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posted: 4/27/2014 6:03 AM

Career Coach Q&A: Good workplace manners

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Career Coach Joyce E.A. Russell went online last week to take questions on etiquette in the workplace. What follows are excerpts, edited for grammar and clarity.

Wardrobe malfunction

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Q: I was walking down the hall and though I noticed someone wearing their sweater on inside out. Is it OK to approach strangers at work and point out possible mistakes? Years ago, I was at a job fair and someone pointed out I had tags on the suit that should be removed. I thought it was a very helpful comment since I was trying to make a good impression.

A: Sure. I think if done in a nice way, they would appreciate it. I know I would!

Giving notice

Q: I have been in my job a couple years and know that leaving is going to leave my office in the lurch, at least temporarily. How much notice should I give?

A: Ideally, most people give at least two weeks notice, but if you can give more notice (a month or so), it would be really appreciated by the firm. It really depends on the relationships you have with them -- would they view this in a positive way and be appreciative or would they be really upset with you?

Mind your manners

Q: How do you tactfully tell someone or a group of people that what they are doing is rude and disrespectful? Or just downright gross, such as cutting their nails at work, slurping soup at their desk, etc.? The list goes on and on!

A; This is tough and it comes up a lot at work. If it happens often, you could privately just ask them if they could refrain from doing it near you. I know it is awkward to do this, but if you never say anything, they will never change. Another thought -- is there someone close to them that you could ask to bring it up? That can be a good strategy as well. Others have left notes or cartoons for people with these annoying behaviors, but usually those things do not really seem to work. The person often thinks they are for others, not them.

Announcing a pregnancy

Q: I recently got a new job, now I'm wondering when etiquette dictates I tell them about my pregnancy. So far I haven't had any symptoms that impact my performance; and I was considering waiting until after my next doctor's appointment to make sure all is well before I rock the boat, but that won't be until 13 to 14 weeks or so, which seems a bit late.

A: I would still wait. I am sure they will understand when you finally tell them that you were waiting to make sure all was OK. Continue to be a great performer and build your relationships with those in the firm. If you are a stronger performer, they will be more inclined to cut you some slack once you do tell them. Be patient -- sometimes that is the hardest thing to do.

Chatty Cathy

Q: I'm a very type-B personality and prefer to go to work, do my job and go home. Also, I'm an engineer, so a lot of times I prefer minimal distractions so I can work out problems. However, there is a lady in the office that walks around and randomly talks to people -- myself included. I've tried to disengage from these conversations as quickly as possible; however, I'd like to just avoid them all together. Any advice on how to do so without coming across as a jerk?

A: I think you can do this in nice way, and that is what is critical. If she comes by your desk, you can always say "I'd love to talk more, but I need to get back to work now" or "Sorry, I can't talk now, I am working on something complicated that really requires my full attention." If you are walking by her, you can always smile at her as you walk by, and keep walking. Sometimes at least if you smile, you are being polite even if you do not stop to talk.

The check is in the mail

Q: I'm the bookkeeper at a nonprofit that moved just over a year ago. Our new space is larger and we knew it would be a stretch, but believed we would grow to fit it. Due to factors largely beyond our control, it is taking longer than expected to come up to our capacity. My problem is that people come to me asking when they will get checks that are due to them. I don't know what to say. "We just don't have it to give you," doesn't seem right. I won't lie to them. Any suggestions as to how I can gently phrase that we are experiencing growing pains, but not to worry long-term?

A: So, are you saying that because the firm is in this larger space, that it doesn't have the money to pay people on time? Someone, whether you or the leader of the nonprofit, needs to inform people about these issues. The nonprofit should not make you be the one to let them know there is no check for them. That isn't right.

Plus, the leader needs to be honest about the difficulties the firm is experiencing. Often the employees will be understanding and may even come up with ways to offer additional help. But, if they are not told anything and see these problems with pay, they will become demoralized and look elsewhere.

Russell is the vice dean and the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management.

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