Navigating the Manners Minefield at Work

If you forget to write a thank you note to your grandmother, it's likely she'll still love you. But if you can’t navigate the manners minefield at work, you could be out of a job. Changing technology has led to the relaxing of some standards, but many manners mandates from years ago remain current today.

Workplace meals can trip you up quicker than you can put a napkin in your lap.

Smelly food in the office microwave is still a no-no, says Leah Ingram, author of The Everything Etiquette Book. Sadly, that means no garlic, no fish and no Chinese takeout. “We have a multi-cultural society,” Ingram says. “But it’s still good etiquette not to bring smelly food.” Save the garlicky takeout or grilled tuna for supper the next night and bring something else for lunch.

When you do bring something for lunch, label it with your name and the date and take any leftover leftovers home by the end of the week, Ingram says. Remember, your mother doesn’t work here: clean up after yourself.

With advances in technology, communicating is quicker than ever. It’s also easier and faster to make mistakes.

In your last job, answering emails within 24 hours may have been the expectation. Don’t assume that’s the case at your new gig. You won’t know until you ask.

Or, perhaps you’re in a job where everyone responds to emails within minutes. But don’t bet your career that it’s OK to have your smart phone out checking emails during a meeting. “Today, 90 percent of people are doing it,” Ingram says. “But if you go into a meeting and the person who is running the meeting says ‘Turn off your phones and put them away’ and you don’t—you’re an idiot.”

Take a minute before hitting send on an email. Did you accidentally cc people—or a bunch of people—who don’t need to see that email or might be offended by it? Are you still angry? Take at least an hour before hitting send. Your career will thank you.

Whether you’re emailing, texting or talking, err on the side of formality. That means addressing your boss and people older than you as Mr., Ms., Mrs. or Dr. “There is an assumed familiarity that younger people have in the workplace,” Ingram says. “They forget there is a certain way to behave in the workplace. You should err on the side of respect.”

Finally, the dreaded requests to buy merchandise or chip in for office gifts.

The good news: you don’t have to buy the overpriced junk, oops we mean quality wrapping paper, gourmet candy and cards, that your coworkers are selling for their kids. “In some companies, stuff like that is actually prohibited,” Ingram says. If you want to soften the blow, say something like, “I’m on a really tight budget. I really wish I could help you,’” Ingram says.

The bad news: you do have to chip in for the office gifts. Not participating at all means you probably can’t sign the card and that can feel awkward. “Set a budget ahead of time and let people know how much you can contribute,” Ingram says. “Say ‘I’d love to give the full $20, but I’m on a really tight budget. Here’s $5.”

Stressful? Sure. When you're all alone at home, eat your supper with your fingers and wipe your nose on your sleeve if you like. We won't tell.

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