The Power of Office Etiquette

On a recent trip to New York, I was first in line for an elevator.  When the elevator arrived, I stepped aside to allow the women behind me to enter.  They all paused for a second waiting for me to go in (after all I was first in line).  In my best syrupy sweet Georgia voice, I said, “Ladies first always”.  Their surprised, but grateful, reaction surprised me.  Sadly, these ladies had become used to men taking seats and entering elevators before them.

It made me think about all the bad etiquette that we have become accustomed to in the workplace.  A pleasant work environment has a positive effect on employee engagement, retention, and productivity.  Proper office etiquette is the first step to a pleasant environment.  Let’s try to practice, and expect, proper etiquette at work.  See if you recognize any of these faux paus.

  • Time Etiquette

We all have crises and fires to put out, but when it becomes a pattern something is wrong. For years, I have stopped accepting, “I’m always going to be late” as an excuse from late arriving friends and associates.  Constant, repetitive lateness says, “I have little respect for your time or schedule.  You will wait until I get there.”  One of the surest ways to demotivate staff or colleagues is to waste their time.  Six salaries sitting in the conference room while you finish your call – again – is not an effective use of company resources.

  • Cookie Dough Etiquette

What is cookie dough etiquette? It’s the same as magazine etiquette or greeting card etiquette or candle etiquette. Whatever crap the school has sent home to sell this year.  I know we are all guilty, me included, but it’s time to stop.  I can get chocolates from all over the world delivered to my home in two days vs. two months to get chocolates coming from Illinois.  We tend to take it personal when it involves our kids, so don’t put people in the uncomfortable position of saying no.  Just leave the order form at home (or in the garbage like I used to).

  • Office Donations

After two weeks on the job, I was once asked to contribute to a gift for a departing co-worker that I didn’t know.  I contributed to ease the discomfort for the collector.  You can add funerals, baby showers, birthdays, etc. to this list.  The solution is to keep the process as low-key as possible.  A discrete donation envelope will do the job without embarrassing or pressuring anyone.

  • Writing Etiquette

I have enough emails, so please understand that “reply all” literally means “all”. Now I must go through an email chain that has very little to do with me.  More importantly, email should never be a substitute for in-person conversation.  Next to the gym, email is the most popular place to grow muscles.  If your tone would be aggressive, rude, and unprofessional in-person, then it is even more so via email.  Don’t hide harmful behavior or lazy leadership behind email.

p.s.- You sit four feet away; wouldn’t it be easier to just talk to me.

  • Noise Etiquette

The Snoop Dog ringtone was funny the first time I heard it, but somehow lost its magic after hearing it every day for the last year.  After all these years, we still talk too loud on our phones and we still use speakerphone inappropriately.   We often forget how precious and scarce privacy is in an open office environment. If heads start to pop up from cubicles, then you are talking too loud.

In his Ted Talk, The Sound Agency’s Julian Treasure talks about how distracting the open office plan can be.   “There is plenty of research that shows that the most destructive sound of all is other people’s conversations”, says Treasure.

  • Fооd Etiquette

The funniest thing in many offices are the notes left in the break room.  If someone ate my yogurt, I can only assume they were hungry and/or did not have the resources to buy something.  Whether that’s true or not, it makes me feel better.  I don’t know which is worse, eating someone’s food or some of the cruel (but funny) notes left in the break room.


  • Smell Etiquette

See my article on dealing with smelly co-workers. (Smelly can also mean too much perfume).  I love the smell of Poison or White Linen or whatever, I just love it more when it stays in your cubicle.

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