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"Common Sense" Rules for IRL Work Interactions

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Etiquette training is now a huge thing in the business world! This sort of training only becomes popular if people forget that office expectations are different than when you're on your own or when a wave of employees enter the office for the first time.

Post-pandemic, we have a healthy mix of both.

So, let's talk about what is expected during an interview, at an office, and at a company event. You can't know what you aren't told, and as someone who put a fork in the microwave (at the age of five) without being told otherwise and has been shamed for it ever since (I stopped the microwave immediately, and there were zero fires started, thank you very much), I understand that it's NEVER fun to learn things the hard way.

The approach for this article is from a place of zero judgment. As I learned after discovering a coworker from a company in the past was literally living in the office building full time because they needed to learn how to look for an apartment, it's never a good idea to assume. So, we're going to cover the basics.

What's Expected in General

In any work environment, you are expected to treat the people around you as humans with ideas, experience, and different points of view. Do not treat them as love interests or opponents. They are people (like you) who want to do their job and go home. Whether they are interns or executives, they deserve to be treated with respect.

Coworkers (like you) have good days and bad days. You only see a fraction of their life and probably won't know when something really good or awful happens. Likewise, they won't know when something life-altering happens in your life. If you're cranky and let it show, that's the only context they'll have. So try not to do that when possible. They'll do the same. 

Sometimes, you'll mess up, and sometimes, they will. Remember that you don't have all the information, and assume they're coming from a place of positive intent.

Don't overshare. If you've ever been cornered in a grocery store check-out line by the person who tells you how their day went wrong in graphic detail, you know that it doesn't feel good. Relationships are give and take. Only volunteer what is appropriate.

Different ideas, experiences, and points of view are necessary for a business to scale. A company needs creative people, the analytical, compliance geeks, out-of-the-box thinkers, and people who have been doing their jobs long enough to operate on memory and reflex alone. When someone has a different point of view or solution, it's a great idea to hear them out and seriously consider what they say. A different answer from yours isn't necessarily a wrong answer.

There is a wide array of communication styles. If something strikes you as rude or argumentative, ask what they mean instead of replying in a similar manner.

Your coworkers can't read your mind or the intent behind an action. They will interpret certain actions with the context they have (which, unless you've had an in-depth conversation about it, is zero context). Some of the actions that people will take offense to are:

  • Showing up late to a meeting. People make time for what they value. If you don't show up on time, you communicate that you don't care.
  • Interrupting people as they speak – even if you're really excited and have an idea – communicates to that person that you don't care what they're saying.
  • Messaging someone in Slack or over email in all caps will be interpreted as yelling or "anger."
  • Raising your voice at them. Arguing with coworkers like you would with family members is never okay.

There will be times when you will need to swallow your pride. Everyone will (many times in their career) defer to someone else's idea or plan – even if they think it's a terrible idea or plan.

When you're burned out or ready to move on, telling everyone exactly how you've felt over the years will be very tempting, especially in an exit interview ("That's what they're for, right?" Um…). Don't. Your network is precious, and you may need a favor or referral from someone you're tempted to blow up on your way out of the door.

Don't be a jerk. Assume the other person is coming from a place of good intent. Be kind.

What's expected during an Interview 

Some of these suggestions won't seem fair. I understand that not everyone can afford to dress to impress, it's hard to get out of your comfort zone and behave differently than you may with friends, and some people get extremely nervous in interviews. However, it's important to communicate what is generally expected.

If any of these recommendations are deal-breakers, that's important for you to know! It will help you find a company that fits your personality.

Dress the part: Dressing the part means different things across companies, coasts, and regions. For example, in New York, any industry is formal compared to the West Coast. In Seattle, B2B tech is known for being extremely laid-back. You'll stick out like a sore thumb in Seattle if you show up in a three-piece suit. 

And sometimes, it will even count against you. 

But for the most part, formal attire is rarely frowned upon (even in Seattle). It can even communicate to the hiring manager that you want the job. This doesn't mean you need to buy designer clothes. If you make an effort, they won't care if it's off the sale rack at Ross or Kroger.

Be on time: Punctuality communicates interest and respect. If you can't be on time, call or email well before you miss the meeting. If you email after the interview is scheduled to happen, you won't get another chance at an interview.

Remember, you're on their turf: Don't hit on anyone in the waiting room. Don't be crass in the elevator. Don't throw a fit when you're ordering coffee in the building lobby.

Treat the receptionist well: If you're rude to anyone, you won't get the job. I spend a lot of time getting the receptionist's read because they deal with people all day. If you're rude to them, you're not getting a call back – even if you're a walking RevOps encyclopedia.

Bring pen and paper to take notes on: If you take notes on your phone, they'll assume you've lost interest and are texting or scrolling through a feed. You'll need to note names and email addresses for your thank you notes (more on that later).

Practice active listening: When you communicate with your hiring managers, asking questions is important. They want you to be interested in finding out more about the company. You should also ask if you provided enough details or if they want more information.

Read the room: Not everyone is comfortable socializing like they did pre-pandemic. Do they want a fist bump, handshake, or distant wave? Don't hug. 

Send a thank you note: Ask everyone you speak to as part of the interview process - including (especially!) the recruiter - how they would prefer to get a thank you. Phone call? Email? Then follow through. It's respectful and communicates interest. This is why many hiring managers are ranting on LinkedIn about how important - and rare - it has become.

For more on interviewing, check out this writeup and webinar recording.

In the Office

There are unspoken rules for every social setting. The workplace is no different.

It's common courtesy to minimize your impact on the people around you. 

Some people are sensitive to smells and sounds. You don't know if the person at the next desk is pregnant, on chemo, or has an allergy. Don't leave food to rot in your trash can or on your desk. Use designated areas to eat, and don't bring smelly food to work. 

Fish in the microwave will cause a revolt. Microwave popcorn isn't received much better. Strong smells are a strong no.

When possible, take personal calls in a call booth or empty meeting room. Try not to let calls interrupt a conversation with a coworker or meeting. However, we all understand if there's an urgent call from a family member or healthcare provider and you need to step out quietly to take it. We all have those moments.

Follow the company dress code. If your parents would flip out over what you're wearing, don't wear it to work. Don't wear dirty clothes with food stains on them. Of course, people can be clumsy and spill on themselves during work hours – that's fine. But if you're wearing a lucky shirt throughout the NFL season, that's not okay. And, Tide To Go stain remover pens can be your best friend.

Punctuality is still key. Again, it communicates respect. Being late says you don't care enough to make the effort to be on time, and it's not a good look.

Avoid gossip. Avoid reinforcing divisions between people, teams, or departments. Deep down, do we all love a little spilled tea? Probably. But save that energy for your friend group. Your work network is way too crucial for your career to risk bad behavior.

Communication matters and that includes respecting other opinions and reacting verbally, through body language, and through facial expressions. Practice active listening, speak clearly, and be mindful of your tone and body language. These rules are even more critical in written communication (email, Slack, DM). Keep your tone professional, and if you know something is upsetting you, wait 24 hours and edit it before you hit send.

Respect others' personal space! If you share a desk, leave it as you would like to find it. Don't crowd people when speaking to them, knock if a door is closed, and don't assume people are okay socializing if you're dealing with a cold or flu. 

At a Work Function Offsite

This section will be short, but everyone must understand that the same rules you have in the office apply at an offsite. You can get fired for losing control, hitting on someone, being rude – anything you can get in trouble for at work applies offsite, even if it's a late party at a bar.

Don't get wasted. Don't do drugs – even if they're legal. Don't say anything you wouldn't say fully sober in the office.

In other words, treat people like you would want to be treated, and remember that you're sharing space with people who are not obligated to tolerate out-of-bounds behavior.

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