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10 ways to improve your office etiquette (and avoid being the annoying co-worker)

Office environments typically require us to work in fairly close quarters, so a little consideration and cooperation can make life a lot easier. These guidelines will help you -- or maybe the irritating colleague in the next cube -- avoid distracting and potentially obnoxious behavior.

Office environments typically require us to work in fairly close quarters, so a little consideration and cooperation can make life a lot easier. These guidelines will help you -- or maybe the irritating colleague in the next cube -- avoid distracting and potentially obnoxious behavior.


We spend one-third of our working lives at the office. The people we work with can affect our productivity and our careers, and vice versa. Practicing office etiquette makes the place and the workday just a bit more bearable.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Watch the volume of your voice

Keep your voice at a reasonable level. Other people are trying to work, and your voice may distract them. Besides, do you really want them to overhear what you're saying? If you have something personal or otherwise sensitive to discuss, consider doing it in a private office or conference room.

#2: Use speakerphones with care

If you're on hold and waiting for someone to pick up, then yes, a speakerphone can save you time. Just keep the volume as low as possible. On the other hand, if you're planning to have a regular conversation with the other person, do it behind closed doors. Your co-workers in the area will not appreciate your disturbing them with a conference call.

#3: Be sensitive about what you bring for lunch

We're supposed to be inclusive and accepting of people from different backgrounds and cultures, I know. And those other people are supposed to behave likewise. Nonetheless, be aware of how others may react to the lunch you bring. If you think about it, any reaction it causes can't be good for you. They'll either hate the smell and complain about you, or they'll love the smell, assassinate you, and eat your lunch. Either way, you lose out.

If you have food with a distinctive aroma, consider either eating it outside or in the lunchroom, rather than at your desk. And some foods probably shouldn't be brought in at all, even to the lunchroom, such as stinky tofu or durian.

#4: Respect people's privacy

Because you're most likely in a cubicle or other open office area, you inevitably will overhear snippets of conversations other people are having. Maybe you'll hear something about a project you're involved with or a problem you've encountered before, and you believe you have something to contribute. Yes, if you go over and join the conversation, you could save the day or provide valuable insight. However, you might also be viewed as a busybody.

Think carefully before joining that conversation. One consideration might be the amount of desperation you sense in their voices. The more desperate, the more willing they might be to hear from others.

If you do choose to join them, I suggest you go to their office or cubicle, let them see you as you're listening to them. Then, at a break, casually mention that it sounds like there is a problem, and that if you can help, you'd be happy to. This approach is better than rushing over and telling them you overheard their conversation.

#5: Fix, or attempt to fix, what you break

How many times have you gone to the photocopier to find that it was either out of toner, out of paper, or experiencing a paper jam? The problem was still around when you arrived because the previous person did nothing about it and simply left the copier in its problem condition.

Don't be that person. If you can clear the paper jam safely and according to procedure, try to do so. Most photocopiers have diagrams to show you how. If you can't fix the jam or the other problem, leave a signed dated note describing the issue and what you are doing to fix it or have it fixed. Those actions could be a call to the maintenance vendor or to an administrative department. Your co-workers will appreciate your efforts, and signing your name to the note demonstrates your willingness to take ownership.

#6: Keep the lunchroom clean

Neither the refrigerator nor the microwave should resemble the Queens Botanical Garden. If you spilled something in either place, clean it up. If you forgot to eat something from the refrigerator, and it's starting to mold, throw it out yourself. Don't leave it for someone else.

#7: Be punctual for meetings

If you're an attendee, be on time. If you can't make a meeting or you're going to be late, let someone know. Don't arrive late and ask for a recap. Doing so wastes everyone else's time. If you're the one who's running the meeting, start it on time and resume it on time after a break. To do otherwise (for example, to start late to accommodate latecomers) is unfair to those who showed up on time and only encourages more lateness in the future.

#8: Be careful about solicitations

Even if your company has no strict prohibition against solicitations (for example, selling candy for a child's sports team fundraiser), be careful about doing so. Your co-workers may not appreciate being put on the spot. If you do anything at all, the best approach is to display the merchandise in a central location, with a notice about the reason, and an envelope to receive checks or cash.

9: Avoid borrowing or lending

The rich rule over the poor,

and the borrower is servant to the lender.

We've heard, in the past few weeks, more than we want to about issues with borrowing and lending. Those issues still apply even at the office level, even between individuals. Any borrowing that occurs can jeopardize a relationship if the repayment is slow, late, less than expected, or nonexistent. No matter how small the amount, the lender may feel resentment. In fact, a small amount might cause resentment precisely because the lender feels embarrassed about asking about repayment.

Avoid borrowing or lending if you can. If you absolutely must borrow, write the lender an IOU with the amount and sign it. Then, pay it back as soon as you can.

#10: Don't ask co-workers how to spell

Microsoft Word has a spell checker. Use it. Don't bother your co-workers with such questions. It hampers their productivity and lowers their opinion of you. Some probably won't even want to answer, because doing so makes them feel stupid. When I get such questions, my response is, "Wait a minute while I check the dictionary" or "Wait while I use the Word dictionary."


About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

38 comments
alibean03
alibean03

Regardless if it is asking for help or some people asking how to spell there are some people who love to hear the sound of their voice. I have had coworkers who do not stop talking throughout the day. Especially in regards to what the had for dinner the night before or what they are doing during the weekend. There is definitely a time and place to talk about personal matters so the whole office is able to function at its highest capacity. Respecting peoples privacy is another pet peeve of mine. I have found that the same people who love to hear the sound of their own voice also love to get any information out of the other coworkers. If the boss comes around and speaks to his/her cubicle neighbor the loud mouth will listen in and/or immediately after the boss leaves asks any questions that will give her information that may not even pertain to him/her. This also leaks into the notion of keeping the volume of your voice low. The whole office does not want to hear you because they are all probably busy working on other things that may be due later that day. It is distracting and rude and they should get back to their own work and talk during their lunch break.

jd_lark
jd_lark

A dolt walks up to your cube and interrupts your work with a work related question. Perfectly reasonable ... so far. He then hears his phone ringing and excuses himselft to answer it. You are now in a position where you either wait, or get back to work knowing that you are going to be interrupted again.

mmiller
mmiller

I'll add to the list, as well. If I take the time to walk to your desk and initiate a conversation, please don't turn away to take a phone call or review an incoming email. If it's imperative to interrupt the conversation, at least offer some sort of closure.

generaltso
generaltso

My cube is where two hallways meet. Every day, people stop and have 15 minute meetings standing next to my cube. I usually stop working, look at them and smile. Usually they get the hint and move on. I bet they think I'm nuts...

generaltso
generaltso

I don't care how tasty it was last night. Microwaved fish is the most disgusting smell on the planted. I *love* all fish - microwaving it makes it super stinky

gcarter
gcarter

Please don't start a conversation with me while I'm "sitting" in the bathroom. I'll be out as soon as I can. gc

fdm0207-tech
fdm0207-tech

Seriously. Certain aspects of grooming are better done in the privacy of your home - hands OR feet!

kari
kari

I recently got called down to help my receptionist whose computer wouldn't work. Upon arriving, I found that the "new guy" who'd just started upstairs left his monitor cable at home and since the receptionist was out (getting the mail), he unplugged her monitor from her computer and set up his desktop - crisis averted. Another new guy attempted to borrow my boss's desk chair on her day off b/c it was more comfortable than his.

chilipepperwoman
chilipepperwoman

In addition to stinky tofu, you should definitely add leftover fish to the list of things not to eat (unless you eat it cold, such as grilled salmon on a salad). Reheating fish is an office disaster. And for those folks who may not use Word (and thus cannot use the Word spell checker), there is always dictionary.com or... even better... bartleby.com.

cdh987
cdh987

I thought this article was very informative. I feel I actually learned something from reading it. I thought the part about lenders being too embarrassed to ask for a small amount of money back was very insightful (and correct). Thank you for taking the time to write this.

wim.harthoorn
wim.harthoorn

Meetings: If you are taking notes on your laptop make sure you demonstrate you are a fully active participant in the meeting - otherwise everyone else will suspect you are surfing the net instead of paying attention Turn that darn mobile off. Off not silent. If you're worried by being uncontactable first of all seek psychiatric help, but while the therapy is kicking in update your voicemail greeting and then turn the moby off. OK, if it's the end of the quarter and you are expecting a call from an important customer that might make or break the quarterly target then maybe leave it on silent, but tell the meeting chairman so at the start of the meeting, don't just walk out halfway muttering into the moby. Twenty years ago a big company like BT or IBM might have packed out a meeting to make sure they were never outnumbered, but people shouldn't do that anymore. Don't invite people who have nothing to contribute or who will get nothing out of the meeting just because it makes the meeting seem "important". Spelling: Be aware of trans-Atlantic differences. If there is no company standard then etiquette should be that the nationality of the author sets the standard. If British then everything is ****ised, if American it will be ****ized.

de.maltebi
de.maltebi

The worst one has to be all those rediculous mobile phone ringtones...why can't people switch them off or set them to meeting / quiet mode?

JimInPA
JimInPA

There is someone in our office that could really benefit from reading those. Any advise from any one on how to bring it up?

drp-deb
drp-deb

Wasn't going to complain, but knowing others have the same complaints as me feels kinda good! Here's mine...Stop Talking!!! Co-workers who can't get hint, despite the piles of work on your desk and the fact that you are not even turning around to face them when they are stopped at your cube chattering away. It's great to be proud of your kids/grandkids, but save the endless stories about little Bobby spitting up on you to the lunchroom!

CaptBilly1Eye
CaptBilly1Eye

11. Bathe often and launder your clothes. A cube or office that smells like a locker room (or worse) is something noticed by everyone and acceptable to no one. 12. Control your bodily functions. Passing gas and belching do absolutely nothing but serve to lower others' opinions. Yep. I guess it's obvious... I've worked with a lot of pigs that like to think they pass as people. But I guess if their intention was to keep me from spending any time in their office or cube... it worked. ;-)

Bob Oso
Bob Oso

I swear you guys must be in my office, daily, to get ideas for your pieces. Uncanny.

cbader
cbader

Wow, I need to print this our for a certain person in my office.

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

It's time I stopped cleaning up the lunchroom, and started borrowing money. ;) You did miss a couple of things, tho: 11) Don't eat other peoples food without their permission. 12) Don't go in other peoples desk drawers looking for stuff. Both of these happened to me recently. :( Grr!

Merlin the Wiz
Merlin the Wiz

And IF I am on the phone, do not start talking to me as if I were not on the phone and expect me to ignore the person on the phone. They had me first.

jschmidt
jschmidt

I almost want to vomit when the people in my office clip their nails at their desk, and then proceed to wipe the filthy leavings onto the floor. How can you possibly not understand how disgusting this is?

Tig2
Tig2

My Gran was British so I learned British alternative spelling. When posting to the board, I tend to do so in American English but noticed in a chat with a British friend that I had automatically switched to British English all the way to speech form. But that has never happened in a conference chat with that same friend and another American. I didn't expect that and was surprised that I did it.

chilipepperwoman
chilipepperwoman

I think it depends on the issue. If it's something generic--talking too loud for example--I always start out by saying, "You probably don't realize this, but your voice really carries. I'm sure you don't want to disturb people, so I just thought I'd let you know that sometimes we can all hear everything you say. *chuckle*" Any time I can provide a ready-made excuse for the person I'm approaching, it seems to smooth the way considerably. For really personal stuff, like poor hygiene, you can talk to the person directly (if you have the guts) or leave a note. Either should be very kind and direct. No jokes, no sarcasm. Pick a choose from these suggestions: "Bob, this really difficult for me to bring up, but hey I'm your bud, right? We watch each other's backs, right? Well, I just wanted to let you know that more often than not, you've got some pretty powerful B.O. Enough that most folks can really smell it when they're around you. It really puts people off, and I know you don't want that. I just wanted to help out and let you know." While humor can often smooth the way, I find that it doesn't work well among co-workers. A supervisor can use it effectively with an employee, but between peers, it's too easy for the offender to just blow off what you're trying to say. If you are kind but direct--they can't miss the point.

K_Green
K_Green

How about posting it in a public area, with a preface note such as ... "Wow, would you look at this list from Tech Republic! Can you imagine working in a place where people do this kind of stuff?" The person who needs the advice will see it and maybe get a clue. Everyone else will get a chuckle and maybe make pointed comments too.

Tig2
Tig2

My cube also housed the supply cabinets at my last job. People would come in and look for things and then come to me if they couldn't find what they wanted. Didn't matter what I was doing at the time, the assumption was that I would drop everything to get them whatever. Even worse were people who came by to get something on their way to a meeting. They would continue their conversation while standing in front of my desk. AARRGGHH! We had a color printer in the department. People would print their black and white jobs to it and then forget to pick them up. Or send it all of their vacation pictures to print. Both were annoying. I don't care if you have something non-business related that you want to print but do us all the favor of doing it at lunch, early in the morning, or late in the day.

HLecter
HLecter

I would add to number 12 ("Control your bodily functions"): If your building is so large that you cannot make it to the Men's Room in time, please don't use a corner of someone's lab or an *unoccupied* cubicle! And if you DO make it in time, please use the appliances per the design intent! We are tired of slogging through your smelly mess!

cbader
cbader

In addition to number 11, pay attention to how much perfume/cologne you put on. There are people that I work with that you can smell as soon as they enter the building.

gcarter
gcarter

Please don't start a conversation with me while I'm "sitting" in the bathroom. I'll be out as soon as I can. gc

chilipepperwoman
chilipepperwoman

Great idea! For those considerate people, it's probably a good reminder and a tactic I hadn't thought of. I just worry that the real "problem" person will think that it just doesn't apple to him or her.

tim uk
tim uk

That will irritate some of us. There is a missing etiquette rule 11 - "Do not post up loads of office rules". Best one I've seen was a notice instructing people to change into different shoes when coming into the office and pointing out they should change back into their other ones when they leave it too. A better approach would be to pass the list to your manager to bring it up at your next team meeting.

chilipepperwoman
chilipepperwoman

That's it. Just ewww. Using a vacant cubicle? Slogging through... ANYTHING in the restroom? EWWW!

cupcake
cupcake

The company where I work has cubes where the walls are just high enough for someone to stand and rest their arms on top... and inevitably, they mess with anything pinned to the board or written on the white boards... ...so respect the cube contents!

K_Green
K_Green

Hi Tim You're absolutely right that posting the list as a set of rules could be annoying. It might even deserve a spot on PassiveAgressiveNotes. Real rules, policies, etc need to come from management and be distributed via whatever the official method is. What I was suggesting is more of a "Hey folks, check this out" posting, to spur conversation and maybe get the intended party thinking on their own.

Dennis5900
Dennis5900

I got so tired of making coffee all the time that I brought my thermos to the office. Otherwise every time I started a pot I'd get busy doing something and inevitably the pot would be nearly empty by the time I was free to go and get a cup of the coffee that I made. I make a pot for me and put it in my thermos, then another one and leave it for the rest of the folks. Now when I walk by the nearly-empty pot sitting on the burner I don't have to get steamed. I also have a better idea of how much coffee I drank at the end of the day...

joseph.rankin
joseph.rankin

If you know how to DRINK the coffee then you should know how to MAKE the coffee! I've actually seen people walk into the break room, see there was no coffee and walk out complaining. It takes about a minute to make a pot of coffee and in this case about 5 minutes until its ready. People can be so lazy.

donweber
donweber

If your office area has a coffee pot, please make a new pot if you empty it, or come close to emptying it. I wish I had a dollar each time I went to get a cup of coffee only to find that the last person left the last quarter-ounce of sludge carmelizing at the bottom.

amanadili
amanadili

If you're a female, dress appropriately. Don't wear fish-net stockings, crop tops, black knee-high boots. That dress is great for the pubs and nightclubs not for a professional office environment. And we don't need to know how your breasts move when you're on a treadmill or how you deal with hair removal. If you're a bloke, the cubicle is not a change room and if you have a company issued t-shirt, take it home and wash it occassionally rather than leaving it on the floor of your cubicle and changing into it when you arrive to work. I never saw that guy take that shirt home to be washed.

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