Workplace etiquette chat

January 24th, 2011

As I may have mentioned, I did a chat last week for Harvard employees on workplace etiquette. It was fun, although people were much more reluctant to go into details on an employer-sponsored chat, which gave the questions a certain theoretical quality. At any rate, it was a lively and fun, and is now below the jump for your entertainment and edification.

Workplace Etiquette ? January 18, 2011
Devin_Ryder

Howdy everyone, on this very snowy day. We’re fortunate to have Robin Abrahams (aka “Miss Conduct” of the Boston Globe) doing the chat today. Robin is a psychologist and has written a wonderful–and hilarious–book on handling delicate situations with aplomb. (Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners) She also works at Harvard! Grab a coffee and ask your “delicate situations at work” questions!

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
And here I am! Looking forward to the chat, everyone. Please excuse any delays or typos as I’ve never used this software before. Also, imagine, then delete from your imagination, the dreadful case of hat head I have this afternoon.

wasabi
With the increase of email, social networking, etc. what do you see as the growing concerns around workplace manners?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
I was kind of hoping you all would tell ME that!

Sarah_Sweeney
Hi Robin! What can an employee say/do when their boss is overly negative and cynical about everything?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Be the voice of reasoned optimism. If you’re close to your boss, you might want to address the issue directly, in a private situation. Otherwise, be a buffer between the boss’s attitude and that of the other employees. Don’t worry about coming off like Susie Sunshine; people will appreciate this. And most people wind up finding their greatest success through their ability to manage relationships. Being able to work well with a demotivating boss is a genuine skill!

wasabi
Well, I do find myself communicating more freely via email which is not always a good thing.

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Right. There are no formal rules for how e-mails ought to be written (as there is for written correspondence) so that can be a bit of an anxiety-producer. I usually err on the side of formality, or else mimic my boss’s/client’s style. Always remember that NOTHING on the internet is private. E-mails can be forwarded. This can be a danger, but can also protect you if you are afraid your words might be misinterpreted or your message misread.

RayRay
Hi Robin. I have a co-worker who is very openly searching for dates online while at work, and sometimes, seeing the screen is uncomfortable and a distraction to others. Any suggestions?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Tell them exactly what you told me. Also, let them know that nothing on the internet is private, Part II. In other words, you’re telling them for their protection, not your convenience. (True story, though: when I was a psych prof, I had a classroom activity around personals ads planned. So it was VERY EMBARRASSING when the nun who was president of the college happened to stop by my office and notice that this very married professor was scanning the personals!)

JamesOrinL
Do you have suggestions on how to politely let someone know they’re grammar is incorrect. An example is the use of double negatives.

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Their. Not “they’re.” How do you feel right now? If you feel embarrassed, then this is not how you should correct someone’s grammar. If you feel empowered, I did it right.

Sunce
What is the best way to handle a boss who raises voice at her employees on multiple occasions?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Again, I’d say mention it ONLY if you are personally close to the boss. If not, focus your efforts on other employees, helping them save face and recognize that her behavior is about her, not about them.

JamesOrinL
Oops! I did not proofread.

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
See? Other people’s grammar and spelling, most of the time, is not your responsibility. If you are working on a joint presentation or something where it will affect business, then you have every right to comment in order to make the product perfect. If you are a mentor, you can give this advice in that role. Otherwise, it’s like other people’s diet, romantic choices, posture, or fashion sense–one may shudder, but it is not one’s business to correct.

sarah
Hi Robin – Thanks for chatting with us! Another question about how to talk to your boss about etiquette. A former boss of mine always ran over time with his meetings and kept his next appointment waiting for way too long. I found this disrespectful of other people’s time, but I wasn’t sure how to tell him. Any advice?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
He is the one being disrespectful of other people’s time, not you. And I’m sure he’s heard about it from others. If not, then nothing you say will make a difference. (Why should it, if there are no consequences for his actions?)

Sarah_Sweeney
What do you do if your coworker or boss talks frequently about sensitive subjects like food, weight, and persuades other coworkers to exercise with him/her?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
It really depends on how extreme it has gotten, and if you are suffering emotionally from it. If this is a case where, for example, a recovering anorexic is being triggered by too much workplace weight-loss chat, go talk to the Ombudsperson. If it’s simply irritating, well, that is what much workplace conversation is like. People in the middle of a new project or life change *do* talk about it an awful lot! (Just ask Devin or anyone else who was unfortunate enough to have me as a co-worker while I was writing my dissertation.)

Sarah_Sweeney
What are a few general tips you would give to employees about staying above the workplace fray?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
That’s a little TOO general, SS! Give me some more details, please. “Fray” is vivid but vague!

Sarah_Sweeney
Like gossip, falling into cliques, uniting others against another coworker…

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Gossip is a mixed bag. Some is useful, some is not. When it’s not, refuse to participate. Cliques, too, can be natural–all the mothers in the office have something in common, as do all Pats fans (mild clinical depression, at the moment). If they’re harmful, though, make sure to stay friends with everyone. Focus on the work. Eventually, people will notice that you’re not playing the games, and you’ll become a sort of “safe house” for everyone. And that’s when you start learning the REALLY GOOD gossip.

138
Many people are glued to their cell phones now. How do you get people to remember they are at work and to stop texting and checking their phones while talking to you?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
“You’re obviously busy right now. Let me know when you have some free time to discuss this matter.”

Sarah_Sweeney
In considering your experience as Miss Conduct, what is the weirdest/funniest question you’ve received about workplace etiquette?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Someone wrote in about a colleague who, rather than using the ladies’ room, would take a cup into the office library, pee in it, and then pour it down the sink of the office kitchen. NO idea what was up with that!

more_snow
What’s the deal with “Harvard” time — starting every meeting 10 minutes late? Is it rude to just start on time? Arrive 10 minutes late, thereby contributing to the problem? Saying in your Outlook proposal, “Hey, this meeting is really starting on time?” Also, regarding meetings – is it ok to tell people to put away their d#@ personal devices during the meeting?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Yes, it’s fine to ask people to put away their devices, although depending on the nature of the meeting, some folks may need them. Regarding “Harvard time”– good luck on changing that aspect of a 350-year old culture! Somehow, although we realize that students need a “passing period” to get from one building to another, we don’t recognize that administrators need the same thing.

138
Do you have a good come back for when superiors at work ask you questions that are way too personal, such as what political party you belong to or when you want to have kids?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
“I don’t talk politics at work.” “I thought about having kids after the Macguffin project was done, but I’ll probably be too old by then.” In other words, lightly but firmly delineate your boundaries. Then change the topic. You don’t want people feeling that they can ONLY talk to you about workrelated matters. (Maybe you think you want that, but it would get really boring very soon.)

Sunce
Should I feel bad for leaving at 5 every day if most of my colleagues stay later to finish up whatever they are doing?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
No, but you might want to be aware of how you’re perceived. Do people think of you as someone who works smart, or as someone who doesn’t work hard enough?

more_snow
I would agree about the “passing period” and also having Blackberries and the like on for emergencies – but you’re giving people too much credit, in my opinion. I’ve been in too many meetings where both devices and lateness are used as power-plays: look how important I am, and how unimportant this is. What to do in those situations, where others in a meeting or on a team make you feel like they’ll participate if it happens to be convenient to them? Can you really say/ask nothing?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Say and ask anything you want. But you can’t change other people’s behavior, only your own reactions to it. If the meetings really are that essential, there will be consequences to people not attending, or not paying full attention. If someone can skip half a meeting, or doze through it, and still get their job done–why did they have to attend in the first place? I, too, have seen the lateness & PDA use as a power play–but I’ve also seen a lot of busy people dragged into meetings that they didn’t really have to be in!

Testcase
Hello – I have a co-worker who wears a very strong perfume. It follows her wherever she goes and lingers after she leaves. Nobody likes it, but nobody is comfortable asking her to not wear it. This includes her manager, even though others have brought it up to her. Suggestions?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Talk to HR. This really is the manager’s job, whether she wants to do it or not. That’s why she gets the big bucks.

snowandrain
What advice would you give to someone who works in a very small office environment and has to manage work and performance related issues while maintaining a positive personal relationship with a direct report? My office environment consists only of me and my direct report sharing a very small office area that is all the same divided into two separate offices. We chat about life, personal matters a lot and have a nice, lively day-to-day relationship. But his performance for work responsibilities has been very problematic over the last year+. He also reports to a professor for half of his time allocation and there’s a vast discrepancy between how he shows professional respect for me versus the prof. I’ve thought it’s partly because of our personal relationship that might suggest a casual tone. But it’s gone too far and I don’t know how to shift gears without sacrificing too much of the camaraderie, particularly since the physical environment is so small. I feel like we have boundary issues’ professional ones and physical ones. How would you suggest addressing things or changing course smoothly?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
I would go talk to HR about this. It’s a complicated situation that has evolved over time, not one that’s amenable to a quick fix. And as you probably realize, if you start setting boundaries now without the other person knowing what the problem is, you are the one who will appear to be a difficult case. So go talk to your HR rep. That’s what they’re for!

devin_and_laurie
How do you ask your supervisor what kind of reference they will give you, particularly if you think it might be mixed?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Give the boss a job description and ask if they can wholeheartedly recommend you (ask in such a way that it is clear that if the answer is “no” or “yes, with reservations,” you’re okay with that). Otherwise, don’t ask–asking in absence of context what kind of reference you would get makes you sound potentially litigious!

more_snow
Ha – good point about busy people! I would only point out that on many occasions, it was they who called the meeting. The joys of being the underling.

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Pretend you’re an anthropologist. Does Jane Goodall take it personally when the chimpanzees throw branches at her? She does not.

Ejespers
Our smallish 13-person department is really beginning to suffer from too much online and cellphone distraction (I am not a manager, just someone who notices and participates) to the point where we don’t perform as well universally as we could. Can you think of a tactful way to get folk onboard for limiting web-based and external distractions? Or is it in general just my thinking about it that’s wrong, and this is an inevitable incursion into our tech-revolution worklives?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
If the manager isn’t concerned, I doubt that you’ll have much luck implementing cultural change. (If I learned one thing working in Central Admin–and I did–it’s that no cultural change happens without executive support.) If you are feeling your own productivity is hampered, talk to your boss about it. Maybe “quiet mornings” or something like that could be instituted.

Sunce
I find the HR very useless when it comes to interpersonal issues. Specifically, I have told them about my boss raising her voice at me and my colleague on a few occasions, and the way she treated us disrespectfully. The HR didn;t do anything to address the issue. What can one do in that situation? I find the HR totally useless!

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
If you have a bad boss, you have to get a new job. Period. That’s really the only solution. You can talk to the Ombudsperson, who can help resolve conflicts, but unfortunately, no one can change another person’s nature. Life is too short to work for bad bosses. Take a bad job with a good boss over the reverse any day!

138
How do you handle a situation where one person is getting promoted into a new supervisor position over 4 of her peers who have been there the same amount of time? I want the others to know that they are also valued and to not get discouraged.

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
If you are the manager in charge of the promotion, make the reasons that this person got the job very clear: “You’re all excellent, but this position requires strong quantitative skills, and Jane is a CPA” or whatever. Let people know what other leadership development opportunities, inside and outside the office, there will be. And don’t worry too much–you didn’t bring in someone from the outside to take the higher position. That would have been a real demotivator for your employees.

Sunce
Yes, my boss was a bully and I did get a new job, mainly because of her. It’s a shame Harvard employs bad bosses. I wish this could change.

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
All organizations employ bad bosses. At least at Harvard, there’s a lot of other schools and departments you can go to in order to escape them without losing your seniority or accumulated years of service.

138
Thank you, that is great advice.

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Thanks! How well an employee fares after a promotion has a lot to do with how well they’re onboarded into their new role. The manager should legitimize the hire in the minds of other employees, and also provide opportunities for the recently promoted one to score some early wins, so that his or her promotion is justified in the minds of co-workers (and to give the promoted employee some confidence, as well).

devin_and_laurie
Hi folks. Thanks for all the great questions! We are needing to wrap up shortly as Robin as another appointment. We can probably squeeze in another question or two…

Robin_Fan
Hi Robin: One used to hear a lot about email etiquette (though I realize email is becoming almost quaint)…that said, what is your latest thinking about guidelines for e-communications? Things you have noticed that a truly polite person should avoid?

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Small talk in the office is fine, but workplace e-communications should only be about work. I think that’s number 1. Also, don’t keep people on an e-mail chain forever (no one wants to get a whole series of e-mails discussing the location of the next staff meeting that they’re not even attending). I think the book “SEND” is a great, great book on effective e-mail communication. Can’t think of the authors’ names, but check it out on Amazon.

SportsGirl
Robin, please come back! You have given us some great advice.

Robin_Abrahams (Moderator)
Thank you! I had a wonderful time and would love to do this again. And thanks for a terrific closing comment. It’s been a good chat, everyone. Stay dry and warm!


2 Responses to “Workplace etiquette chat”

  1. Dave's not here! on January 24, 2011 3:44 pm

    Nice to see that the Worlds Greatest University has the late meeting culture too. And here I thought it was only the companies I worked at!

  2. Mike O on April 2, 2011 2:00 pm

    Lots of interesting scenarios. Simple answer is to communicate openly with anyone that’s annoying you and causing problems in the workplace. YoNeighbors has an interesting solution for many coworker problems. One on one is the best first step.

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