A smiling woman standing in an office with her arms crossed.

Charm School for the office? People forgot their office manners – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“Using proper office etiquette creates an environment where individuals feel comfortable, appreciated and able to do their jobs well.” – Indeed

The office microwave is splattered with multi-colored overheated food. Paper towels litter the restroom floors. People bump into each other and don’t express common courtesy, and no one even says “Good Morning” anymore. You can hear every conversation as speakerphone voices reverberate throughout the workplace. Although these bad habits are nothing new, the isolation of the pandemic and existence of remote work has impacted our ability to be polite and mannerly in the office.

Apparently, the 1–3-year pandemic isolation period rendered people somewhat unaccustomed to the niceties of social interaction. The quandary for managers now is how to turn this bad behavior around and get people back to more normal and more human comportment. According to Yahoo Finance, managers are resorting to hiring “charm” school consultants to get employees back on track. Although it might seem frivolous, without a modicum of etiquette in the office, morale plunges and productivity sags. Soon, people start looking for new jobs, and your turnover rate skyrockets, impacting your bottom line and profitability. Rudeness can cost businesses money.

What’s the job of the etiquette consultant? This is a person who is well schooled in the protocols of business etiquette, such as appropriate dress, body language, suitable places to eat and store food (don’t walk down the hall chomping on a huge sandwich), silencing phones, and keeping the workplace kitchen clean. Let’s not forget about sanitary habits at work. Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer, wear deodorant, and brush your teeth. You don’t want to be the “Pigpen” (Charles Schultz’s creation) in the office.

Office etiquette has been a problem for years, especially with particular individuals. Working with some professions can be challenging when considering cleanliness and decorum. I once worked for a large engineering company, where engineers heavily influenced the culture. While most kept themselves presentable, there were a few interesting characters.

In the dead of winter, I once saw an unkempt engineer sauntering down the hallway wearing open toe sandals. He carried a box of a computer cleaning material called Kimwipes in his hand. Aside from the sandals and his appearance, I noticed he was blowing his nose with the Kimwipes, which were clearly labeled “skin and eye irritant”. Doing some research, I learned that Kimwipes contain hazardous materials such as “H226 Flammable liquid and vapor H319” and carry the warning “Causes serious eye irritation.” It seemed incredulous to me, but I doubt an etiquette consultant would impact this guy.

Another example manifested itself with an older engineer. He also presented disheveled, but his most notorious habit had to do with his coffee cup. It looked as if it hadn’t been washed in years. On another occasion, I was working offsite. I went to the kitchen in that location and opened the microwave. It was so dirty, I immediately shut the microwave door and ate my lunch cold.

In the post pandemic world, what stands out are annoyances that, if carried out in private, would not be notable. For instance, multitasking in a meeting distracts everyone. The multitasker isn’t paying attention, so when he or she is asked a question, a blank look is all they can muster. Overcome your laziness and hold meetings in a conference room. Squeezing three or four people into a cubicle is uncomfortable and rude to those in adjacent areas. Be considerate of others and take your meeting elsewhere. Avoid microwaving messy or smelly food in the office. Eat in the dining center, and don’t bring fish or broccoli to heat up in public places. Furthermore, if you are sick, stay home. In today’s post pandemic, germ conscious environment, no one appreciates coughing and sneezing in public.

Needless to say, the workload of etiquette consultants has increased exponentially in the last three years. Whereas they once visited a company twice a year, they are now making up to six calls a year to teach people how to behave on the job. And it’s not as if people don’t know they need help. They just have been so disconnected, it’s hard to remember all the rules. Yahoo Finance found, “In a recent survey on office decorum, nearly 75% of respondents said they’d take advantage of business etiquette courses if they were offered by their employer, including 93% of Gen Z survey respondents.”

Perennial issues such as lack of diversity, microaggressions, harassment, and political or religious disagreements won’t be solved by an etiquette consultant alone. But exercising more courtesy and manners in the workplace goes a long way toward reducing friction that surrounds them.  The best advice is to speak quietly, shut off your phone, show up on time, and dress like you are going on a first date. Grow your career by exemplifying what your mother told you to do growing up. You can’t go wrong listening to that wise woman.

“To be clear, bad behavior didn’t start with the pandemic. There have always been messy kitchens or loquacious colleagues” – Samantha Masunaga in Yahoo Finance


Read all Mary’s columns here:

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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