Etiquette, courtesy and good behaviour at work

A pocket guide to avoiding blunders

  1. Of Treacherous Traps and Hidden Snares
  2. Cardinal Sins and Grey Areas
  3. Grey Areas and Internal Company Protocol
  4. Good Advice from a Business Etiquette Expert
  5. Quick Info – A Short Interview

A satisfied burp after a light snack in the office, loud embellishment of bedroom antics by the coffee machine, an unappetising remark about dress sense of the chubby director’s secretary… There is no need for a qualified opinion on “workplace etiquette” to confirm that the above are completely out of the question. To the surprise of some, the same applies to slapping the cute intern on the backside, using a condescending tone with lower ranking co-workers and hot-headedly kicking over a wastepaper bin during a controversial meeting. Loud telephone conversations giving office co-workers unwanted and deep insight into various aspects of your private life are also a no-go zone. As is private internet surfing at work. Or tuning into the end of an online auction of that sought-after Queen Victoria memorial coin, which just happens to coincide with working hours. Etc. etc.

1. Of Treacherous Traps and Hidden Snares

The path to success is paved with hard work, and countless crossroads call for an excellent sense of direction. Anyone who works as part of a team knows that one must be wary of the traps strewn along this path. And unfortunately, avoiding ensnarement comes naturally to the least of us. Grey areas regarding correct office behaviour seem to lurk behind every filing cabinet and the many unwritten office rules make them difficult to distinguish. However, just like every other social environment, from sports clubs to family, the workplace has values and a code of conduct that dictates daily life. The most important of these rules have crystallised as standards over time and should be taken seriously.

Of course, it is not difficult to overcomplicate every trivial scenario that develops at work. For example, how to most appropriately greet your boss in the hallway. Is the handshake in passing appropriate? Does a quick wave or jovial nod perhaps send a better message? Did you accidentally say “Good morning” when the appropriate greeting was “Good day” or “Good evening”? Or was it appropriate to respond to your boss’s “See you later” in an equally casual manner? In most cases, good habits and a bit of intuition can inform good decision-making. Essentially, however, everyone working in a social environment or in a team should inform themselves on the code of conduct at their workplace. The following should also be clear: an open-plan office space will have different workplace rules to a carpentry workshop. And as with the example of the satisfied burp after a meal – a burp was considered a compliment to the kitchen in the Middle Ages – manners evolve with time. This means that even this handy pocket guide will be subject to regular updates on etiquette.

2. Cardinal Sins and Grey Areas

To begin, here is a selection of the biggest career killers: chronic frustration, arrogance, resistance to advice and constructive criticism, disrespectful behaviour, slander, gossip, lateness, stubbornness, blatant overconfidence or self-doubt, impatience, ingratitude and being under the influence of drugs. An individual who abstains from these actions and qualities will at least not become unpopular automatically. One should also stay well clear of the fringes of the mentioned selection. As such, it is outright disrespectful to gossip about the flaws in a colleague’s physical appearance. This is very simple and very clear. Another member of the broad category, “disrespectful behaviour”, is lazing about in a chair during meetings, staring at a smartphone instead of concentrating on the flip chart and avoiding common courtesy, like eye contact during a one-on-one conversation.

Moreover, the transition from a positive quality to borderline behaviour can sometimes lie in nuances. In this case, the cue is self-confidence. Whilst it is undoubtedly an asset for job interviews and is a desirable trait for people in managerial positions, an overbearing manner can quickly become regarded as a negative character trait. A department manager should understand how to lead a meeting with confidence and charisma. However, a department manager who boasts or lectures in the course of a meeting will quickly make an impression of conceitedness and arrogance. Accordingly, it is important to conduct regular and honest self-evaluation, even in the case of long-standing working relationships.

In this respect, a marriage is not entirely different to a working relationship. At work, there is big risk of getting too comfortable and entitling oneself to “special company privileges”. In other words: the co-worker who begins to come and go when and how he likes, who reduces his desk to a wasteland of chaos and who creates more work for his colleagues roughly corresponds to the singlet and boxers-wearing husband who shouts at his wife over the blaring TV to demand when dinner is ready.

3. Grey Areas and Internal Company Protocol

Though most of these examples can be tackled with logic and intuition as to what is appropriate, internal company protocol is a difficult area to manage. Many firms have developed a diverse set of rules, some of which would be unthinkable in other companies. The IT sector, for example, is governed by different laws to the banking world. In Germany, some companies use the informal “du” form when addressing the company CEO or the freshest intern. Should a new employee use the formal “Sie” form, this would be regarded as inappropriate. Conversely, an employee hired by a less casual firm, where the formal “Sie” form saw general use, would be expected to adopt the company status quo. Even in English-speaking countries, where formal and informal forms of address are not a concern, it is advisable to take cues from one’s co-workers before engaging in potentially inappropriate behaviour. If in doubt, it is better to tend towards politeness and restraint rather than coming across as rude or brash. This approach is supported by experts in business etiquette.

4. Good Advice from a Business Etiquette Expert

Helga Schmidt is an expert in communications training and the directing manager of the Business-Knigge-Institut (Business Etiquette Institute) in Germany. She also trains new business communications coaches. Schmidt mentions that dress code is often business-specific. “If the employer provides work uniforms conforming to [dress code] does not create an issue.” Should there be a dress code, there are definitely some pitfalls to avoid. “Clothing has to suit company standards. Even if there are no fixed rules, a few generalities apply. Low necklines are out of place in an office environment and skirts should not be too short.” As a rule of thumb, a skirt can brush the knees but should not end above them. “High heels should not exceed 5cm. To go to work barefoot is also out of the question. Except, of course, if you work at a beach bar.”

If somebody does make a tasteless comment on the length of a co-worker’s skirt, it is of course a violation of workplace rules. Helga Schmidt advises an immediate response to any suggestive remarks. “I, the victim, must immediately make it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable.” Hereby, it is important to set the boundaries whilst maintaining an objective and business-like manner. After repeat offences, Schmidt suggests involving a direct superior or department manager.

She also recommends resolving any workplace conflict as quickly as possible. “If a co-worker feels harassed or bullied by the bad behaviour of another, a face-to-face conversation is the best way to manage it.” If nothing changes, a supervisor must take action. This applies to all causes of conflict. “Perhaps a co-worker has body odour, dresses inappropriately or comes to work in open shoes.” A fast reaction prevents such conflicts from spreading and hindering effective teamwork. In short, resolving workplace friction is a top priority.

5. Quick Info – A Short Interview

Professional communications coach, Helga Schmidt, specialises in business etiquette and trains new coaches in the field. In a short interview, she provided insight into the complexity of office behaviour.

Where are most behaviour-related mistakes made in the office?

The largest number of offences and the most serious are committed at work parties, when alcohol comes into play. In minor cases in Germany, work colleagues offer each other the informal “du” form and regret embarrassing themselves the next day, creating a bad atmosphere at work.

How do I address a superior/my boss in an email?

Greetings like “Hi” and “Hey” are widespread but remain inappropriate for addressing your boss. They are far too personal and detract from professionalism. Generally speaking, the company manager did not climb to their position by using such salutations, either. No, I prefer “Dear”, “Good morning” or “Good day”.

What about eating in the office?

Eating a sandwich in the office is not appropriate. Despite this, many offices simply do not offer an alternative. In these cases, eating in the office is okay after clarification with your supervisor. Be carful that your meal does not become an annoyance for colleagues through a crackling chocolate bar wrapper, for example. Common courtesy applies. This includes washing your hands before and after a meal.

What else is important in good office manners?

If you are working in an open-plan office, you must not talk loudly on the telephone nor hold too many private conversations with colleagues. In a large office space, it is important to be considerate. If you want something from a colleague, don’t shout across the office. If you need somebody, go and find them. If a customer or business partner calls, answer the telephone with an appropriate greeting (e.g. “Hello” or “Good morning”), your first name, last name and organisation. If a stranger or a customer enters the office, stand up and acknowledge them politely.

Office etiquette is clearly a large field and it is strewn with pitfalls. But proper manners are not everything. With a positive attitude and friendly manner, even the odd breach of office protocol will be forgiven. For, in the Dalai Lama’s words, it is necessary to “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly”.