Companies & Industries

Rude Awakening in the Workplace


If you start a new job nowadays, get ready to absorb a load of information in a hurry. The typical employee orientation lasts a day and is jam-packed with facts. You'll learn what each department does and where it's located, the chairman's favorite football team, and a few hundred other details designed to help you navigate your new office. So it's funny that, during this barrage, no one fills you in on a few points of basic workplace etiquette. But it's not too late. Here are 10 tips for office types -- hang them near the coffee station.

Put down the BlackBerry.

If you're sitting in a meeting, you're supposed to be participating. So put down the BlackBerry device, and pay attention. You wouldn't hold another conversation during the meeting, would you? (If you would, that's rude, too.) BlackBerries are the grown-up substitutes for the Gameboys that kids are so attached to -- they satisfy the need to press buttons, not to advance communication. There's a reason some people call them CrackBerries. Put it down, and listen up.

Keep invitations private -- or include everyone.

Remember in fourth grade, how you weren't allowed to hand out your birthday party invitations in class? Schools make these rules so that no one will feel left out. It's no different in the corporate world. If you walk up to three people and say to two of them, "So, Stan and Judy, want to grab some lunch?" you are saying loudly to the other person, "You are chopped liver." It's incredibly rude. If you are Stan or Judy, smile brightly and say, "I'm only going if Diana goes, too."

Keep personal habits personal.

I can live with a quick hair-brushing at your desk. And I think most of us wouldn't flinch if you reapply your saucy pink lipstick right there in your cube. But you can't floss your teeth, tweeze your eyebrows, or -- God forbid -- clip your fingernails. Yet all of these things happen in offices. Who dares to tell the perpetrator to stop? Here's how to do it: Send an anonymous Monk-e-mail to the miscreant. You can control what the monkey says. Have the monkey say, "Wouldn't you be more comfortable performing that function in the rest room?"

Treat money like religion or politics.

Money -- how much you make, how much other people make, or how much you spend -- is not an appropriate topic for the workplace. It's fine to say, "Finally! We closed on our new house." It's not O.K. to say, "Six hundred grand for a two-bedroom, isn't that crazy?" No one cares. It's tacky. Don't speculate about what other people earn or spend, either. Like religion or politics, money is a topic that's best discussed elsewhere -- not at work.

Avoid document spam.

We all deal with loads of unwanted e-mail every day. We expect to get spam from people pretending to be Jessica Alba and Arnold Schwarzenegger. We don't expect to get spam from our workmates, least of all the kind that comes with a huge file attached. If you're sending someone such a document, please make sure that he's expecting it. Receiving a huge e-mail file is like a visit to the dentist. You wouldn't do that to a friend, would you?

Keep your soap opera to yourself.

It's terribly rude to involve your teammates in your personal dramas, and the worst offense is to ask them to lie for you. If there's someone who may call and whom you'd rather not talk to, it's fine to tell the receptionist that you're unavailable. But no one should be asked to sign on to your personal soap opera by confirming fictional details. Your colleagues don't get paid enough to be expected to make up stories or further your inventions in order to save you a little conversational discomfort.

Keep quiet about religion and politics.

We're delighted that you're running for city council. It's perfectly lovely that you direct the youth handbell choir at church. These fun facts about you fall under the heading of "how you spend your time outside of work," and those kinds of details help us know our co-workers better.

The line you don't want to cross is the one where you say: "Can you stand those [Democrats/Republicans]? What a bunch of turkeys." Or: "Are you familiar with my religious denomination? I'll bring some pamphlets for you tomorrow." Nix on both. To be inclusive, and to keep from being intrusive, it's vital to keep your political and religious views to yourself at the office.

Only give solicited advice.

One thing you can say about office workers today: They work their tushes off, and do the best they can. Before you offer advice, please check to see whether it's welcome. There's nothing worse than stepping out of a meeting room after delivering a PowerPoint presentation, and having a colleague say, "You ever want to really learn PowerPoint, look me up."

I think back to music school, when my roommate Bev was practicing a violin solo in a practice room, and I was studying music theory in the corner. There was a knock on the door, and an older violin student stepped into the room. He took the violin from Bev's hand, said "here's how you play that," and played the piece. Good thing it was an expensive instrument, or Bev would've bashed him over the head with it. Ask before you offer advice. When giving advice, expertise may be less important than goodwill and tact.

Don't wear cologne.

There is a subset of the population that gets sick -- sometimes really sick -- from the chemicals that are used to make cologne and other scented products. Who are you wearing scent for at work, anyway? Save it for a night on the town.

Don't yell.

Do you know what they say is the worst thing about prison? Not the deprivation, the awful physical surroundings, or the smells, but the unceasing noise. Too much noise is punishment. Speak in a moderate tone at work, especially when you're on the phone. You may not be aware of the volume of your voice. So tone it down, please, before you get one of those Monk-e-mails telling you to douse the decibels.


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