Everything You Need to Know about Office / Work Place Etiquette (+tips to win brownie points at work)
Every other week at work, we receive a newsletter highlighting important information and a mini interview with a member of the team. One of the responses I look forward to the most is "what's your office pet peeve". The answers often range from bad coffee, smelly feet to untidy desks.
Being the foodie that I am, mine was food related. It did use to get on my nerves when there were no clean forks by 1 pm! It may have been because we didn't have enough forks in the kitchenettes or also because people couldn't be bothered to wash off their cutlery or put same in the dishwasher. I suspect it was a bit of both, as a few days after my mini interview, the kitchen was blessed with a dozen new forks, and so went my pet peeve.
I also recently tweeted that I couldn't understand how grown females often messed up the toilets in their offices, and a number of ladies responded that they faced the same thing at work as well.
All of these, made me think of all the many things we do at work that get on people's nerves and quite simply show a lack of etiquette. I knew then that I had to write this post and get it out to as many people as possible.
Many people spend a large amount of time at work, and it's pretty important that the work space is as accommodating & conducive to everyone. I’ll highlight a few work etiquette matters, using broad headings.
Don't steal / or take anyone else's lunch
You're probably rolling your eyes wondering 'people take each other's food'? or you're nodding your head thinking 'yes Ma'am tell them, they keep taking my food' or finally with a slightly confused face you're saying to yourself 'but I only took the apple or chocolate bar in the fridge - not sure it had an owner!' Well, it's wrong. Recently my colleague opened the fridge to find out that someone had opened her pack of prawns and ate half of it!
No expired food in the fridge
It's pretty really annoying when people forget their food in the fridge for weeks and it goes bad leading to a stench around the kitchen or entire office. A good habit is to ensure that at least every Friday, you've had a quick look and there are no expired or stale food left. Also, if possible, don’t stock up the common kitchen sink with personal dishes. Wash up.
Eating intensely pungent food
While it's often okay to have a snack at your desk, if you share an office space, it can be slightly uncomfortable for others if you eat food that has such intense smell. No one might say a word, but they could be rolling their eyes inside and bursting in annoyance. If in doubt, ask your colleagues if it's okay. It was pretty hilarious when Tee came back from work one day saying he was never taking Egusi to work again - that he popped it into the microwave and the aroma was so intense and filled the whole place, such that everyone kept asking what that was - and not necessarily in a good way.
Don't judge other's lunch
This is probably much more common than you think. While in Nigeria, I was pretty comfortable bringing in soup and making my own ‘eba’ in the kitchen! But some people would constantly make snide comments about my lunch, asking whether I really had to make my own eba or bring in my own home made lunch every day! It doesn’t get better abroad. Recently a colleague said another’s looked like cat food! Ouch. In the absence of anything good, just say nothing.
2. Communication / Emails
Avoid overly personal talk
I'm a huge fan of bringing your whole self to work including the fun parts and personality that make you who you are. But I think we need to draw the line at some point. Do we really need to know about your very personal affairs, or relationship matters involving your ex and love triangles? It's fine to talk about these with a few people, but making it the topic of conversation in the open arena or at the lunch table might be a bit tricky. Same goes for taking personal calls at your desk. Find the next free closed room.
Mute when on Conference Calls
A partner once told me of a near disaster that could have happened. They had been on a conference call with the client and didn't have the phone on mute. The team then engaged in ideal chatter and referred to the client in not so favourable terms. Thankfully it was said in a local language the client couldn't certainly understand. It's little things like this that severe working relationships - gotta be careful.
Social Media Use
In this social media age, many organisations should have a social media policy. Due to the very permanent and far reaching nature of social media, you should be absolutely careful what you say on there. Some companies go as far as requesting a statement on your social media pages to the effect that the views expressed by you are personal to you and do not represent those of the firm. But personally, your Twitter or Facebook page is not the avenue to lash out or complain about your job, colleagues or supervisors. That said, you also don't need to invite your colleagues to add you on Facebook or IG except you're really chummy with them. I remember a partner telling new hires that he wouldn't accept any Facebook requests as he couldn't care less about what they got up to at the weekend.
Avoid bathroom phone calls
Sometimes, the first idea that pops into our mind when we wish to receive a personal phone call is to head to the bathroom. And when we realise there’s no one in there, we breathe a sigh of relief, proceed to enter into the cubicle and have the conversation. But many times, we spend so much time in there than we think we actually do, and we’re oblivious to the fact that a number of people could come in and go out of that space within so much. This means that unknown to us, these personal matters could be revealed. Might seem trivial, and not one I had averted my mind to until colleague A asked me if everything was okay with colleague B as she seemed to have overhead her crying in the bathroom.
I’ve worked with people who have absolutely zero filter when it comes to cursing. Recently, a colleague narrated how she was at lunch with some other male team members when one of them used a couple of cuss words. The other replied ‘You shouldn’t use such words… there’s a woman here'. I think she was more pissed at the fact that they thought the words shouldn’t be used only because she was a woman. But that’s an argument for another day. Bottom line is if you’re a fan of those words, it’s best to restrict them to times when you’re alone. But if you don’t have the luxury of a sole office and work in open plan or shared spaces, then that sadly isn’t proper office etiquette.
3. Personal Relationships
Respect personal / work space
It’s not okay to touch people’s hair, face, bum or just be generally too ‘gummy’ to someone. And even if you’re a married couple in the same office, better to take your excessive PDA somewhere else. Similarly, respect each other's work spaces. Knock before entering people's offices, be wary of high music levels - even when using ear phones and don't let your ring tones distract others.
Say hello to everyone and avoid obvious rifts
You don’t have to be besties with everyone but make an attempt to say hello and make light conversation with everyone. Just very recently, a friend was complaining about a colleague who would literally not say a word to anyone in the office and only respond via emails. The manner in which she described this, led me to ask if he was dumb, as it just didn’t seem normal.
Criticise in Private; Praise in Public
Public criticism often kills morale. So when you criticise, it probably is more beneficial to the receiving party if it’s done in private. But of course, a public praise or shout out is always welcome.
Say people's names right
I’ve previously been introduced to meetings and conference calls with just my first name because the other person had no idea what my last name was and/or how to pronounce it. It’s okay to simply ask. And there’s no need to get offended when someone asks how to pronounce your name, because chances are as a Nigerian for example, you couldn’t pronounce half of the Chinese names correctly.
I was so guilty of this when I was learning to drive, as my reverse park would be so dodgy. If it doesn’t affect anyone, that’s fine. but many people often park so carelessly without regard to the other cars - and then they have to be sought out to move their cars for people to leave. It may seem trivial but it’s often inconvenient. Be much more considerate with parking.
It’s a no-brainer really. I’ve had female colleagues dress like they’re off to the club. Super tight clingy body con cleavage showing and even transparent back kind of dresses. It didn’t even impress the men (as some may think it would). Men can also be guilty in this regard - wearing super tight shirts and trousers or ill-fitting outfits.
Avoid applying makeup / blowing your nose
An occasional lipstick touch-up on your desk is fine. But going full blown foundation + contouring and fixing your fake eyelashes is probably a step too far. Same for deciding to change your nail polish colour right at your desk in the full glare of colleagues. Some people are fine with blowing your nose and depending on the circumstances it could be fine. But if there’s a lot of things down there you’re trying to get out - the bathroom is a better option. And please, no nose picking as well. Not at all.
Don't come in sick/smelly
It might seem like you’re trying to show how effective you are and up to the task, but it’s often so counterproductive. No one wants to have to keep saying “bless you” to your 18th sneeze or constantly ask if you're okay and give advice that ‘you really should head home'. Worse off, no one wants to get sick as well, if it’s communicable. Similarly, don't come in smelly with bad odour, and don't come in like you've been doused in perfume or after shave either.
Keep the toilet clean
You’ve probably heard that phrase that if you want someone to appear less intimidating to you, simply think of the fact that they use the toilet as well. Not to gross you out, but imagine if such person also had poor hygiene habits. It’s interesting that one could work in an office environment where your colleagues carry designer handbags, have the most exotic meals for lunch - but the ladies’ toilet is always a mess! and are often designed with posters that say 'Leave the toilet the way you’d like to meet it'. From people not flushing, to peeing on the seat, poor use of sanitary items - it’s absolutely disgusting. Being real however, if there’s any reason why you are unable to leave the toilet in a good state (e.g. broken or poor flushing systems), I’ve just one appeal - put the toilet seat down and close this door! Many times, sitting the toilet seat down often serves as an indicator of a horrible mess and a caution to lift up the rest at your own risk - which I never bother to do.
Put your shoes on
Stinking feet/ shoes have to be one of the worst things ever. The sad part is that the responsible person is often unaware. It’s best to simply keep your shoes on - and I mean fully on, not half in and half out. And for the ladies, who only bring in 6-inch heels to work, get tired half way and then walk around without shoes for the second half of the day, it’s good advice to have a pair or two of flats. Or better still consider going for 3.5 to 4-inch heels?
Other helpful points that could earn you brownie points at work (if you care for them) include:
- Bringing treats often for the team. If others bring some in, don’t eat it all.
- Offering to make people tea or coffee; fill up their office supplies etc.
- Be willing to help juniors or those who need extra help
- Generally be kind to janitors, cleaners, secretaries etc.
- Don't keep people waiting - let them know if you're running late
- Schedule occasional one on one coffee/ lunch with colleagues to 'catch up'
- Let others speak - don't often make the conversation all about you
- Try to keep the smile often and don't over complain (we know the work can be frustrating at times!)
Invariably, some of these will apply to a larger or lesser degree depending on the work environment, nature of the job and personality of the colleagues. But it's also necessary to point out the need to be tolerant and understanding of others' differences and be open to letting people know of any issues you might have.
There's probably a whole lot more to talk about, so I'll leave that to you. What's your current office situation like? What are your office pet peeves and what do your colleagues do that set you off? And before you remove the speck in another’s eye, what are you guilty of? (we won't judge!)
pS: This post first appeared here on Bella Naija
ppS: Writing these sort of posts obviously doesn't mean I'm perfect. But I love them because it also helps me do a bit of introspection and find ways to improve!