The Ins and Outs of Workplace Etiquette

By: Lisa G. Phillips

How to recognize, address, and prevent office faux pas.

The long-awaited candidate for your open position, with the perfect resume and portfolio, has arrived. The young woman sits on the couch in the reception area. She wears a sheer blouse, faded khakis, and bright yellow flip-flops adorned with pink plastic flowers. She carries a worn denim bag, her lime-green nail polish is chipped, and her hair is carelessly combed. Before acknowledging you, she takes several moments to finish her cell phone call. Her parting comment to her caller is, "I'm at the company now, and I've basically got the job." Would you hire this candidate?

I imagine most of you right now are vehemently saying, "No, of course I wouldn't." Perhaps you're questioning whether this scenario is even possible. As a former director of human resources and current HR consulting-firm owner, I can tell you it is. In fact, I've frequently observed violations of workplace etiquette.

One violation I've observed during the interview process included a direct email, with attachments, telling me to follow a link to the candidate's website to find his resume and instructing me to contact him if I think it's "worth it" for him to apply for the job. In addition, there have been interviews where I've encountered foul language, inappropriate attire, eating, drinking, and chewing gum. I've even seen candidates take cell phone calls or send text messages during interviews with senior staff.

This poor behavior is not limited to the interview process either. Some employee etiquette faux pas I've observed and been called on to address include constantly sending or receiving emails on a smartphone during meetings or seminars; repeatedly leaving a mess in the common sink, refrigerator, or coffee area; stealing other employees' lunches from the communal refrigerator; failing to return phone calls or to respond to important emails; interrupting conversations when a senior manager is speaking; and the inability to tactfully introduce a newcomer to a group of fellow employees or senior management.

Managers are sometimes responsible for violations of workplace etiquette. I've seen managers berate employees in public, unethically use power, treat employees unfairly, send scathing emails to their employees, and take credit for the work of others.

In order to curtail these violations, organizations and managers must be proactive in addressing and handling workplace etiquette issues. After all, your organization's success depends on employees who understand how to conduct themselves as assets, not liabilities, to your organization. They need to know how to work in teams, handle errors, navigate interpersonal relationships, and conduct themselves with members, managers, and coworkers. In addition, managers must have a basic understanding of how the organization works and know how to use power ethically, not abusively.

If employees fail to conduct themselves properly, managers must intervene promptly and appropriately. There must be consequences for inappropriate behavior, those consequences should be made public, and everyone on staff should know what they are. Managers are remiss when handling problems with workplace etiquette if they either ignore or overreact to violations. In fact, how managers address employees is just as important as addressing a violation. Manager intervention must be a parallel process: Managers must address the correction of the violation with the same respect and behavior required of the employee. Employees won't conform if their managers do not, and managers won't conform if senior management ignores inappropriate manager behavior. Remember that bad behavior at any level of an organization will affect all other levels. For example, manager bullying and other violations of organizational ethical standards will not inspire appropriate behavior in employees. Without appropriate policies and procedures in place, organizations will likely suffer.

Lisa G. Phillips, SPHR, is president of Three Paths HR Consulting, LLC, in Rockville, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Managers and Workplace Etiquette

Managers can do the following to effectively handle workplace etiquette issues throughout the employee lifecycle:

  • Interview and select candidates who exhibit civility and respect.
  • Talk about the importance of civility during the interview process and give examples of what happens to offenders.
  • Share the etiquette policies and procedures with employees.
  • Conduct thorough reference checks and ask if the candidate has appropriate, civil interactions with managers, members, and coworkers.
  • Meet privately and in a timely manner with etiquette-challenged employees.
  • When speaking with employees about an etiquette issue, use objective statements to describe the behavior and the reaction it caused and explain expected behavior.

Sidebar: Organizations and Workplace Etiquette

Organizations can take the following steps to proactively address workplace-etiquette issues:

  • Develop appropriate policies and procedures.
  • Train managers to respond appropriately to violations of workplace etiquette.
  • Include training on etiquette during orientation.
  • Develop a culture of mutual respect, with management defining the norm for the organization.
  • Deal swiftly with managers who violate etiquette guidelines.
  • Establish multiple avenues for conflict resolution.
  • Provide training on etiquette that incorporates role playing (e.g., listening, conflict resolution, negotiation, dealing with difficult people, stress management, and so forth), so employees have concrete examples of what's expected of them.
  • Develop an awards program for employees who exhibit excellence, leadership, and civility.
  • Tailor interventions to the specific workplace.
  • Bring in a consultant or specialist if the issue is too difficult to handle internally.