The observance of rules of etiquette in a business office helps make it possible for people to work together as a team and to enjoy their working hours. This article explains the basic courtesies that should be observed by people who work near and with each other in a business office.
Should you use first names in the office? Most modem offices are somewhat informal, and the use of first names among fellow employees is common. Even so, there are still situations where it is improper not to use title (Mr., Mrs. or Miss) and last name.
The basic and most important rule is simple: follow the practice that has been established in your particular office. There are some more specific rules that you should know about even in the most informal office, as follows:
• Addressing your supervisor. You should never address your immediate supervisor by first name unless you have been informed specifically that it is all right to do so.
• Addressing executives. You should never address a person of executive rank by first name, unless he or she tells you to do so. In some companies the degree of informality and the nature of the work make the use of first names between executives and lesser ranking employees a practical arrangement. In many companies, however, employees are expected to address executives by title, although the executive will usually address an employee by his first name if he knows it.
• Addressing women. It is a common sign of respect to address a woman as Miss or Mrs. even in situations where you might address a man by his first name. Most businesswomen, however, don’t expect special treatment in this respect, and are accustomed to being ad dressed by their first name. The courteous procedure is to refer to a woman by title until you are sure that she would prefer that you use her first name.
• Addressing older men and women. It is not unusual for an alder employee to prefer to be addressed by title by younger co-workers. It is an older person’s privilege to expect this mark of respect. Even if others in the office refer to an older employee by first name, it is best to wait before you take the same liberty, if you are new in the office.
Daily greetings. In most offices it is customary to say “Good morning” when you arrive at your office in the morning. Depending on how the office is arranged, a single greeting may do for everyone, or you may greet people individually. If your office is on a first name basis, you would probably say “Good morning, Jim,” or “Good morning, Nan.”
On leaving the office you would probably say “Good night” to the same people you greet in the morning.
If you are uncertain about whether or not you should greet certain people—those from another office getting on an elevator with you, or a doorman or elevator operator, or even the company president— this is one form of courtesy that is universally acceptable. The simple act of saying “Good morning” to someone may be the beginning of a pleasant association that might not have otherwise arisen. Naturally, if someone greets you first in the morning, it is only proper to return the greeting pleasantly.
Controlling the urge to talk. While a pleasant greeting in the morning is proper, spending 15 minutes with each office friend discussing baseball or last night’s dance is not. It means a late start for your working day, it distracts others in the office, and it may put your Mend in a bad light with his or her superiors. Your own superior, of course, has a right to be similarly displeased if you regularly turn your “Good mornings” into prolonged conferences.
This need for restraint in personal conversations applies to the entire working day. Apart from being an injustice to the company, too much talking in the office is a discourtesy to your co-workers. It upsets their concentration; it creates resentment in those who do keep their personal conversations to a reasonable minimum; it can inconvenience them if your talking puts you behind in your work.
The office grapevine. A grapevine is a kind of word-of-mouth trail of office gossip.
There is a tendency to place great trust in a grapevine, but experience shows that this trust is not well founded. Although there is no doubt that a grapevine can spread factual news, it also thrives on rumors and half-truths, and seldom makes distinctions. It is good advice to be wary of pluckings from the grapevine, and of people who fancy themselves as privileged newscasters. The smart path is to regard grapevine news with caution, and, if you hear what seems to be very important news through this kind of source, to directly question your supervisor about it. It is not a good idea to be a “pipeline” for grapevine information, either; passing on unfounded rumors can lead to unfortunate consequences, and can involve you in embarrassing situations.
Don’t forget that a rumor can have serious consequences when it gets outside the company. Even when you have no reason to doubt what you hear, avoid making public knowledge out of office affairs.
A company where the grapevine system is unusually strong is probably a company where top management does not make an at tempt to keep its employees informed. The use of bulletin boards, a company newsletter or house organ, memorandums and so on would help prevent the spread of unofficial and probably inaccurate rumors.
The coffee break. The so-called “coffee break,” a firmly established custom in millions of offices, takes many forms. In some cases it is actually a break from work, as the name implies. In other companies there is no formal stoppage of work; employees simply take coffee at their desks. Probably the majority of companies permit a coffee break only in the morning, but many have an afternoon break as well. In companies where fatigue is a factor, and where safety or concentration would be affected if continuous work stretches are too long, employees are given several breaks for rest during the day.
Most companies establish rules, to prevent the coffee break from being abused. Where there are definite rules, employees should observe them, of course. Where there are no formal rules, some common sense rules of etiquette can guide you.
• When you go out for coffee. In some offices employees go to a nearby restaurant, or to the company cafeteria, for their coffee and whatever they have with it. Two rules are important here:
1. Come and go quietly. Don’t upset others in the office and give the office an unbusinesslike appearance by a noisy and boisterous manner when you are going for coffee, or returning.
2. Take only a reasonable time. If you stretch out your absence from your desk during coffee break, you are cheating your company and you are imposing on your fellow employees, who must make excuses for your absence or try to answer your phone or otherwise do your job until you come back.
• When you send out for coffee. Yours may be an office where an order is phoned in to a nearby restaurant or coffee shop and the coffee and pastry is then delivered. Sometimes coffee and lunch orders are combined. Here are two common-sense rules for this situation:
1. Have a system for handling the taking and placing of orders. There is no need for commotion and across-the-room questions and answers. Probably the best method is to have one efficient person do the ordering, and to have the others come to that person’s desk to place their individual orders.
2. Be strict about finances. You are being inconsiderate and will eventually create resentment if you don’t make prompt payment, or if you never have the right change.
• When coffee service is available in your office. Many companies arrange to have coffee (and tea, milk, pastries and so on) brought to individual work areas, either by their cafeteria or by a caterer or restaurant that will provide this service. The company will probably set up rules for using this service. In essence those rules will be as follows:
1. Keep the line short. Half the office should not be in a long line waiting for their coffee. Five or six at a time should be the maximum. Otherwise there will be congestion.
2. Have the proper change or a small bill ready, if possible.
3. Avoid making noise. Getting coffee should not be an excuse for merrymaking. If you must stand in line, whatever conversations you have should be quiet ones.
• General rules for the coffee break. Here are some rules that apply to the use of coffee in the office:
1. Be neat. Don’t be guilty of having a desk covered with crumbs and coffee stains, or of leaving someone else’s desk in a similar condition. If you use your own cup, wash it after use and keep it out of sight.
2. Observe common table manners. You should not talk with your mouth full, or borrow someone else’s spoon or cup without asking permission.
3. Don’t let the coffee break interfere with business. A coffee break is supposed to increase efficiency, but it can be harmful to business if not used with discretion. It would be very rude, for example, to rush out of your office while you had a visitor there, just so you wouldn’t miss your chance to get coffee. Even if you explain where you are going, the visitor is left to wait with a feeling that he is being slighted.
One way to handle this situation, in an office that is not too formal, is to ask the visitor if he would like something from the coffee wagon, making it clear that he would be your guest. If he accepts the offer, it is best to arrange for someone else to actually get the coffee for you and your visitor, rather than go yourself and leave the visitor alone.
If a business caller comes to your desk while you are having your coffee, you should give him your full attention, which you cannot do unless you put aside your coffee. It is not polite to tell a receptionist to keep someone waiting in the company reception room until you have had a chance to finish your second breakfast.
• When someone gets the boss his coffee. If you are a secretary, you may be expected to get coffee for your executive in the morning. This should pose no more of a problem than any other part of your job, unless he is forgetful and doesn’t reimburse you.
It is a breach of manners on the executive’s part to expect his secretary (or anyone else) to advance money on his behalf. He should give her money in advance or else reimburse her promptly each day. Advance payment can be in the form of a weekly or monthly “kitty.” The fund should be large enough so that if he buys coffee for business guests the fund will cover it.
If you are a secretary, or an executive’s assistant, and find that you are out-of-pocket from buying coffee for your boss, your problem is a ticklish one. Probably the best solution is to suggest in a friendly way that he set up a fund. Make the point that with a fund you won’t have to trouble him with reminders. Figure out before hand how large the fund should be, so that if he asks the question you will have an answer ready.
Using company elevators. Men and women who work in buildings where elevators take them to their offices have certain obligations of courtesy to their fellow passengers and to the operator whose job it is to run the passenger service.
While men always remove their hats when a lady enters the elevator in a residential building, it is not always practical to do so in a crowded elevator in a commercial building such as a department store or an office building. If a man finds that the elevator is not too crowded and he can remove, or tip, his hat—especially if he recognizes and greets a fellow passenger—it is a courteous and appreciated gesture. But when the elevator is too crowded to do so conveniently he may keep his hat on.
It is expected that men will not smoke in an elevator. The con fined area, lack of windows and poor air circulation would make for the discomfort of other passengers sharing the car. Therefore, it would be inconsiderate of anyone to light up a cigarette while waiting for an elevator and then to walk into the car with it. Not only is the discomfort to other passengers to be considered, but crowded conditions make lit cigarettes or cigars a danger to the clothes and person of the offender and anyone near him.
When you are waiting to board an elevator, it is courteous to step back to allow for those leaving the elevator. Men are not expected to observe the “ladies first” rule during morning and evening rush conditions.
Sometimes people at the back of a crowded elevator need to get out while those in front do not. Good manners require that two or three persons nearest to the front of the elevator step out momentarily, while those at the back come through.
Ordinarily, men step back to let women out first. They do this if the elevator is not crowded at the time, but when conditions are crowded it is far less awkward for men nearest the door to leave first, regardless of whether women are getting off at the same time.
If an operator has partly closed the door, but opens it again on seeing you coming toward the elevator, say “Thank you” or “Thank you for waiting.” When the operator asks for floor numbers, the passengers should state the floors they want at once. It is a lack of courtesy to allow yourself to be so engaged in conversation that you have failed to indicate the floor you need—and then expect the operator to come to a sudden stop when you alert him at the last moment.
A business-like, impersonal attitude is required on the part of elevator operators. As a passenger, say a friendly “Good morning,” or “Good evening,” when you have the same operator each day, but maintain a courteous, impersonal attitude so that the operator can direct his or her attention to the responsibilities of his job.
Of course, it is unmannerly to push or jostle others in entering or leaving an elevator. If you are carrying packages, try to manage them so that other passengers won’t be inconvenienced by them. A large pocketbook can also get in people’s way unless you keep it under control.
Lunchroom etiquette. Company cafeterias usually have rules that employees are expected to follow in using dining facilities. These rules vary according to the type of service a particular cafeteria provides, but their purpose in each case is to assure the fastest and most pleasant service for everyone. You should observe the rules in your cafeteria or lunchroom carefully.
Below you will find some general rules that apply in most lunch room or cafeteria situations. These are basic rules of etiquette that every employee should follow, so that everyone can enjoy his lunch time.
• Be neat. lithe cafeteria is a non-profit one and does not provide table service for cleaning up after each group has eaten, it is especially important that you leave your table neat and clean for the next person who will sit there. If the procedure in your cafeteria is to keep food on a tray while you eat, instead of putting dishes and silver directly on the table, clean-up is simple. Still, you should take a last-minute look when you are ready to leave to be sure your place is neat.
• Don’t hog space. Don’t save a place for Mends who are on a later shift. It is not fair to make people wait for a place to sit down while empty chairs are actually available. It is inconsiderate to automatically save seats for people who are usually there, but who could have made plans to eat elsewhere, or who could be absent. Again, this could inconvenience people who are there and need a seat.
• Don’t crash the line. It is bad manners to expect friends on line to make a place for you ahead of them instead of taking your place at the end of the line. It should be obvious that if everyone took unfair advantage in this way there would be chaos.
• Avoid dawdling. When cafeteria conditions are crowded and people are waiting for a place to sit down, don’t linger over your lunch longer than is necessary. To remain seated and chat idly while others are waiting to eat is a breach of good manners.
• Wait patiently. If you are standing and waiting for a seat it is extremely rude to “breathe down the neck” of someone who is having his lunch. To lean against his chair or otherwise stand so close that occasionally you bump the chair is an inexcusable display of bad manners.
• Observe proper table manners. Where people eat in more or less forced association in a company cafeteria, the need for the observance of common table etiquette is especially important. The basic rules—not talking with your mouth full, avoiding “boarding house reach,” and so on—should be followed, even with your best office friends. The fact that you are not at home is no excuse for relaxing your manners.
Borrowing and lending. This is an area in which a breakdown of scrupulous courtesy can cause irreparable ill-will among those who must work together. In general, it’s advisable not to borrow, if you can possibly avoid it. It may be very difficult for a gracious person to refuse to lend equipment, personal belongings and the like, even though he really would rather not. Though he lends you what you ask for with no outward sign of displeasure he may in reality, harbor resentment—particularly if you are an habitual borrower. There is always the chance, too, that no matter how careful you may be, you will break, tear or soil borrowed items unwittingly,
If you must borrow, be sure to make it a practice to return what you have borrowed as quickly as possible. Delays lead to forgetfulness and to accidents or actual loss of things—with the inevitable disagree able feeling on the part of the individual who was kind enough to lend you his belongings.
As for borrowing money, the need for discretion is even greater. Don’t borrow money, even very small sums, from co-workers if you can possibly avoid it. If you must borrow money, make certain that you return it as promptly as you can; it should not be necessary for someone who has been kind enough to lend you money to have to remind you of the debt.
However, if a borrower has been remiss, the lender shows far more courtesy and good manners by reminding him tactfully of the debt than by nursing a secret annoyance. Of course, it is the height of bad manners for the lender to complain about the debt to others as an oblique means of recovering the loan.
Observe the chain of command. Companies, like armies, have ranks of responsibility and position. The arrangement of people in the company from highest authority to lowest is often called the chain of command. It is an important rule of business etiquette that in your dealings with others in the company you not skip steps in the chain of command, or by-pass authority.
Probably this rule is most important when you are dealing with those above you on the ladder, but it is appropriate to mention here that it applies to dealings downward and in a lateral direction, too. For example, it would be improper to give an assignment directly to a girl in a typing pool; you should deal with the person in charge of the pool. If you feel that a particular girl would be the best one to handle the assignment, the supervisor might be able to arrange for her to do it, but the choice is the supervisor’s, not yours.
In the same way, if you are an executive, you should not give a direct assignment or order to someone else’s secretary without her executive’s permission. You may outrank her by far, but according to the chain of command she is not responsible to you. If she should oblige you in deference to your position she might well be criticized by her rightful boss.
The proper procedure would be to ask the other man’s permission to use the services of his secretary. Most executives will cooperate when an associate has a work emergency. If you should have to press another man’s secretary or assistant into service while he is absent, let him know about it when he returns. Naturally, he should receive your thanks, as should the secretary or assistant.
Don’t be a chronic complainer. One of the quickest ways to be come unpopular in your office is to be a complainer. People do not enjoy working in an atmosphere of discontent. Even though your co workers may agree that you have a reason to complain they will resent it if you are forever telling them your troubles. This is true whether those troubles are connected with your work or with your personal life.
From the company’s point of view, the griping of one employee can undermine the morale of an entire office. If you have a complaint about your job, or even about your supervisor or the company itself, your supervisor will want to be told. The chances are that he can correct a job problem, once he has the facts. If your quarrel is with him, he deserves to know about it; until he does, you can hardly expect him to change the situation. The longer you nurse a secret grudge the more difficult you make it to clear up the situation later.
Control personal phone calls, both in and out. Most offices have rules that either forbid or strictly limit personal telephone calls. There are several good reasons for such restrictions, and the rules should be observed by every employee. When you do place a personal call, or accept an incoming call, remember to keep your voice as low as possible, and to keep the conversation brief. Your fellow workers don’t really want to eavesdrop on your personal life; it may even embarrass them to overhear you. Keep in mind, too, that they may be waiting for you to get off the line so they can place a business call.
Note that incoming personal calls arc not an exception to these restrictions. If your company’s rules are strict, then you will be expected to discourage friends and family from calling you at the office except on important matters. You are not freed from responsibility just because you didn’t place the call yourself; time is still involved, and the lines are still being tied up. Nor is an executive getting around this rule if he gives his secretary a list of calls to make; he is still tying up an important line, and may be making it difficult for others to reach him by phone.
Control visits by friends or family. If you have either friends or family who are prone to pay you visits during the working day, remember that their presence can be disturbing to others. The best policy is to discourage such visits. When you have visitors, however, see if you can meet with them in a place that will minimize the disturbance. This is especially important when children are involved.
Eating at your desk. Companies lacking facilities for eating may permit employees to eat lunch at their desks. In most other offices there are rules against it.
If you are permitted to eat at your desk, good manners require that you be both neat and careful. Don’t scatter crumbs or sandwich wrappers about; throw away napkins, coffee cups and stirrers, and so on. Protect your office furniture, especially your desk and its contents, from spills and stains. Some desk tops are easily marked by heat or
moisture, so you should be especially careful with whatever you drink. These same rules apply when morning or afternoon snacks are available.
One rule is definite; you should not eat while you are serving or meeting the public. This gives an office a decidedly unbusinesslike atmosphere, and is likely to offend some customers.