After two years of zoom calls, working from home, and avoiding social interactions – and basically all contact with other people – as much as possible – many of us find that our interpersonal skills have become a bit rusty. This can be an issue as the economy opens up, people resume their group activities, and most importantly, more and more of us get the call to return to work at the office.
Practicing proper workplace etiquette can be essential for your career longevity and growth. So, now is a good time to brush up on the basic rules of proper professional manners and the most common blunders people often make, along with looking at how the rules of interacting with colleagues and clients may have changed post-COVID-19.
Basic rules of workplace etiquette
- Good manners
- Written communications
- Be on time
- Listen to other people
- Post-COVID etiquette rules
Etiquette is the often unwritten set of rules for people respectfully interacting with each other. It is the code of polite behaviour that is agreed upon for a specific situation. There are different rules of etiquette for standing in line at the grocery store, attending a dinner party, or seeing a movie at the cinema. Usually, no one even notices or mentions these rules until someone breaches them. Then, this draws the ire of everyone around them.
In the workplace, the savvier you are about the unspoken rules of etiquette, the more professional and polite you will appear to your managers and coworkers. This can elevate your status at work. Here are a few of the basics to master.
At work – and everywhere else – you should practice the good manners that your parents taught you. When you ask for something, say, ‘please.’ When someone offers or does something for you, say ‘thank you.’ Good manners are the very basics of professional etiquette.
Being polite to others also means greeting them with a friendly ‘hello,’ when you first see them, holding the elevator door open when you see someone hurrying to approach, and offering to help if they are struggling with heavy packages. It is about noticing other people and showing that you care about their feelings.
Basic table manners are also important. Be polite on business lunches or even just in the breakroom at work. Don’t talk with your mouth full, slurp your soup, or place your elbows on the table. In other words, it’s best to be a bit more formal than you are around the dinner table at home.
Your written communications should be polite, friendly, and professional. This means taking the time to read your messages before sending them to be sure they clearly convey the information you want to get across, have a pleasant tone, and include the requisite please and thank yous.
You should also proofread for grammar and spelling. Taking the time to craft proper communications shows respect to your reader. It shows that you care whether they think well of you. Respecting others and caring about their feelings are the cornerstones of what rules of etiquette are founded on.
Different workplaces will have varying expectations about how soon you must reply to emails, but in general, when someone reaches out to you or asks you for something – it is impolite to leave them hanging. It’s usually ok if you can’t fully respond right away to an email request – but it’s critical to respond and acknowledge you have received the email and set expectations for when you can get back to them with a complete answer. The key here is setting clear expectations.
Most office communication takes place by email these days, and emails leave a paper trail that can be reviewed and reflected upon later, so polite, professional email communications are essential for your career.
Showing up on time indicates that you respect other people and care about their schedules. Being late indicates (or is interpreted) that you don’t mind having others waste time waiting on you. Proper workplace etiquette includes being at work before your shift starts. You should also prepare for meetings in advance and arrive at the location – or set up your camera and mic for a virtual meeting – at least a few minutes before the scheduled start time.
One of the rudest things you can do is to show up late for a professional meeting with coffee. The implication is that it was more important for you to stop off for a beverage on the way than to be on time to meet with people waiting for you.
If you have an appointment or a meeting, show up on time. (See above.) If you are held up or can’t make it, communicate with the other party as soon as possible. Tell them you will be late or have to reschedule – and apologize for the inconvenience.
When it comes to workplace social functions, there will be times that you would rather not go. But company organizers put a great deal of time and effort into planning these events to bring staff together and celebrate outside work. Never showing up disrespects their hard work and can come across as rude and antisocial.
You can probably miss an event once in a while if you have a good excuse, but in general, it is proper etiquette to attend workplace events. You should thank your boss, compliment whoever did the planning and coordinating, and mingle with people you don’t speak to daily. Just be sure to watch your alcohol intake – especially on an empty stomach – don’t blow off steam, rant, share juicy gossip, or hook up with a colleague. Workplace social events are still more work than they are social. Attend, but keep it professional.
Outside of etiquette rules, these social events are often a great opportunity to know your coworkers on a more human level, and provide great opportunities to socialize with other teams. Bringing your best self to these events, even if you’re an introvert can pay dividends in the long run as you build social capital.
Look people in the eyes when they are talking to you. Pay attention in meetings, and avoid looking at your phone or laptop screen when other people present information. (Be sure to turn the ringer off your cell phone during meetings, presentations, or conferences). Try to ask relevant follow-up questions after other people speak, or at least comment politely to indicate that you were listening and paying attention.
It might seem obvious when spelled out this way, but listening benefits both parties. You project a helpful and attentive image – and you never know what helpful information might surface. Better to be a little bored than to get caught not paying attention!
Dress the part
You wouldn’t wear a Hawaiian shirt to (most) funerals – or cut-off jean shorts to a formal church wedding – because doing so would seem disrespectful. Different situations will have their own unwritten rules of attire. In the case of your workplace, there might even be a set of written rules. Practicing correct etiquette involves dressing for the expectations of the occasion.
You should wear clothing appropriate for the level of formality of your place of employment. Proper etiquette means dressing the part for the role you have at the company you work for – and maybe even dressing less casually than the minimum requirements. Watch how the management team dresses and follow their lead – reading the room is important here.
The same goes for remote employees as well. Just because you work from home doesn’t mean you should attend virtual meetings in your pyjamas. Show respect for your colleagues by dressing professionally for video calls.
Oh, and wear pants. Many people have been caught red-faced by only dressing from the waist up to appear professional on camera…only to be spotted in their underwear when standing up to find a folder or close a door. (At least be hyper-vigilant with turning the camera off, if you’re going pants-less).
Classic workplace etiquette blunders to avoid
Using good manners and being courteous are just as important for your career success as are your technical abilities. Simply put, friendly, likeable people will have an easier time getting hired and promoted than a rude or abrasive person who might be more talented.
Using good manners and being courteous are just as important for your career success as your technical abilities. Simply put, friendly, likeable people will have an easier time getting hired and promoted than a rude or abrasive person who might be more talented. Here are some of the most common breaches of workplace etiquette to watch out for.
- Ghosting. Ghosting is a relatively new term for leaving other people hanging. It can mean not showing up for a job interview or a meeting without sending any word of your change of plans. It could also include simply not responding to emails or returning phone calls – ghosting is the decision you make to ignore the feelings of someone expecting to hear from you. It is very rude.
- Being visibly distracted. Failing to pay attention when someone is telling you something is almost as rude as not showing up at all. Scrolling through your phone while someone is talking to you indicates that whatever they say is not important to you – and you don’t mind if their feelings are hurt. It is also becoming increasingly common as most of us are never out of reach of our mobile devices and have become addicted to constant updates and alerts.
- Gossiping and complaining. Etiquette also involves having a proper attitude. This means being a positive member of the team. How you conduct yourself at work and treat others can be just as important to your career as your work performance. Being the negative person around the office, always complaining about the workload, environment, or other people will only reflect poorly on you.
If you want to blow off steam and complain about your job, do it with your friends outside of work. While on the job – keep it polite and professional.
COVID-19 had a massive impact on the economy, most workplaces, and how people interact. Studies have shown that many of us forgot how to interact in professional and social situations. If it’s feeling strange for you, you aren’t alone.
That is because rules of etiquette are organic, they form through practice and repetition. The more we interact with other people, the more polished our exchanges become. The long absence from these – and the lingering fear of contact with other people have left many not knowing how to behave anymore.
- Handshakes are now optional. The ubiquitous business handshake was such a staple of professional interaction that there are whole articles dedicated to how to deliver the perfect handshake. However, in the post-COVID workplace, many people are still avoiding physical contact. While refusing to shake hands would have seemed anti-social and weird at one time, it is now much more accepted to fist-bump (or elbow-bump) – or simply wave.
- Personal space is at a premium. It’s fine to lean over someone’s shoulder as they show you something on their screen, right? Maybe not – right now. As people return to on-site working after long periods spent social distancing, many are not comfortable being close to other unmasked people. Pay attention to the culture of your workplace and adapt your interactions to the new rules of interpersonal space etiquette as they form. When in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to ask the individual what their comfort zone is.
- Food sharing won’t be the same. Remember when it was normal to watch someone blow all over a cake before it was cut into pieces and shared by the group? That probably won’t happen for a long while. (Or maybe it will never come back at all – because it was always kind of gross if you thought about it). Most people are approaching situations with a newfound awareness of the potential for spreading germs, including the handling and sharing of foods. Expect people to be much more cautious with their food and beverage intake.
Etiquette rules are fluid, situations, and ever-evolving. The pandemic and recovery have changed how many people think about social interactions, which will impact the culture of many workplaces. Pay attention to the rules set by your employer and other people’s body language and expressions. The foundations of proper etiquette are making other people feel comfortable and respected.