Etiquette in the Workplace

Dirty dishes left in a sink by employeesWhat kind of complaints would Miss Manners hear if she worked in HR?

“My coworker leaves his dishes in the sink and expects me to wash them for him.  My coworker never replaces the toilet paper when the roll runs out.  My coworker has terrible body odor and I can’t stand working next to her.

My coworker interrupts every conversation I’m having and joins in.  My coworker’s cell phone rings and rings, and she’s never at her desk to answer it.  My coworker tells inappropriate jokes that offend everyone, including me.  My coworker has pin-up pictures on the walls of his cubicle.

Dear Miss Manners, please tell me, what am I supposed to do?  Should I tell my boss, or the HR manager?  Will they help me?  Or will they think I’m the problem, because I whine and complain?”

As employers, we focus on hiring the best person for the job, the most skilled worker for the best price.  But what happens when the best person for the job lacks an important element needed for fitting into any team — good manners? 

Is it the job of management, or HR, to police employees’ manners?

In addition to teaching our employees how to be safe on the job, learn the company’s policies and practices, and upgrade their skills, must we also teach them workplace etiquette?

I posed this question to a group of HR professionals and the answer was overwhelmingly consistent that it was not the job of management to teach etiquette to employees.  However, it was generally agreed that poor manners are a problem in the workplace, and that boorish behavior causes problems for other employees.

What are the biggest workplace etiquette problem areas?

The kitchen:  One area that is called out over and over is the kitchen.  Common issues seem to be employees leaving dirty dishes in the sink, not emptying the dishwasher, leaving the kitchen a mess, leaving food rotting in the refrigerator, cooking smelly food in the microwave, and even stealing other employee’s food.

The bathroom:  Following on the heels of the kitchen as an irritant is the bathroom.  Complaints range from the bathroom hogs, those employees who take their reading materials in with them, or those who use it as their dressing room to do their hair and make-up.  Other complaints are about the employees who fail to replace the toilet paper rolls, and the ones who leave the restroom a mess.  I’ve even heard complaints from employers about employees who talk on their cell phones in the bathroom stall.  The list of boorish bathroom behavior is a long one!

Basic politeness:  A lack of simple politeness can be a wide-ranging problem.  There are employees who take the last of the coffee and never make another pot.  People who ignore the ringing phone, and always assume someone else will answer it.  Employees who hog resources, such as printers and copiers.  People that stand outside others’ workspaces and hold loud discussions, or butt in on the private conversations of others.  People who play music at their desks, happily invading everyone’s airspace with their tunes.  The list goes on and on.  Rudeness clearly comes in many, many forms!

Hygiene:  Overall hygiene seems to be another problem area for people.  In my years in the staffing industry, I’ve heard complaints about employees who smell bad, employees who don’t wash their hands after using the restroom, and those who have other poor hygiene related issues come up over and over.  Related to this are employees who use too much perfume, offending the noses of coworkers.  Unfortunately, there have even been times where we have had to address employees who continually belch and pass gas, annoying their closest coworkers.

Management must set a good example.

My group of human resources peers agreed that the tone for good manners in the office is set by top management, and that it flows outward from there.  If we want our employees to treat each other with respect, we must create a workplace where employees are respected, and our own behavior sets the proper tone.

I once dealt with a boss who would interrupt her employee in the middle of a sentence, saying, “Stop talking!” to abruptly end their conversation.  Her employees were miserable and their behavior towards each other showed it.

This is an opportunity to check our behavior as bosses.

  • Do we speak respectfully and use appropriate language?
  • Do we listen without interrupting, or becoming distracted by cell phones during conversations?
  • Are we on time to meetings with our staff?
  • Do we return our phone calls and emails, or does our staff have to cover for our failures to follow through?
  • Do we say please and thank you, and take time to tell members of our staff when they do things right?
  • Do we give credit where credit is due?
  • Are we known for being considerate and willing to assist others?

What tools can managers use to promote civility & etiquette in the workplace?

Let’s use the lunchroom as our example.  Overall, the employee lunchroom is an area that boosts morale, providing our staff with a place of respite from their stress.  But what should we do about people that make it a place of increased stress by not properly caring for it?

The shotgun approach:  One method of handling these problems is the shotgun approach, wherein you establish and post rules for everyone.  The signs that say, “Your mother doesn’t work here, clean up after yourselves!” are a good reminder to all of us to continue to clean our dishes, and helps to establish expectations.  Email reminders can be sent to clean out the fridge and not eat food that doesn’t belong to you.  But, the slob amongst us may still be a slob.

Make employees share workplace maintenance duties:  Another approach is to have your staff share the job of cleaning the kitchen.  If you’ve got a habitual mess-maker in your crew, having to clean up after everyone else may cause him or her to realize the error of their ways.  Making your staff share these duties has an added benefit, in that it empowers your employees to handle issues that arise as a team, helping them to work together better.

It’s not always necessary, or best, to escalate etiquette issues to management and HR.

Oftentimes, it’s best for employees to address etiquette issues amongst themselves.

For instance, when an employee leaves the coffee pot empty as they walk out of the lunchroom, the next employee can politely remind them that it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep the coffee going.  Or when Susan sets her dirty bowl in the sink rather than the dishwasher, her coworker can remind her that everyone’s working together to keep the kitchen clean.

Sometimes, our employees don’t know how to handle minor issues that arise, which causes them to fester and grow into bigger issues in their minds.  Eventually someone may bring the problem to the attention of management. What could have been a minor and easily addressed issue can take on large and troublesome dimensions when employees shoot the problem up the management flagpole, rather than dealing with it themselves.

For example, an employee may feel humiliated or confused by a manager scolding him for leaving a dirty cup in the sink, and be left wondering why his coworker(s) chose to get him into trouble, instead of just simply reminding him to put the cup in the dishwasher.  This can cause hurt feelings and create divisions in a team.

As managers, we help maintain a cordial workplace by training our employees to work out their minor issues amongst themselves.  Counseling employees on how to resolve minor issues before stepping in assists them in working better as a team. 

Good etiquette equals good teamwork.

Teamwork is an essential component of today’s workplace.  Regardless of our job positions or titles, we move amongst various teams.  Workplace etiquette boils down to an employee’s ability to be an effective team member, and employee evaluations generally contain a teamwork component.

An employee might be very technically skilled at their job, but if their coworkers don’t want to work with them, it greatly diminishes their effectiveness and their value to the organization.  Employees must realize that their manners will impact their evaluations and their advancement opportunities in the company.

In these overly stressful times, when all of us are doing more with less, and stretched a little too thin, there may very well be times that employees get a little cranky, or forget to always follow all of the rules of the polite workplace.  It’s our job to provide good counseling to everyone involved.

On the one hand, don’t allow sour or thoughtless employees to make the workplace miserable for all.  On the other hand, sometimes turning the other cheek or overlooking minor indiscretions can be a great gift.  Help your employees pick their battles, and most important of all, help them maintain the peace.  In the end, we’ll all benefit from it. 

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices.”

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

Email Julie Tappero

Find Julie Tappero on LinkedIn

Leave a Reply