Look, I get it. Etiquette in the workplace is laid back in the 21st century. Americans aren't exactly known for their decorum (they leave that to the English and French). And things like casual business attire, open office plans, easy access to social media and Whiskey Fridays don't exactly encourage professionalism.
I've experienced this firsthand. I had a boss who would go to lunch with our office every week at the nearby Mexican restaurant. He'd drink one too many margaritas and pry us for the juicy details of our lives. Then he'd casually sneak to the bathroom or outside to make a phone call when the bill arrived. Needless to say, I didn't stay at the job too long.
Every employee should observe some basic office etiquette, but managers have some rules unique to them that will help their workplaces run a lot more smoothly. Here are 10 etiquette rules your staff wishes you'd follow.
Starting a new job is like the first day at school. The potential for anxiety and awkwardness abounds! In addition to a whole new set of skills and expectations to master, the new hire is about to meet a whole new set of people. Help out when she shows up by making the introductions yourself. The same goes for when a client arrives at your office. You don't want him standing around listening to the crickets' violin concerto while he waits for someone to say hi.
Introducing new employees or clients to your staff establishes you as the leader and avoids potential embarrassment. Don't be presumptuous and use nicknames. Use proper names, unless you get permission ahead of time. Introductions also give you the opportunity to practice that handshake, another boss basic you should have down pat. (Shake from the elbow, not the shoulder. It helps you give a firm, but relaxed, handshake, says Amanda Strickland, a small business etiquette consultant.) Making a good first impression is essential, even when you're already at the top.
It's easy to hide behind that desk in your private office and only make appearances when you want, like for meetings or birthday cake. But looking unapproachable is not good for morale. It's super awkward for your staff when they pass you in the hall ready with a sunny smile and you completely ignore them or just grunt hello. Even if you're not the extroverted chatty type, you need to make an effort.
Try small talk – the weather's actually an interesting topic these days – or if that seems too trivial, ask your employees about their weekend or comment on some sports event in the news. Even a simple smile and a pleasant greeting can suffice when you're busy.
Shyness or busyness are easy to misinterpret. Without your realizing it, sitting at your desk all day and avoiding eye contact in the break room may leave your employees with a bad taste in their mouths. They may think you're arrogant or rude or that you plain don't like them. And your friendliness helps set a tone for the entire office, increasing the likelihood they'll work well as a team.
Don't Be a Gossip
So you got the memo on being friendly. But, don't let it go to the other extreme. Gossiping is a cardinal workplace no-no, but it's an even more important rule for the boss not to break. Managers are privileged to some heavily confidential information, from their employees' salaries, to the reason the secretary took that week of personal leave, to internal data that could bring the company down. Don't take advantage of that privilege and risk your job or, at a minimum, embarrass your employees.
Beyond sharing restricted info, it's so uncomfortable working at a place where someone is a gossip, especially if it's a boss. I dreaded moments of downtime at my office when my boss was present because he would grill us for the latest news on our dating and relationships. He'd then tattle to the next employee with an open ear. Eventually I stopped sharing stories with even my closest friends at work, because there was too high of a possibility that my boss would get hold of that info. Remember, your employees trust you, otherwise most wouldn't work for you, so honor that trust, and respect their privacy.
Respect Your Employees' Workplace
Employees know to knock before entering the boss's lair. It would be awesome if you'd do the same when you enter ours. Regardless of whether the office is composed of private workstations, cubicles or an open desk layout, show appreciation for your employees' workspace. If knocking isn't an option, send a quick email or IM before you head their way to make sure your worker isn't in the middle of some urgent task, says etiquette expert Amanda Strickland. "This is an easy way for bosses to show consideration for their employees in the casual atmosphere of the modern office."
If you only have a quick question for a subordinate, don't yell it out from across the room. It feels pretty crummy to be hollered at like a dog on command. Shouting is jarring for the whole staff, too. Use instant messenger or the office phone to get his attention. Or do it the old-fashioned way – walk over and, you guessed it, knock (if there is a door). The workplace is your employees' creative space. Give them the same courtesy they give you and treat it with respect.
Your Office Is Not Your Home
Imagine a boss who kicks off his shoes first thing at the office and walks around all day barefoot – with stinky feet! Or one who brings food into his office and never cleans it up, so it perpetually smells like takeout. Or a manager who burps, loudly, with the door open and without excusing himself. These are the gross tales shared by my colleagues and friends during my research for this article.
It's great to be relaxed and comfortable at the office, but certain types of behavior you can do at home just don't belong at work. Keep your shoes on and your workspace clean. That goes for your language, too. Swearing just to show you're "one of the boys" is likely to offend at least some of your staff. Madeline L., an HR manager in Atlanta, says a common complaint she hears about bosses is that they tell offensive jokes. Any joke whose appropriateness you might question should not be shared, even if it cracked up your friends at the bar.
Keep It Cool Outside of the Office
As the manager, you are the representative for your business and your staff. That means you need to maintain your dignity even when you're not on the clock. Whether it's a business trip or the office holiday party, keep your behavior professional. Speaking of holiday parties, don't get crazy even if alcohol's involved. In fact, don't get crazy especially if alcohol's involved.
When travelling for business, remind yourself you're not on vacation. Bump your attire up a notch and dress formally. It's not the time to break out the sweatpants or speedos. Don't drink too much on business trips either, particularly if junior staff is present. You want to set an example. When you're on international business trips, check up on etiquette for the region and brief your staff. They need their manners intact, too.
Social media is another after-hours activity where you need to maintain control. Make it a practice not to friend your employees and keep your accounts set to private. Even if you're not on social media, what you do outside of the office can often end up there. You may never live it down and might even lose your job.
Pick Up the Check
If you remember my opening story, you'll know this one's personal for me. My boss who slipped away when the bill showed up? Well, the rest of us had to sit there figuring out how to split the tab about eight different ways and include his portion of the bill, too. It was uncomfortable and unfair, and it often degenerated into an argument.
Your staff shouldn't have to pick up your tab. In this situation, you're actually there to take care of them. If there's a group outing, a lunch meeting, or an office party, the boss or the company pays the bill. Not only is this standard etiquette, but rarely do employees make as much as the boss, so give us a break!
Think of picking up the check as another opportunity to show your leadership. Don't leave your staff in the awkward position of having to discuss personal finances after a lunch meant to discuss teamwork. If for some reason you or the company is not paying for the outing, make that clear before the group leaves the office — and make attendance optional, to be fair. But even better, have a fund set aside for these occasions. Or go with potluck.
What's snoopervising, you ask? Ever had a boss physically watch over your shoulder as you work? What about one who expressed concern over the number of bathroom breaks you were taking? Or about the two minutes you left early from work today when you stayed an extra 30 yesterday? That's not a boss. You've got yourself a snoopervisor.
Merging the words "snoop" and "supervise", this noun describes excessive monitoring of employee activity, which sometimes spills over into breach of privacy. Laura Gibson, an office manager, had a boss who routinely checked her employees' instant messages and browser history, with or without cause. It made her employees hesitate to use either resource, even if it was strictly for work.
If you've done your job and given your employees clear expectations, let them work without the threat of constant tracking. Micromanaging makes employees uncomfortable and distracts from the job itself. More importantly, it reflects a lack of trust. If you really feel the need to supervise so closely, you should question where the mistrust originates – you or your employees? If you find it's coming from you, back off!
Don't Criticize Publicly
Have you ever been put down in front of other people? It feels pretty horrendous. Being berated by your boss in front of others feels just like being bullied as a kid. We teach our children not to do it, so let's not practice it ourselves. Negative reinforcement, though often depicted in popular culture as the tool of choice for coaches, bosses and other leaders, is not the most effective motivator. It can break your spirit and is proven to diminish productivity [source: Manzoni].
If you have an employee with performance issues, schedule a private meeting and give some constructive feedback. Don't do it in a public place or an office with glass walls. It's never OK to make a show of publicly scolding an employee.
Talking negatively in the open about other employees, supervisors or your company is not all right either. The old adage that what goes around comes around exists for a reason. It's pretty common to get smack talked about you when you talk smack about others. And just as your friendliness can affect the entire staff (see Rule 9), your negativity can reverberate through the office and create a poorly performing team.
When you do have something nice to say, say it out loud! This was the No. 1 request from those surveyed for this article. It seems we are always in search of approval from our bosses, not just as reflection of a job well done, but because we're human and that's part of how we've learned to thrive within a community, even if that community is our 9-to-5 office.
Dole out those compliments readily whether it's for their crisp handwriting, the improved schedule that took them a couple of hours or that sale that took them several months to close. The specificity is why employees value this more than a generic message like "Great job, team." Don't be afraid to give compliments even for something not work-related, like a new haircut (always be careful about crossing that line with harassment though!)
When you give your employees credit for their work, the acknowledgement encourages them to continue working at that level and higher. Positive reinforcement isa proven motivator. Think back to how good it felt to work for someone who believed in you and who told you they did. Being engaged in your employees' work and in your employees themselves is not just good etiquette; it's what separates the good bosses from the bad and the ugly.
From the worlds of politics, professional baseball and old-time boxing came a term still in use today to describe someone who has a left-handed predilection.
Author's Note: 10 Office Etiquette Rules You Wish Your Boss Would Follow
Recalling the awful tales of horrible bosses I've had through the years brought me some good laughs. Excluding some experiences with sexism, which still make me angry, I had a positive attitude and laughed even back then. It's been a pleasure condensing those stories down and giving them a purpose.
More Great Links
- Atkinson, Adrian. "How the boss should behave at the office Christmas party." Director. Vol. 66, No. 2. Page 66. Oct. 2012.
- Beeson, Sharleen. Interview via phone. Lodi, CA. May 25, 2015.
- Birkinshaw, Julian. "Becoming a Better Boss: Why Good Management is So Difficult." John Wiley & Sons. 2013.
- Gibson, Laura. Interview via email. Atlanta, GA. May 25, 2015.
- Kleber, Klaus. Interview via phone. Atlanta, GA. June 3, 2015.
- L, Madeline. Interview via email. Atlanta, GA. May 26, 2015.
- Manzoni, JF & JL Barsoux. "Set up to fail: How bosses create their own poor performers." INSEAD. http://www.insead.edu/facultyresearch/research/doc.cfm?did=46698
- Mitchell, Mary. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Etiquette." Pearson Education. 2000.
- Pachter, Barbara. "The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success." McGraw-Hill Education. 2013.
- Sherwood, Agatha. Interview via email. Los Angeles, CA. May 25 & June 3, 2015.
- Strickland, Amanda. Interview via email. Galt, CA. May 27, 2015.