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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Comments (18)
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Jo

    It's quite funny to see adults getting all excited about the 'on-time draw'! But it worked like a charm. Of course we waited to do the draw until everybody was there - just to rub it in a little (for the latecomers).
    Let us know if there are any more ideas or challenges you'd like to chat about.

    Kind regards
  • brisbane_artist wrote Over a month ago
    Yolande I think that's a great idea. I will try that one, Jo
  • dp7622 wrote Over a month ago
    I like that idea to. Problem is I'm finding people are just ringing my cell phone first. It's no longer for urgent matters. They just expect to be able to talk directly whenever, where ever.
  • cjh1963 wrote Over a month ago
    I remember reading somewhere about the percentage of calls that interrupted a discussion that was more important.
    My personal rule is not to answer my desk phone if I am in a discussion with some one but if after ignoring my desk phone, my Mobile then rings, I will ask the person I am speaking to if he minds my answering.
    I find this works best as then important calls do get through while less important calls can be blocked.
    If I am going to be tied up for a while I ask my assistant to take my calls and only interrupt me for calls of a specific level of importance.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Something we have done is to put all the name badges of the people who attended the meeting and who arrived on-time in the "On-time basket". We then had a lucky draw for a chocolate or something small. Obviously those who came late wasn't included in the lucky draw and they just hated it. It was quite a fun way to teach people to be on time and everybody wanted to have the chocolate!!
  • lulu wrote Over a month ago
    You will also find in the link Dianna referred to, another idea which I adopted, which was to fine late comers $2. The $2 coins collected went into a reward and recognition fund for staff - nominated by their colleagues.

    It was fun to see everyone looking at the clock 1 minute before the meeting was supposed to start, counting down the seconds and looking to see who was going to be fined that day. If you were 1 minute late, you got fined. Even if you were a manager or Director, if you were late, you got fined. It was fun and it worked wonders.

  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    The discussion weeze is referring to can be found here: ... c&start=15

    There are some great meeting tips that can be found there and in the other links provided.

  • mayc wrote Over a month ago
    I have to chime in on this because manners do seem to be lost in the workplace. It's like it's not cool to be polite and courteous. In our office it seems like everyone is trying to act too busy to bother. You'll pass someone in the hall and if they bump into you no sorry or anything. Just head down, bound and determined to get somewhere (very important?) very fast.

    In meetings the cell phones ring constantly and some even answer them and have their conversation without stepping outside. Our open door policy is more like a "come on in, sit down, make yourself at home, put your coffee cup down on my desk, waste my time with inane chatter, them leave your half drank cup on my desk for me to clean up later." The lunchroom fridge is disgusting. I know these people's home fridges don't look like that.

    At first I thought I was being too picky but it really is out of control. I think I've convinced myself to start a manners campaign - it can't be any harder than the typical "save our butt" PR campaign I get paid to put together.... can it??
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    I also have an issue with starting meetings on time, and yes it is easier to control this if you are chairing the meeting!

    For me, I've organised my work so as to be at the meeting on time and to start. If the meeting was scheduled to start at 10, I'd be there just before 10 ready to roll at 10. I've actually said (!) at some meetings, 'if it is to start at 10:10, then I'll be here at 10:10 ... giving me an extra 10 minutes to work!' Generally that doesn't go down to well (!) as the response is that the people who are late will be even later!

    My view is to start the meeting on time, and not to recap! People will eventually get the message.

    I've also heard of someone locking the door when the meeting starts and any late comers were simply excluded. A bit drastic for my liking ... but a thought!!

  • weeze wrote Over a month ago
    Being late for meetings is something which bugs me too. However I read an article somewhere in mind tools which had a great piece of advise on this, but it only works if you are chairing the meeting. Start on time and don't recap as people come in late. That way, it gives a clear message that if they want to hear it from the top, they need to be there on time

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