specific).
- Vow to change and accept that you may fail.
- Try again.
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!
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.
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.
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!