If you work in an office, it’s probably where you spend the most time outside your home (and it might even feel like more). While you want to feel comfortable at work, and a lot of company environments are more laid-back than they used to be—jeans! Snacks! Dogs!—there’s definitely such a thing as becoming too comfortable. Letting your guard down can result in some unprofessional moments, and that’s not going to help you get the raise or promotion you were hoping for.
“Each office has written and unwritten rules,” says international etiquette expert Sharon Schweitzer, author and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. If you’re unsure of what flies and what doesn’t, you can consult the employee manual, talk to an HR person confidentially, or just ask a trusted coworker who’s been working there longer than you. While the specifics of what’s OK and what isn’t will vary from place to place, if you want to play it safe and be a polished, professional, and well-liked coworker and employee, the following nine rules are a great place to start.
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Unthinking, offhand remarks are never the best idea at work, since it’s likely you don’t know everyone’s personal circumstances. “For example, don’t congratulate the VP on her ‘pregnancy’ unless it’s confirmed,” says Schweitzer. “The VP may respond that she’s not expecting, resulting in embarrassment and an immediate apology for the inappropriate comment.” Better safe than sorry, so if you’re not sure whether something will offend—zip it!
While this one definitely varies from company to company—for instance, my coworkers and I all routinely have pretty dirty mouths in meetings, IMs, and pretty much everywhere, and we’re not alone in that—if you’re unsure where your managers fall on the swearing spectrum, play it safe and save the F-word (and all the others) for after hours. Worst case scenario: “You’ll be perceived as more articulate, mature, educated, polite, pleasant, professional and refined,” says Schweitzer.
Violate Personal Space.
This isn’t just about not letting all your stuff overflow into your cube-mate’s area; it’s also about generally being aware of your surroundings. Are you about to break out a super-smelly lunch of leftover haddock from last night? Take it to the kitchen or break room, where everyone around you doesn’t have to smell it. Is your boss having a hushed conversation with someone? Don’t rush up to him or her and interrupt. “When an office door is closed, respect your colleague’s need for privacy and come back later,” says Schweitzer.
While letting certain colleagues know about major life events—breakups, engagements, pregnancies, upcoming marathons or triathlons, etc.—can definitely be acceptable, and normal, don’t make your personal life the main topic of conversation. “Keep your business life professional,” says Schweitzer. Use your own discretion to figure out what that means, and if you’re at a loss, take your cues from how much everyone around you shares, and what you feel comfortable letting people know.
Get Overly Political.
“Political and global news, climate change; these discussions will emerge in the workplace,” says Schweitzer. “Employers respect workers who have the ability to observe without injecting their personal opinions. In this time of national healing, comments based on national origin, race, gender, religion, disability, ethnicity, and sexuality are many times interpreted as offensive and unwelcome at work.” Of course, if your job is politically focused, that’s an exception. But otherwise, assume a nonpartisan attitude at work, to make sure everyone feels comfortable around you, regardless of your political views.
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Check Your Phone Constantly.
Unless your job involves social media, you may want to be aware that having your smartphone glued to your hand can make you appear as if you’re texting with friends all day long. “Unless it’s work-related, you’re on break, or the occasional text throughout the day, avoid the temptation to pick up your phone by keeping it in your bag or a desk drawer,” suggests Schweitzer. “Also, avoid documenting your day with a dozen social media posts—it’s distracting and unprofessional.” In other words: Try to save the texting and Snapchat sessions for your lunch break.
Talk Loudly—or All the Time.
Even if you’re friendly with your coworkers and there’s occasional banter, spontaneous brainstorming, or water-cooler chat, be aware that people are working, so avoid having extended, high-volume conversations in the workspace, especially if it’s an open plan. “Talking nonstop can alienate your coworkers,” says Schweitzer. Remember that not everyone can multitask and tune out others’ voices, so conversation can be pretty distracting to some. In other words, if you want to find out all about your work wife’s weekend, do it over lunch (or IM) rather than aloud at your desks.
Always be as honest as possible with your colleagues and managers—it’s the decent and professional thing to do, not to mention the best way to keep your job. Telling a major lie about being sick or out of the office to interview elsewhere could result in your manager not trusting you, or worse, firing you, says Schweitzer. “Honesty is best, especially in the age of social media. If you have an interview, do your best to schedule it before or after work hours, and if you can’t, be vague and simply say you have an appointment, which is true.”
The last thing you want to do is be known as the person whose cube is overflowing with way too much personal stuff (also a violation of personal space—see above!). That includes decorative objects: “Posting a couple of photos in your cubicle and office is fine, but use discretion,” says Schweitzer. “Photos of you and your partner making out vacation is, in most companies, not office-appropriate. Choose a few special snapshots and display them in a discreet personal area.”