Workplace Etiquette

Etiquette refers to the customary polite behaviour of a particular context, such as workplaces. Knowing and observing etiquette is not intended to stifle individuality, but to help people by promoting mutual consideration and managing expectations.

Workplace etiquette varies from one organization to the next, but there are some best practices that many do observe. Let’s look at those first and then discuss ideas such as entitlement, cross-cultural communication, and topics to avoid at work.

  • Phone: find out what the etiquette is at your workplace for phone use. Here are some good general guidelines: keep your phone put away when it is not needed for work. Keep it on silent during meetings. If you ever have to take a call while others are present, go to any area where your call will not disturb others and always keep any private calls short.
  • Meetings: give your undivided attention to the person speaking.
  • Punctuality: let people know if you’re running late. For every minute you think you’ll be late, give 2 minutes warning.
  • Complaining: don’t complain about work, especially on social media. It is good practice to use professional social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, to connect with your work contacts and to reserve your other social media for personal contacts only.
  • Don’t be overly familiar: be friendly but beware of crossing boundaries, like over-sharing details of your personal life.

Entitlement In the Workplace

A sense of entitlement refers to one’s belief they are owed something intrinsically, such as a certain level of job or pay. While entitlement tends to correlate with a drive for achievement, a willingness to work hard and to propose innovative ideas, people with a sense of entitlement also tend to break rules, put themselves above their coworkers and company, and believe – without any objective reason – that they are worth more than their counterparts. All told, displaying a sense of entitlement sends the signal that you are likely to make the work environment a more negative place.

An entitled person can also be a red flag to a hiring manager because they tend to be a lot more difficult to supervise: they are more likely to have a problem with authority, expect special treatment, or demand to be rewarded regardless of their performance.

Now that you know a sense of entitlement can hold you back in your career, you can take steps to manage any feelings of entitlement at work.

  1. Be confident in your cover letter, resume, and interviews. Try not to come across as self-important, as this suggests you will be difficult to manage and may not fit in with the organization’s culture.
  2. Ensure you have realistic expectations.
    • For example, you may need to anticipate the difference between rewards you expect and what you will actually earn, especially when you are starting out in your career. It helps to research things like starting wages in your target occupation and industry.
    • Don’t expect rewards and praise regardless of the quality of your work or the effort you put into it.
    • Be willing to put in the time and to take on tasks that aren’t necessarily your favourite. Show you are a team player.
    • Promotions are not automatically made to a person just because of the length of time they’ve been with the employer. The same goes for regular raises.

If you want to earn more or progress in your career, ask what you need to do and set your expectations based on that goal. For example, look for ways to go above and beyond your basic job role and be able to demonstrate that you can meet or exceed expectations.

  1. Be open to constructive criticism and learn from it.

Cross-cultural Communication

Workplaces are diverse, including in terms of culture. Every culture has its own set of tacit assumptions and tendencies. Here are some tips for better cross-cultural communication in the workplace.[1]

  1. Maintain etiquette: many cultures expect a degree of formality at the start of communications, such as offering greetings, using names, and making introductions.
  2. Avoid slang: people might understand the words you’ve said but not the context or the meaning, which could lead to confusion or even offence.
  3. Speak clearly and not too quickly: give your listener time to understand your words.
  4. Keep it simple: Using plain language facilitates clear, timely communication. Avoid convoluted language and jargon.
  5. Practice active listening: check your understanding by restating what the other person has said. Ask clarifying questions.
  6. Take turns speaking: rather than delivering a long monologue, talk in shorter exchanges.
  7. Ask open-ended questions: for example, in many cultures it is difficult or embarrassing to answer a question with “no”.
  8. Be careful with humour: many cultures take business seriously and do not appreciate the use of jokes in a business context. (Tip: If someone responds or reacts in a way that you’re not used to, that’s OK! Remain empathetic and respectful.)

Topics Not to Discuss at Work

The emotions that tend to be aroused by controversial, hot-button topics can deplete the ability to reason, making it difficult or even impossible to maintain productivity and a collegial atmosphere. For this reason, there are some controversial, hot button topics to avoid at work.

For example, people tend to take hard positions on things like politics and religion and will not soften their positions based on argumentation. Similarly, talking about sex is “not only a misunderstanding waiting to happen, it’s a surefire way to get fired”.[2]

Oversharing information about your health or finances can make others uncomfortable and even colour their perception of your competence on the job. Talking informally about others in the workplace – such as your supervisor or colleagues – is also inappropriate. If someone’s workplace behaviour or performance needs to be addressed, this should be done by the parties directly involved and in a private, formal manner.

The good news is that there are still plenty of things to discuss at work, beginning with the task at hand! Other water cooler topics might include non-political news items, sports, science and technology, arts and music.

Be mindful that asking some questions – even with good intentions – can be considered microaggressions and not just in a workplace. To learn more, check out this Harvard Business Review article by Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar entitled “What’s Wrong with Asking ‘Where are you from’?”[3]

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