Learning professional etiquette is a bit like living in a foreign country. You can understand some aspects of professional decorum inherently, some you learn from mentors or guides, and some you discover after making mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are small — you use the wrong word when ordering lunch in Bilbao, or forget to refill the coffee pot in the break room. You’re gently corrected. Next time, you get it right.
Some professional etiquette mistakes are bigger. These mistakes anger your coworkers and jeopardize business relationships. If they go unchecked, they cumulate into a thundercloud that hangs over your office, your company, or even follow you for the rest of your career. “Oh,” says a new lead when you introduce yourself at a conference, “Don’t worry, I’ve already heard of you.”
These are the scenarios effective marketers want to avoid. Avoiding these common etiquette mistakes can help:
Professional Etiquette Mistakes of Social Butterflies
Making Social Calls All Day
Some socializing is critical to building strong business relationships, but too much of anything is a bad thing. Asking about an office mate’s new dog is a great idea while you’re both microwaving lunches in the kitchen. Stopping by every office on the way to your own to make social calls, however, is not.
While your colleagues may choose office etiquette over slamming a door in your face, they’ll secretly grow resentful of you monopolizing their time. They may even lose respect for you if they think you’re spending more time chatting during the day than working.
Playing the Part of Resident Expert
Outside your office, you hear Angela telling Pete about an Excel issue. Later that day you overhear a conversation about the best B2B software. At lunch, Paula and Sheldon are sharing horror stories about toddler tantrums. You have experience with all of these problems, so you jump into the conversation without an invitation. You talk about your own life and offer unsolicited advice. Surely, Angela, Paula and the gang are grateful, right?
Probably not. Opinions are like belly buttons — everyone has one, and the entire office probably doesn’t want to see yours. Sure, if you know how to easily fix a giant printer issue, by all means, speak up. But when you’re constantly throwing free advice at people, you’re not observing professional etiquette. You’re assuming your ideas haven’t already been considered and tested. You’re also possibly embarrassing employees in front of superiors or giving off the impression that you think you know how to do every job in the office.
Complaining to All the Wrong People
Did you know that “60-80% of all difficulties in organizations stem from strained relationships between employees, not from deficits in individual employee’s skill or motivation?” In other words, the mistakes your coworkers make aren’t the problem. The way you handle those mistakes is.
Nothing puts a business relationship in more jeopardy than airing your grievances to anyone who’ll listen. If Joanne’s messy workspace bothers you, the only person you should tell about it is Joanne. Addressing issues directly doesn’t just bring faster resolutions. It also prevents you from earning the title of “office whiner.” Trust us — you care about your petty differences a lot more than everyone else.
Responding to EVERY Email
There’s no need to hit the “Reply All” button to let everyone know how excited you are for cake in the break room. It’s free cake — everyone is excited. Business etiquette dictates that office-wide memos don’t require a response unless they explicitly ask for one.
You also shouldn’t feel the need to have the last word for every single email conversation. If an exchange has ended naturally and all items have been addressed, there’s no need to constantly flood inboxes with one-word answers. Like the Disney song says, let it go.
Punching in at the Rumor Mill
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." While studies suggest that only 5% of gossip is malicious, constantly talking about the other people in your office will give them the impression that you care more about their personal lives than you do about your work. Worse, it may convince higher-ups that you can’t be trusted with delicate information. Ironically, the more you gossip, the more likely you’ll be to find yourself “out of the loop.”
Professional Decorum Mistakes of Workaholics
Not Knowing When to Unplug
Collectively, Americans check their phones 8 billion times a day. That means that, on average, a person in the U.S. will check their phone 46 times per day. Here’s a golden rule of business etiquette: none of those times should occur during a group meeting or one-on-one.
Your boss, colleagues or potential clients won’t know if you’re simply checking the time or playing Pokemon Go, but they will know that whatever you’re doing, you value it more than you value their time. That isn’t the impression you want to make. Check your phone before and after a meeting, but give others your full attention while the meeting’s in progress.
Confusing Being Assertive with Being a Jerk
Research shows that “leaders who are perceived as being more assertive are also perceived as being more honest and having higher integrity than those who are not.” That should come as no surprise. When most of us think of strong leaders, we picture assertiveness as a top trait.
Here’s the problem — many leaders (or professionals climbing the ladder) confuse being assertive for being a jerk. They make harsh demands simply to demonstrate their power without working to build business relationships in the process. Of course, strong leaders need to create and implement strategies. They need to delegate tasks. But they also need to stay genuine and grateful in their interactions — whether they’re greeting a college intern or speaking with their most powerful client.
Showing Up Sick
When it comes to professional etiquette, this move is a major mistake. Each week, 3 million people, or 2 percent of the U.S. population, show up sick to work. Researchers call the phenomenon "contagious presenteeism.”
Although you might think soldiering through your sniffles shows dedication, what your coworkers see is someone more willing to sacrifice the health of everyone in the office than one of their sick days. What’s more, the quality of your work plummets when you're fighting your way through a haze of Benadryl and antibiotics — and your co-workers are forced to pick up the pieces. Better to stay home, rest up, and return refreshed.
Professional Etiquette Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making
Taking Forever to Respond
About 50% of email replies are sent within an hour. You don’t need to hold yourself to this standard, but you should make an effort to respond to business emails in a timely manner. What’s considered timely? If you received the email at the beginning of the work day, try responding before you leave the office. If the initial email came later in the day, responding within one business day is best.
Remember, if an email message asks you to tackle a big project, you don’t need to complete the task in order to respond. Simply reply to let the sender know you’ll be hard at work — and give them a rough idea of when to expect an update or finished product.
Broadcasting Your Critiques
If your entire sales team has been falling behind on quotas, gathering them together to talk strategy makes sense. However, if you have an issue with a specific person, don’t address it in front of the entire office. Schedule a time to talk privately. Consider booking one of your office’s meeting rooms if your own office isn’t sound-proof.
Criticism should always be constructive — and in order to be constructive, it has to be aimed at finding a solution, not just embarrassing someone in front of their peers. Remember, your colleagues and employees are adult professionals. They need structure, guidance, and goals — not punishments.
Asking Questions in Real-Time
Everyone has questions. Throughout the day, you may run into a handful of problems that require help from your manager, employees, IT department or office manager. A lot of these issues need immediate help — but many of them don’t.
For example, imagine you have an issue with your parking pass, have a question about your office mailbox and want to know the date of the annual holiday party. You could stop by your office manager’s desk three separate times to interrupt her throughout the day, or you could wait until later to ask her all of your non-pressing questions at once. Which of these options sounds like a better professional etiquette choice?
Always Taking but Never Giving
Have you ever stolen a pizza slice without chipping in? Do you hoard all the best K-Cup flavors before anyone else has a chance to enjoy one? You may think your coworkers don’t notice, but they definitely do.
Not everyone has the skills to bake decadent chocolate cupcakes for the entire office, but saying thanks to those who do goes a long way. A handwritten thank you note after enjoying a colleague’s generosity will be appreciated and remembered.
Creating Invisible Pollution
If you’ve single-handedly turned your office space into an episode of Hoarders, you probably know it. But you may not be as aware of your “invisible pollution.” This form of pollution is even worse than an overflowing wastepaper basket, and it comes in two forms: sound and smell.
Do you take personal calls at your desk and cackle as your best friend recounts her blind date from last night? Do you listen to Pandora all day through blaring headphones? If so, you may be guilty of sound pollution. Do you bathe in Axe body spray before work and eat three pounds of tuna fish daily? This smell pollution could be seriously grating the nerves of your office neighbors. Remember, if you’re not sure if you’re bothering your neighbors, all you have to do is ask!
Living in A World With Only One Time Zone
9 am might seem like the perfect time to schedule your monthly sales team call, but what if your team is split between coasts? Follow professional decorum protocol by always checking time zones. Then confirm if the time you’ve chosen works for everyone. When possible, try to schedule meetings and calls in the middle of workdays. That way, if you run over on time, you won’t be forcing anyone to stay in the office until 6pm on a Friday.
Being Just a Little Late to Every Meeting
Obviously, strolling into a presentation a half hour late is a serious offense. But being just five minutes late isn’t bad, right? It is. While this happens to the best of us from time to time, if you’re constantly late — even just a little — colleagues will think you’re bad at managing your time, or that you don’t respect theirs.
A great way to avoid this is to set mobile alerts to go off 15 and then 5 minutes before each meeting. If you’re scheduled for a GoToMeeting, Skype call or using similar conference software, try calling in ahead of time. You don’t want to find yourself installing updates and resetting passwords a minute before the call!
The art of business etiquette isn’t dead, but you put it on the endangered list every time you make one of these mistakes. Did we miss any important pillars of professional decorum? Comment below to let us know!
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