Good Manners in the Office

Realizing There's No Excuse for Discourtesy

Politeness costs nothing.

© iStockphoto/diego_cervo

Do manners matter at work?

Should you really be expected to be polite all the time, or can you bend the rules in the name of efficiency or self-preservation?

When your boss calls and you're in the middle of a meeting with a colleague, you answer it. It must be important – after all, it's your boss! Never mind that your colleague and the meeting are important too, it's your boss on the phone!

Or what about when you're running behind? It's 3:50pm and the report you're preparing has to be out by 4:00pm sharp. You print it off and the paper jams in the middle of your job. There's no time to fix it so you resend the print job to another printer, but you don't go back and sort it out once your report's delivered. Instead, you just leave the jam for someone else to discover and fix. Sure, it's an inconvenience for them, but it wasn't exactly your fault that the printer jammed, was it?

You know that behaviors like this are rude. You wouldn't behave in this way outside of the office. So why do we then allow ourselves to behave inconsiderately at work?

There is a definite double standard when it comes to workplace manners. It's common to see people doing things at work they wouldn't dream of doing in a social setting. But you can't allow these behaviors to persist if you want to create and maintain a healthy work environment.

Disrespectful and discourteous behavior makes members of your team unhappy, and damages the cohesion of your team. It works against all of the efforts you make to motivate team members, and thereby raise productivity. With this in mind, there is simply no excuse for bad manners. Whether you are interacting with a person higher or lower on the corporate hierarchy, giving feedback, issuing instructions or exerting power; good manners are an absolute necessity.

To make sure your workplace is free of rude behavior requires a two-pronged approach:

  • Encouraging good manners.
  • Stamping out poor manners.

Encouraging Good Manners

Most of the time when bad manners surface at work it is unintentional. It's easy to get caught up in your own tasks and projects. People's focus gets so narrow that they forget to consider the impact that their words or actions will have on other people.

In an attempt to be efficient and productive we take a few liberties with our manners at work. Perhaps, at one time, we apologetically said, "I'm sorry, we have to stop the discussion and move onto the next point." But now we blurt out, "Next!" or "Let's get on with it, people!"

While the intention may be the same, the degree of bluntness, or even rudeness, used nowadays is unacceptable – at work or anywhere.

If good people are bruised by someone else's rudeness once too often, you risk losing them. How long is it going to take to find an equally good replacement, and bring them "up to speed"? How much is this going to cost? And what opportunities will you have lost in the meantime?

When disrespectful conduct starts surfacing throughout a company, or when it's used by executives or other key people, it can become part of the organization's culture. Poor manners can be quickly absorbed into cultural norms, especially when no one stands up and demands courteous and polite behavior.

So what can you do if rudeness is endemic within the culture of your organization?

  • In conjunction with your colleagues, focus on the problem behaviors and create a list of the behaviors that are expected within your team. Be specific so that people really understand what constitutes good manners. Depending on where the problems lie, you may want to include these items:
    • Email and Internet expectations.
    • Where people eat.
    • What people wear.
    • Meeting routines and etiquette.
    • Physical state of individual workstations.
    • Working in close quarters.
    • Communication style – tone, manner, language.
    • Use of supplies and equipment – common and co-workers' own.
    • Telephone manners.
  • Demonstrate all the appropriate behaviors in your own actions, whatever your place in the corporate hierarchy. Acting as a role model is one of the most effective means of reinforcing what is acceptable and expected.
  • Until things improve, consider adding a "Manners" heading to the agenda of your regular team meeting to emphasize and entrench the importance of change.
  • Recognize people for demonstrating polite behavior. Make a point of thanking people for turning off their cell phones before entering a meeting, or making a new pot of coffee after taking the last cup.
  • Until things improve, consider adding a manners category to your performance review process. This elevates manners to a core competency level in your organization and underpins how important it is to effective performance.

Stamping Out Bad Manners

Encouraging good manners is one side of the coin. The other requires developing mechanisms and strategies to eliminate poor manners from your workplace. When workplace manners begin to slip, it can be hard to stop the slide and regain control.

Open communication and empathy are perhaps your strongest weapons for controlling discourtesy in the office. When people stop talking or sharing their experiences and concerns, or when they stop considering how their actions make others feel, poor behavior can start to work its way into the fabric of the organization's culture.

Consider this scenario. A few jokes get passed around the company's intranet. Everyone has a good laugh. Then slowly, over time, the jokes get more and more explicit. No one says anything because nobody wants to be the one who stops all the fun. Then a harassment complaint is made, the fun comes to a screeching halt – and everyone wishes they had said something earlier to stop the inappropriate behavior.

Or you start noticing that your snacks and drinks are missing from the fridge. You don't say anything because it's just a pop or a snack-size yogurt. You don't want people to think you're cheap or a complainer so you bring a cooler to work and put it under your desk.

While the magnitudes of these issues are vastly different, what allows the situation to deteriorate is poor communication from one side and a lack of empathy from the other.

First, you have to have a workplace where there is open and honest communication. When you do, your co-workers feel comfortable voicing their concerns and there are mechanisms in place for resolving conflicts.

Along with these, people must also believe that something will done to address their concerns. They have to see that their issues are taken care of and that management is just as concerned about poor behavior as they are.

On the flip side, people must take responsibility for their actions. They must think about the impact of what they say or do has on other people and the workplace in general. Whenever you have people working together, there has to be a high level of respect and concern for others.

Some tips for creating this type of workplace include:

  • Developing a staff feedback system.
  • Clearly defining what is not acceptable in terms of appropriate workplace behavior. This should refer to the "good manners" document you create as part of the process of encouraging good manners.
  • Applying a fair and consistent discipline procedure.
  • Creating a conflict resolution process that begins with people speaking directly to one another, but where they then get progressively more outside support and assistance if a solution can't be worked out.
  • Depending on national culture, consider encouraging people to use the words "I'm sorry" or "I apologize" – and mean it.
  • Encouraging people to ask themselves, "How would the other person like to be treated in this situation?" Perhaps even put these words and phrases in prominent areas of the office as reminders to be polite and courteous.

Key Points

Using good manners is fundamental to a healthy workplace. It is never right to act in ways that you would never think of doing in a social setting. When you or others cross the courtesy line, it's time to revisit the basics of manners and consideration within your organization. When your company has a foundation of good manners, it will encourage your co-workers to act appropriately – and it will encourage them to accept nothing less from those around them.

Apply This to Your Life

  • Ask yourself if you apply a double standard to workplace manners compared with social manners. What excuses have you used to justify your lapses in manners? Do these excuses stand up to rational inspection?
  • Make a list of things you've done at work that have been less than polite. Reflect on these actions and set a goal for yourself to use your best manners at work and at home.
  • If there is a recent incident where you felt you were treated poorly, or you treated someone else poorly, develop a plan to resolve the issue. Communicate openly and honestly with the person and share your experiences and feelings.

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