Workplace Etiquette

USA Today Columnist, Steve Strauss, answers the question: "I recently saw something you wrote about etiquette in the workplace. Can I add that I think that the biggest mistake people make when it comes to workplace etiquette is not respecting other people’s workspaces? Hey, my cubicle may be open, and small, but it’s mine! Leave it alone."

CutoutsQ: I recently saw something you wrote about etiquette in the workplace. Can I add that I think that the biggest mistake people make when it comes to workplace etiquette is not respecting other people’s workspaces? Hey, my cubicle may be open, and small, but it’s mine! Leave it alone. – Bill

A: Boy, this certainly seems to be a topic ripe for intense feelings. I’m not sure why workplace Etiquette seems to be such a sore subject for so many people, except that etiquette sadly seems to be fading away.

And that’s too bad. It may be a reflection of, not only a more lax workplace generally, but a decline in civility and manners specifically. To some people, manners seem to be an old- fashioned concept – some stuffy idea from when people were not allowed to wear flip flops to work.

But not to me, and not to a lot of people apparently. Manners and etiquette are nothing more than society’s rules for a common way to respects and treat each other in public. At a time when Charlie Sheen’s rants seem more entertainment than sad, when younger workers don’t know how to say thank you, I say it’s time to double down on workplace etiquette. It is needed now more than ever.

Here are the worst workplace etiquette mistakes I hear about and see most often: 

Cubicle claustrophobia: Like our friend Bill above, too many people feel like their space is not their space. But even though a person works in an open area, it does not follow that they don’t deserve some privacy and respect. Leave their stuff alone. Don’t peer over their wall. Knock before entering.

Kitchen confidential: If you put something in the refrigerator, you need to eat it or remove it before it goes bad. Leaving it there afterwards (and sometime long afterwards) is not only wrong, but frankly, gross. And while we are at it – don’t eat other people’s food and pay me back when I lend you a buck to buy a soda.

Phone manners: Or I should say, lack thereof. Your receptionist is often someone’s first contact with your business. Make sure it is a positive and respectful one. Teach your receptionist to say “please and “thank you.” He or she should not drop calls or argue with customers or act bored.

Customer casualness: Your customers who come in or call are not a pain in the rear or a bother – they are your bread and butter and should be treated as such. And while we are at it, your employees should be thanking your customers, not the other way around.

Missed manners: In fact, “please,” thank you,” and “you’re welcome” often need to be taught generally to all staff, and then reinforced.

And it’s OK to do so.

John Wooden used to start the first practice with the freshman on his UCLA basketball teams with how to properly tie a shoe. Why? Because it was not only fundamental (you play on your feet after all), and not only necessary apparently, but it was also a good lesson: Do the little things right and the big things tend to go right. So too in business.

Maxed-out multi-tasking: When speaking to someone in person, no texting, emailing, game playing, or talking on the phone should be tolerated. What does it say when you do that? It says that these Angry Birds are more important than you.

Wrong message.

Too casual: This era of relaxed wear is nice; heck, I don’t miss my ties one whit. But ‘relaxed’ is not the same as ‘sloppy.’ Nevertheless, some employees have not received that message. Make sure that everyone understands what ‘business casual’ means at your office.

Today’s tip: And finally, in this transparent day and age, it behooves any business to have social media guidelines and policies. What goes out there says out there, and that really can be an etiquette blunder! 

Have a question about workplace etiquette? Connect with a SCORE mentor online or in your community today!

About the Author

Steve Strauss HeadshotSteven D. Strauss is a lawyer and writer and is one of the country's leading experts on small business as well as an international business speaker. The best-selling author of 17 books, his latest is the all-new 3rd ed. of The Small Business Bible. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success Powered by Greatland, visit his new website for the self-employed, TheSelfEmployed, follow him on Twitter, and "like" TheSelfEmployed on Facebook. You can e-mail Steve at: sstrauss@mrallbiz.com. © Steven D. Strauss