We spoke to an etiquette expert about what not to do.
The Whole Human

Smelly foods, fingernail clippings, and why we need manners at work

Have you ever wanted to scream at a coworker for banging too loudly on his keyboard? Have you ever been guilty of doing something just as annoying yourself?

The workplace is filled with instances in which we interact with others. That means lots of opportunities to drive others crazy and make social faux pas.

At best, these etiquette mistakes are merely the source of pet peeves; at worst, they could hold back your career.

Ladders spoke with Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and the author of Poised for Success and Business Class about how simple acts of professionalism can help you be successful.

Ladders: Why is etiquette in the workplace so important?

Whitmore: It’s vital because it’s the soft skills that really help a person excel. Technical skills are important, but technical skills can only get you so far in life. Then you have to have people skills.

As you move up the ladder of success, you move into more positions where you have to deal with people. Whether you sit on boards or go to networking events, you are representing your company.

If you don’t have people skills or know how to interact with others — via email or in person — you’re going to tarnish not only your own reputation but also the reputation of the company.

What are some examples of mistakes people make at work?

Sending an email to someone littered with poor grammar and misspelled words, not addressing the person properly, or copying everyone and their brother.

Not dressing appropriately for certain events. This happens when someone is dressed too casual, and they don’t realize it.

Not knowing how to talk to people at networking events. This happens when someone is sent to a conference where they’re supposed to meet new people, and they don’t know how to make a conversation or how to introduce themselves.

Having bad conduct at a dinner. This happens when someone orders the wrong thing, or too much food, or chews with their mouth full, or drinks too much alcohol.

The list goes on and on.

What about annoying habits in open offices?

That’s when people are eating foods that are pungent and permeate the office. Or a person is talking too loudly on his phone.

Or he’s clipping his fingernails. Or he’s listening to something like YouTube and not wearing headphones. Or he’s taking off his shoes.

I hear these stories all the time. You would think people know better.

How should we deal with these situations?

Etiquette is situational. It’s not black and white. What might work for you in your office environment might not work for someone else.

My broad advice is to treat others how you would like to be treated. Realize that you don’t work in a bubble.

The technology age has alienated us from others. And, in a way, it’s made us less aware of our surroundings and less mindful.

The biggest piece of advice is to develop your mindfulness. That’s so important, not only in business but in life. Think about how your behavior affects other people.

And say “thank you,” say “please” — just basic advice that we were supposed to be taught as children but we seem to forget.

How should we communicate with coworkers about etiquette?

It depends on what they’re doing. There are so many variables for this kind of situation, which changes how you could approach them and what you should say to them. It’s not a canned speech.

But the main thing is to approach them directly and diplomatically instead of going over their head, because that’s the surefire way to make enemies.

Try to be nice. Instead of saying “you, you, you,” use “I” statements. You could say something like: “I’m not as productive when you do that.” That way it’s not pointing a finger at them.

Has anything surprised you about teaching etiquette to executives?

I’m surprised most people don’t get it.

But when you think about it, we’re dealing with multiple generations in the workplace, from Gen. X, Gen. Y to Baby Boomers.

The way in which we deal with people of a certain age is different. The way you would send an email to a Baby Boomer may not be the way you’d send an email to a colleague who is 22-years-old.

So it’s not necessarily common sense any more.

What’s the future of workplace etiquette?

People are definitely working more independently now. Millennials like to work on their own times on their own terms. As long as they get the job done, their bosses are fine with that.

But we can’t lose sight of working with a team. When you work with a team, you work with different personalities, and you have to deal with different personalities. And that’s the hard part.

It’s important to learn how to deal with people and communicate with people in the way they like to be communicated.

That’s why it’s very important to develop your soft skills and for companies to do soft-skill training. In the long term, it’s going to increase the success of the company because people are the success of the company.

If you believe, like, and trust someone, you’re more likely to do business with them.

After all, someone would rather work with someone who’s easygoing and trainable versus the jerk who is the technical genius.