8 Keys to Nailing Workplace Etiquette

UPDATED: April 5, 2017
PUBLISHED: April 5, 2017

One of Jodi R.R. Smith’s favorite quotes comes from a handbook that was published in 1911 and bears the actual title of Polite Matters for Little Men and Women: “That the manners of children in this present day and age are not what they should be or even what they were a generation ago, is an indisputable fact.”

Those words were of course written before people brought their cellphones to weddings and broke up with each other via text message, but Smith says the general idea—that societal norms are routinely shattered by the young and clueless—remains patently wrong, wrong, wrong. “Being rude or socially oblivious isn’t restricted to millennials,” she says. “There’s plenty of it to go around.”

She would know. A former HR executive, Smith guided enough colleagues through missed promotions, toxic bosses and workplace romances to eventually take the leap and start her own etiquette business, Mannersmith Etiquette Counseling in Boston, which caters to businesses and universities. “A lot of times,” she says, “these were really bright individuals just having a hard time doing a job with other people.”

And it’s harder now because workplaces can look like anything in 2017—more of us are working from home, and Pixar has beach volleyball, for God’s sake—but the rules governing work interactions have essentially been the same since 1911 and well before. “I explain it like this,” Smith says. “If I get a hit and start running to third base, it’s not illegal, but it will confuse the other team and anger my teammates. The social convention is I run to first. That’s what work guidelines do—allow everyone to enjoy the interaction.”

Happily, those guidelines work whether you’re a ballplayer, CEO or rocket scientist. “This is not rocket science,” Smith says, killing my metaphor. “But common sense is not that common.” Here’s how to knock workplace etiquette situations out of the park.

Related: 7 Tips to Be the Right Kind of Professional at Work

How to Handle Any Situation That Will Ever Arise Involving Your Phone:

Simple rule: The person in front of your face wins. “The second you break attention for your device, you’re telling that person they’re not important,” Smith says. This is also true on dates, at Thanksgiving dinner, when playing rugby and in the rest of your life. “If somebody tapped me on the shoulder, I wouldn’t immediately turn around and start having a conversation with them. And that’s essentially what you’re doing when you check your text or answer a call.”

How to Use Your Phone Anyway:

Contrary to what you might think, there are times it’s perfectly fine to use your phone, provided you adhere to some pretty basic human-decency rules. “The overarching guideline is to pay attention to the people that you’re with, now.” Sure, there are exceptions; if your boss is in Chicago and you’re in Tulsa, you might have to adjust, but pre-emptive etiquette usually takes care of that. “If your boss is calling and you’re in a meeting, just say, ‘I’ll need to step out.’” Otherwise, only uncork your device if it contains information crucial to the table. Or if you need to look up the Heimlich maneuver or research anti-venoms. Both are acceptable.

How to Not Automatically Reach for Your Electronic Security Blanket:

Phones aren’t just distractions in the workplace; they’re also tiny security blankets for some people. “The second someone’s not talking to them, they’ll immediately start fiddling with their phone, and that prevents somebody else from coming up and interacting with them.” In addition to being a general social-interaction problem, this can be especially negative at events, conferences or other networking situations. “If you’re in between sessions, unless you’re on deadline or facing an emergency, don’t pull out your cellphone immediately,” Smith counsels. “You’re missing out on the people around you.”

Wait, Don’t People Know That Sort of Thing Already?

“You would think so,” Smith laughs, “but no, you need to reinforce it.”

How to Drink During Drinks:

Every interaction has a host, Smith says. “It’s like ballroom dancing: Somebody’s leading and somebody’s following.” If it’s your boss, follow their cues. If it’s you, set them clearly. Gauge your setting, whether you’re in a mahogany-and-jazz professional setting or some college-town sports bar with happy hour specials on wings. Host always picks up the tab. And for Pete’s sake, keep your wits about you. One or two drinks maximum and make sure you pack in some carbs along the way. “Getting drunk never enhances your professional demeanor,” Smith says. If this is going to be a thing, order a Sprite. Or meet in a tea room.

How to Write a Reference for Someone Who Isn’t Very Good:

Reference letters are hyperbole-packed formalities most HR people scan through disinterestedly, yet here we are. So decide how invested you want to get.

Option 1: Fake it, and omit some of the adverbs you’d employ for sharper colleagues.

Option 2: Ask your subject to bullet-point what they were hoping you’d say, or remind you of the projects you worked on. “That way, you’re not doing all the heavy lifting,” she says. “And you can write honestly about positive things. The more specific the situation, the more it benefits everybody.”

Option 3: If you cannot in good conscience think of a single positive thing, claim gosh you’d love to but simply don’t have the time. They’ll see through your hideous lies, but if they have even the slightest self-awareness, they won’t ask again. “When we call someone for a reference and the person will only confirm the dates of employment, that’s a big red flag,” says Smith. “I used to ask in HR: If this person was applying to work at your company, would you hire them back?” But all that said, there’s not much benefit to denying someone a job opportunity elsewhere. “Someone who isn’t thriving in one position might get into a different culture and blossom there,” Smith says. “It’s good to be able to afford other opportunities.”

How to Know When It Just Went From a Productive Work Relationship to Flirting:

First, duh. If you’re reading this part, it did. “Most adults can ascertain when they really like working with somebody versus when they liiiiiiiiike somebody,” says Smith, doing the sixth-grade accent thing on “liiiiiiiiike.” But when you go from working toward a shared goal to fantasizing about what they’re doing on Saturday, we say again: duh. “If you like working with someone or even have a work husband or wife, that’s totally fine, especially if you have a common goal,” she says. “But if it’s somebody you’re always hoping to sit next to, or touch when you’re talking, that’s too much.” (Also, bear in mind everyone else has figured it out already and is talking about you. Oh, and your office is probably crawling with cameras, so gauge how much you want your flirting/stairwell encounters to be enjoyed by burly security personnel in Jersey.)

If you’re both single and it becomes a thing, check your company guidelines and policies and other things that will seem obnoxious. It’s possible to like a person and still not want to lose your job for them. But after that? Go nuts—but, Smith advises, go the slow kind of nuts. “I spent many years in HR. I saw a lot of office romances turn into long-term marriages. But I’ve seen a lot of one-night stands with co-workers, and I’ve yet to see one end well. If you’re dipping into the company pool for dating, that tells me you need to think about your work/life balance.”

How to Stop Stressing About All of This:

As you have likely noticed, a good bit of this falls under the broad, sweeping umbrella of common sense, which means if you listen to your inner Force, you’ll probably be OK. Which plays into the last and most important rule of office etiquette: Know when to disengage from it. “Nobody should be working 24/7,” Smith says. “You have to take breaks and be yourself.” This is obviously crucial for doctors, air traffic controllers, those at the NSA and professional wrestlers, but it applies across the board. “People need to decipher and distinguish between something that’s urgent and a real emergency. We all like to feel important. And I like to talk about etiquette emergencies,” she says with a laugh. “But this is not a life-or-death kind of thing.”

Related: Do This Not That: A Guide to Drama in the Workplace

Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as GQ, Men's Health, Time, Billboard and the official Bruce Springsteen site, because though he's had many bosses, there is only one boss. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two sons—the older just stole bacon off your plate and the younger was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). He can be reached at the cleverly named JeffVrabel.com.