A Guide to Modern Office Etiquette

The workplace rules of engagement have changed. Following the new guidelines won’t just make you popular—it will make you most likely to succeed.


On the way up to your corner office every day, you’ve probably encountered one of the following: the Cell-Phone Shouter (“Sorry, what? I’m in the elevator. The elevator“), the Weather Reporter (“Rain all weekend! Better start building that ark!“), the News Analyst—thanks to omnipresent LCD screens (“Whatever, O.J. Where’s your buddy Kato Kaelin now?“). Most egregious of all? The Door Crasher—the guy who sprints through the elevator bank and thrusts a limb between the shutting steel slabs in an attempt to make it to the second floor 20 seconds faster. “If you’re running for the elevator, just say, ‘Please hold the door,’“ says Barbara Pachter, author of New Rules @ Work. That sounds simple. But when current etiquette makes it okay to pretend to be deaf-mute when a wild-eyed colleague makes a run for the elevator you’re in, the aggressive approach is sometimes understandable. Still, that doesn’t make it polite.


Maybe it’s the gregarious millennials. Maybe it’s that comfortable silence has become a lost art. Whatever the reason, morning attacks—co-workers accosting fragile colleagues on the last steps of their walks to the office or before they’ve had a chance to hang up their coats to talk weekends (or worse, business)—are on the rise. Do not propagate them. In a civilized society, there would be no talking at the office until everyone had had a quiet moment with a cup of coffee. As for the polite way to deflect the morning attack—just smile, nod, and say something along the lines of “I’ve gotta check my e-mail. I’ll come talk to you in a bit.“


Misspellings, emoticons, and e.e. cummings-style lowercasing in office e-mails are no longer just annoying, they’re officially rude. They can also be woefully misinterpreted. Are those smiley faces genuine or contemptuous? Even those who know better than to end an e-mail with :( can offend in other ways, like by using highest-priority flags for e-mails about the shortage of mugs in the kitchen or sending announcements about a friend’s charity road race to the entire staff. “These especially aggravate people on handhelds,“ says Will Schwalbe, coauthor of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home. “The more indiscriminately you communicate, the less effective your communication will be.“ Use your e-mail for work correspondence only, and insist underlings do the same. Your reward, according to Schwalbe: “The genius of sending fewer e-mails is you get fewer e-mails.“


As phone communication has become marginalized in the workplace, it has also become abused. Apparently uncomfortable with speaking into a receiver attached to a cord, many professionals have started using speakerphone—not just for conference calls but for one-on-one conversations as well. On the rudeness spectrum, this falls somewhere between repeatedly canceling a meeting at the last minute and loudly yawning in the middle of someone else’s presentation. The other notable phone-related scourge involves cell phones and PDAs. The rules about using them are as hard and fast in the office as they are in movie theaters and restaurants—keep them on vibrate, and don’t set them out on the table in front of you during a meeting unless it’s absolutely necessary.


The protocol for cross-office banter—its volume, subject, and intimacy—varies from workplace to workplace. But even if your office is equipped with a foosball table and the CEO just instituted a regular Friday-afternoon game of beer pong, certain subjects should be avoided altogether. “Stay away from sex, politics, and religion,“ Pachter advises. Even if you already consider those subjects verboten, chances are you’re committing some less obvious verbal don’ts. Derailing a meeting with tales of your child’s latest potty-related accomplishment, for instance. Or rambling about the dinner you had at the French Laundry despite your colleague’s pointed glances at his watch. “You have to be in control of your time and know when enough is enough,“ Pachter says. And if you’re the one dying to cut the talk short, Jacqueline Whitmore, author of Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work, recommends that you simply excuse yourself and suggest picking it back up later in the day.


Dirty gym clothes, shoeless feet stretched under conference-room tables, desktop lunches redolent of broiled flounder—these are the things that drive co-workers to conspire and bosses to create redundancies. “The No. 1 conflict at work involves sharing space with others,“ Pachter says. By which she means: Satisfy your craving for a shawarma wrap outside the office. And since your gym has a plush locker room, why not keep your sweaty T-shirts there instead of draped over the back of your chair? Beyond basic cleanliness, being a well-mannered member of an office community also involves crowd control. Don’t hold high-volume meetings in the middle of an open-plan workplace. Schedule a conference. “That’s much more of a common courtesy than hovering like a vulture, which is just rude,“ Whitmore says. And when it comes to crossing the threshold of your boss or colleague’s office uninvited? When in doubt, don’t. Just send him a brief—grammatically correct—e-mail asking him for a few minutes of his time.


You might think you’ve had the laws of the lavatory down since the second grade. But they’re worth revisiting. The one-urinal “safety zone“—putting a respectful amount of space between you and the guy from Accounts Payable—is a given. But keeping your distance isn’t enough. No pleasantries should be exchanged beyond the sinks. “The default setting at urinals should be ‘I don’t exist, you don’t exist,’“ one Manhattan professional says. “Peeing only takes what, 30 seconds? Wait until I’m washing my hands to deconstruct the staff meeting.“ And if you’re primping, do it neatly and discreetly. Hair manipulation is allowed. Hair plucking and nail clipping are not. “I work with a lot of clients who require their executives to have good hygiene,“ Whitmore says. “But I don’t advocate shaving at work.“

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