Common Rules of Business Office Etiquette and Courtesy for Employees

Many things that you do in the course of a business day are basically matters of courtesy and of consideration for your fellow workers. This is so even though your actions are governed by rules.

It is not surprising that companies have rules about points of behavior that could properly be called etiquette (promptness, for example). Good business manners help things get done smoothly, just as good manners smooth the way in your personal life. A company cannot afford the inefficiency that would result if its employees were to ignore business etiquette and work on the basis of “every man for himself.”

Your own interests as an employee are best served, too, when you know and practice courtesy during your business day. When you are considerate toward others, you are encouraging them to be considerate in return. That means you will work in an atmosphere of friendliness and cooperation; you will enjoy your job more. People will be more willing to give you assistance, or to get a job done for you in a hurry, when they know that you would give them the same consideration if positions were reversed.

One last but important point: in many cases, to ignore business etiquette in your dealings with others in your office or plant is to fail to act in the company’s best interests. You will have difficulty making progress in the business world if you disregard the feelings of your co-workers and the interests of the company through discourteous behavior.

This article explains the common rules of everyday  in the business office etiquette and courtesy.

Points of Business Office Etiquette for the Individual

The need for courtesy is not necessarily limited to your dealings with fellow workers; it includes your dealings with the company as an individual employee. The major opportunities for exhibiting this kind of courtesy are spelled out below.

Be punctual. Most companies are fairly strict about requiring employees to be on time both for the beginning of the working day and for returning from lunch. If a company seems to condone laxity in punctuality it is apt to be because its employees are often called on to work overtime, or to work unusual hours. Still, as a general rule, punctuality is required in business.

Even so, punctuality remains essentially a point of etiquette. Just as you would be expected to be on time for a luncheon engagement, so your employer expects that you will be on time for your duties at the office. In social life, lateness is frowned on because it can inconvenience the hostess; in business, it can have even more serious con sequences. One person being late can hold up several people who work with him. And if that one person is late often, he will sooner or later be resented by the others in the office who are more considerate and arrive on time. Your supervisor, too, is entitled to feel that if you will not make the effort to be at work on time you can’t be very interested in the job, or in the extra effort that would be called for in a more important job.

If you find it difficult to put yourself in the company’s place on the matter of punctuality, imagine your feelings if the company was rather lax on getting out pay checks on time.

Have a good attendance record. Your company can hardly expect every employee to have a perfect attendance record. Illness and other types of emergencies are not predictable, and they can happen to anyone. In recognition of this, most companies will pay for an absence that is not the fault of the employee, although they usually limit the number of days for which they will pay.

Excusable absences generally include those caused by:

  • Your illness
  • Serious illness in your immediate family
  • Death in your family
  • Weather or other natural disasters that make travel impossible
  • Transportation strikes if you cannot find private means of transportation.

As an employee you have an obligation to be on the job unless there is a very good reason—one of those just listed—for being out. To feign illness so that you can take care of personal problems, or to stay home when you are only feeling somewhat out of sorts, is inconsiderate, if not dishonest. It adds to the workload of your co workers, and it can upset the plans of an entire department or division. Nor can you consider yourself reliable if you cannot be counted on to be at work regularly.

When you must be out, you should telephone or otherwise inform your supervisor. Call soon after your place of business opens for work, so that he can make any adjustments in his plans as early as possible in the day.

Carry your share of the load. Naturally, you are paid to perform a certain job, and your company expects you to do so. What you may not have considered is the fact that the people with whom you work directly also expect you to carry your own work load. Loafing on the job may be hidden from your supervisor, but your co-workers will know about it, and will resent it, with good reason. If the job is to get done, someone will have to take up the slack you have created.

Be trustworthy. As an employee you have an unwritten responsibility to your company to protect its interests. There is a very basic reason for this. A business &m does not operate in a comfortable vacuum; it must compete with other companies. It would be at a serious disadvantage if its trade secrets—its plans for new products, its forthcoming advertising campaign, and so on—were made known to its competitors. The result is that company management expects employees to treat the company’s internal operations and its plans for the future as confidential, or at least to protect them from competitors.

To illustrate how easily indiscretion on the job can backfire, suppose a secretary tells a salesman that he will not be able to see her employer next Wednesday because he will be in Milwaukee that day. Where her employer goes may be of no interest to the salesman, but it could mean a great deal to a competitor of the secretary’s firm who hears the salesman mention it over the luncheon table.

The secretary in this case told the salesman more than was necessary. It would have been enough to tell the salesman that he could not see her employer next Wednesday, and to suggest another date. If she felt that an explanation was necessary she could have said simply that her employer would be out of town on that day.

The more you know about the company’s operations, the more care you must use in discussing them. If you are the kind of a person who uses his apparent knowledge of “inside information” to impress others, you are a liability to your company, and are not trustworthy. If it becomes known that you are unable to use discretion in discus sing company facts to which you have access, your job may be in jeopardy.

A secretary has a special responsibility toward her executive; she is in a position to know many things that he would not expect her to reveal. This includes personal information, as well as business information. The following suggestions are largely for the secretary’s benefit, since this problem is a common one with the average secretary, but they may be helpful to anyone in a business office.

• Be pleasant when you must be silent or noncommittal. Even though you are turning down a request for information that you feel is obviously none of the other party’s business, the best policy is to be polite. For example, you may have just explained to a caller that your executive is busy on a contract and can’t be disturbed. I the caller should want to know what contract is involved, his question may be improper, but you gain nothing by telling him so. In stead, tell him pleasantly that your executive would prefer that you didn’t reveal information of that kind. Or you might suggest that your executive will be glad to discuss the matter when the caller sees him at a later date. Or, if you don’t know what the contract is, simply tell the caller this.

• How to handle questions from other employees. It is not unusual for a secretary to be in possession of facts or plans or news that her executive will not want her to discuss with other employees. The trouble is that it is often more difficult to keep facts from a fellow employee, especially a friend, than it is to keep silent with an outsider or stranger. You don’t want to seem unfriendly or impolite, yet you know that your executive trusts you not to reveal confidential information.

Here are some typical situations involving co-workers, and suggestions for how to withhold information pleasantly but firmly:

• The probing employee. Some people ask questions out of habit, or because they are inquisitive by nature. They may want to know who is in talking to the boss, or when the new employee is coming and what he will be doing, or whether your executive has finished at report Mr. Brown asked for, and so on. It is not your job to feed the “grapevine,” yet to fail to answer such seemingly innocent questions can seem unfriendly.

Often the best kind of answer in this type of situation is a very one. For example, if someone has asked who is in your executive’s office, you might reply “A customer who stopped in,” instead of saying just who the customer is and why he is there. If the executive’s caller is another employee, and you do not feel that you can politely refuse to mention his or her name, simply give the name and nothing more.

There is a strong temptation to resort to falsehoods in this kind of situation—”I don’t know,” “Mr. Berger has that file,” and so on. This doesn’t always work, because it is not easy to be a convincing liar. It also runs the risk of getting you involved in complications, if you later forget what your alibi was or if the other party repeats your statement to someone who knows it to be false. Apart from these practical reasons, dishonesty can hardly qualify as proper etiquette.

• The employee with big eyes. You may find that a certain employee drops by to discuss something, but seems to keep looking at important papers on your desk. Try calmly picking up the papers (perhaps covering them first with other papers from your desk) and tapping them on the desk as though to make a neat pile. Then you can either turn them over as though you are done with them, or put them in a desk drawer until your visitor has gone. If you are working with confidential material, it is a good idea to have a folder handy into which you can slide the papers when you aren’t actually using them—and when you have a visitor.

• The associate who asks you for information you aren’t sure you should give him. When you are uncertain whether or not another employee should be allowed to have something in your files, the safest policy is to politely stall for time. Ask the person if you can bring the material to him a little later when you are less pressed. This will give you a chance to ask your supervisor about it first. If you are busy at the time of the request, the other employee should not consider you rude for asking to oblige him a little later.

More difficult is the situation when a high executive asks for some thing, and your supervisor is not around (which is the reason the executive is asking you). A high-ranking executive’s time is valuable; he should not be kept waiting on a pretext. Give him the information and any other help you can.

However, be sure that you tell your supervisor what happened when he returns. This will save him from being caught unaware if the executive should mention it to him, and will let him follow up if that is needed.

• The employee who listens while you are on the phone. Most people, when they sense that a phone call is either personal or of a confidential business nature, will either walk away from your desk or leave your office, unless you signal them to stay. If a visitor does not voluntarily leave you alone when you have a call that you must keep confidential, there are at least two methods of handling the situation without offending him:

• Ask your caller if you may call back in a few minutes, because you have a visitor. If the visit is an unimportant one, the visitor will often take the hint and indicate that he is leaving. The caller will also understand your situation, if the visitor does not leave and you must call back.

• Ask the person on the phone if he will wait one minute. Then say pleasantly to your visiting co-worker, “I wonder if you would excuse me while I take this call. I’ll come and see you as soon as I am through.”

Neatness is required in the office. How you keep house in your own home is your own affair. But in a business office, poor house keeping leads to consequences that are undesirable for the company and for those who work there together. Untidiness inevitably creates some degree of inefficiency; papers can get lost, time can be wasted looking for something that on a neat desk would be immediately available, and so on. Untidiness can also offend your fellow employees, most of whom are probably more or less neat by nature. Office neatness and cleanliness is seldom your own individual affair, even though you might think so.

Here are suggestions for showing consideration through neatness:

• Dust regularly. Most offices have cleaning or maintenance service, but an after-hours cleaning crew will rarely touch a desk. This is a to the desk’s occupant, who might want things left exactly as they are. It is therefore up to the individual employee to keep his or her own desk and area from accumulating dust and grime. All it takes is a touch, regularly, with a soft cloth. A secretary, of course, is usually expected to see that her executive’s area is dusted regularly.

• Don’t spread out into space that isn’t yours. One consequence of untidiness is that you can find yourself needing more room to handle the disorder. This is unfair to others in the office, especially if space is at a premium. It is also inconsiderate to arrange your desk or other equipment so as to impede the free movement of your fellow workers.

• Avoid over-decorating your desk or area. When your desk, shelves and wall space are covered with mementos, photographs, trophies, humorous mottoes or other decorative effects, you are probably not beautifying the office; rather, you may be giving it a jumbled, untidy look. You may also be violating regulations against using nails in the walls, and so on. The proper atmosphere for a business office is one of neatness and efficiency, not hominess. “Pin-ups” are definitely out of place in a business office.

• Be considerate with files and equipment you share. If you share files, equipment or a supply cabinet with other workers, leave them in a neat condition, just as you would like to find them. When you see that some item in a supply cabinet needs replenishing, let the proper person know so that the item can be ordered. Don’t be guilty of turning the contents of a supply cabinet upside down to find some thing and then just leaving it that way. This is a gross discourtesy to your fellow employees. So is the related act of leaving filing drawers in upheaval after tracking down a folder or letter you needed in a hurry.

Be especially neat when you use personal facilities. Such places as the cafeteria and the rest rooms, and the locker or cleanup area if you use one, call for your best manners and your utmost consideration of your fellow employees.

In the cafeteria, lack of neatness is both unappetizing and unsanitary. Whatever the rules are in your cafeteria for keeping it neat, be scrupulous in abiding by them. Good table manners, too, are in order, of course.

A wash room can soon become unsightly and even offensive unless each employee does his part to keep it neat. Here are common courtesies you should observe:

– Leave basins clean after using

– Place paper towels in receptacles, not on the floor

– Remove hair or bobby pins from a sink if you have let them fall there (they will clog it)

– Don’t flick ashes or drop matches on the floor

If you have a locker or dressing room, remember that others must use the facilities, too. If you share a locker with another employee, neatness is imperative, since a locker can become messy very quickly. Keep only essential items in the locker. Don’t throw dirt-caked work shoes or boots in the bottom without at least an attempt to clean them. Try to avoid hanging wet clothing in a locker. If you bring your lunch, see that it is well wrapped or kept in a special container that will keep odors in. Don’t leave food in a locker overnight; it invites insects and mice, besides creating a distinctive aroma.

If a shower is part of your daily cleanup at work, see that you don’t strew wet towels around or leave a soapy puddle on the floor for the next man.

Smoking in the office. Each company has its own rules about smoking during business hours. You should familiarize yourself with these rules and follow them.

When smoking is allowed there are some basic courtesies you should observe. Always use an ash tray. Don’t allow too many cigarette butts to accumulate in ash trays; this creates unpleasant odors and makes an office look unkept and unbusinesslike. A good way to empty an ash tray is to dump it carefully in a piece of scrap paper first, rolling up the paper neatly before you throw it into the waste basket. Thus you prevent cigarette-ash dust and pungent, stale tobacco odors from permeating your office and desk area. A quick wipe of the ash tray with a tissue when you empty it will keep it bright and fresh-looking.

Of course, a lit cigarette should never be placed on the edge of a desk or any other piece of furniture. It should never be put out on the floor, under foot, or tamped against the side of a waste basket and then let fall into the basket. Waste basket fires are not unusual, and they always stem from carelessness.

If a woman smokes during business hours she should not walk around with a lit cigarette in hand. It is unladylike to do so. She should smoke at her desk, during a convenient lull in her work schedule, or at an associate’s desk or her superior’s desk (on invitation) when working together makes it natural to do so.

When smoking is permitted in conjunction with work, smokers should remember that non-smokers may find a smoke-filled atmosphere very unpleasant. A cigar smoker, especially, should refrain from his habit in the office unless he knows that no one objects to the strong smoke his cigars will give off.

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