When the writers of The Office were creating the show, they studied how people interacted in actual offices. Based on their research, they created Dunder Mifflin’s regional manager, Michael Scott, whose off-color comments offend many of his peers and employees, and assistant manager Jim Halpert, who plays pranks on coworker Dwight Schrute. While funny onscreen, we know Michael’s and Jim’s behaviors would be considered bad behavior in our own workplaces. Still, many of us may be unsure of the boundaries for acceptable office conduct. For instance, is joking with a coworker appropriate? Or, is it okay for a colleague to repeatedly borrow your office supplies?
Fueling the uncertainty are changes in the work environment, including open office floor plans, greater diversity among our officemates, and flatter corporate hierarchies. While some etiquette basics still apply — dressing according to company norms, keeping your workspace tidy, and using office-appropriate language — we need to do more as leaders and team members to ensure our office behavior stays within the appropriate bounds.
Good etiquette is based on respect
Good etiquette for everyone in the office starts with the leader, who must set expectations for the team. “I make it clear our office culture is built around respect and tolerance for each other,” says Eric Green, partner, MasterTech Environmental. “I’ll say to each new employee, ‘We try to run a professional workplace, but we also want to be friendly and sometimes we joke. I need you to tell me if something is said that crosses the line with you.’ This makes it safe for the employee to communicate their concerns to me.”
Leaders also need to model the behaviors they expect to see in their team. “Hold yourself accountable first. If, as a leader, you live the expectations you set for the team, others will follow your example,” says Green. For instance, when you demonstrate good etiquette by showing up for meetings on time, others are more likely to follow suit.
Follow these guidelines to help you and your team exercise the appropriate etiquette in the workplace.
Be pleasant. No one likes working with someone who is grouchy or curt every day. Even if you are having a bad day, you still need to try to be cordial and polite to others.
Respect your colleagues’ need for space. “Open offices have less real estate per person, so people are working closer to each other than they were in walled offices and cubicles,” says Jason Haber, senior account director at BFI, an office furniture manufacturer. “Recognize your coworkers need privacy to get their work done by treating their workspace as their private office. Don’t encroach on their area or help yourself to their office supplies.”
Lower your volume. Voices carry when there are fewer walls, as do loud ringtones and computer audio. Speak at a volume that does not distract your coworkers. Mute your phone and lower the volume on your computer. “If you listen to music or podcasts while you work, buy headphones or earbuds,” says Abby Duncan, founding principal of Duncan Resources, a human resources consulting firm.
Hold personal conversations elsewhere. No one needs to hear you yell at your kids or discuss what you’re planning for dinner with your spouse. Take those phone conversations away from the open office. “Many newer offices are designed with a variety of spaces, and can accommodate the need for personal conversations away from the workspace,” says Haber.
Skip the heavy perfume. “Companies are setting guidelines to discourage heavy perfume or aftershave use, because their employees have complained about a coworker’s fragrance permeating throughout the office,” says Duncan. “Employees also complain about coworkers’ lack of personal hygiene. Pay attention to your personal grooming so it doesn’t become an issue.”
Keep common areas clean. Leave the kitchen, conference room, and other common areas in the manner you wished to have found them. If you spill food while microwaving your lunch, clean it up. Wash your coffee mug or put it in the dishwasher. Throw away your pizza boxes rather than leaving them in the conference room. These small acts show respect for those around you.
Stay home when you’re sick. When people work more closely together, germs can spread faster. “If you think you may be contagious, work remotely from home, if you feel up to it. Otherwise, take a sick day to get the care and rest you need,” says Duncan.
Skip the gossip. Avoid complaining or gossiping in the office and on social media about your coworkers. “People can get hurt by what you say and think you have crossed the line into bullying or harassment. You don’t want complaints against you because you were gossiping,” says Duncan.
Check in periodically. If you’re the team leader, take the temperature of your team on a regular basis, says Green. “In both a group setting and one on one, I’ll ask, ‘Is everything going well with the team? Are you getting along with everybody?’ I’ll remind them they can come talk to me if something is making them uncomfortable.” This enables you to deal with any etiquette or interpersonal issues before they get worse.
This article originally appeared in the Career Connections column in the October 2019 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.