Workplace Etiquette Rules You Should Have Learned in Kindergarten

Career DevelopmentPeoplePersonal BrandingReputation Management

Workplace etiquette is about more than just being nice to people, or remembering special events, or greeting people with a kind word. Sometimes, it’s something as basic as “don’t be an a-hole,” and yet we still have to remind people of that.

Bonnie Low-Kramen’s post last week on workplace etiquette and the idea of sometimes picking up the phone instead of emailing something as simple as a birthday wish reminded me of this. The personal touch is always more well-received than something efficient. That’s why I call some friends on their birthdays, rather than post a Facebook status update.

But Low-Kramen’s article reminded me that, believe it or not, there’s a need to tell people not to be a jerk. It’s surprising and frustrating that there is even a need for this conversation, but I’ve worked with and for bullies, jerks, egotists, thieves, and saboteurs. And in every occasion someone has had to have a conversation with them.

You would think that after you reach a certain age, or work in a certain kind of place, that these things don’t happen. That you shouldn’t have to tell the Dwight Shrutes of the world to knock it off. That you shouldn’t have to put notes on your lunch not to steal it. Or that a boss shouldn’t bully their employees into doing their job.

You would think it, but you would be wrong.

So here’s some basic workplace etiquette you should have learned back in kindergarten.

  1. Don’t shout: There’s an old saying, “In any disagreement, he who shouts first loses.” Overaggressiveness only makes you look unbalanced. Constant shouting is uncalled for, because it makes you look like a bully.
  2. Don’t be a bully: School bullying is coming under a lot of scrutiny these days, workplace bullying is going to be far behind. If you have to intimidate people just to get your way, you may want to consider that your way wasn’t the right one in the first place.
  3. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you: This goes for office supplies, someone else’s food in the office refrigerator, or the company’s money. Stealing is stealing, no matter what you call it. If you steal someone else’s lunch, they go without. If you steal the company’s money, you could go to jail. And you can even be taking office supplies because you’re unappreciated at work. Use all the misguided self-justification all you want, you’re still a thief.
  4. Two wrongs don’t make a right: You’re squaring off with the office saboteur who just undermined your big project. How do you respond? Undercut her back? Sabotage her project? Steal her lunch? No, you don’t respond, because it will only escalate. There’s no easy solution to this, because the best response depends on who the other person is and your relationship with your supervisor and/or HR department. But I can tell you that responding in kind is only going to make things worse and put you square in their sights. You need to keep your nose clean when it finally does reach HR, so an in-kind response doesn’t give you a leg to stand on when it finally does get called out. Document everything, report it to HR and your supervisor, and just make sure you can come out squeaky clean in the end.
  5. Don’t fight: Everyone at your office is under as much stress as you; you’re not any more special or more stressed than they are. So when you act like a jerk to others because of your stress, that means you’re telling them they get to do the same thing to you, which means it’s going to escalate, and pretty soon, you’re in an office pissing match, if not an out-and-out fight. Remember, you’re all in the same boat. You’re all feeling the pinch. If anyone should have your back, it’s your colleagues. Don’t pick a fight with them just because you’re having a rotten day.

Workplace etiquette is one of those rules we’re all supposed to know, because it’s what we learned when we were five and six. And yet, I’m amazed at the number of people who seem to have forgotten the lessons they learned.

Just remember, be nice and treat people like you want to be treated. How hard can that be?


Erik Deckers is the owner of Professional Blog Service, a newspaper humor columnist, and the co-author ofBranding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing. His third book, The Owned Media Doctrine, will be available this summer.