Office etiquette is not just a nicety or an extra. Sharing a space for at least eight hours a day with the same characters, all with their own foibles, can create an unplanned intimacy. Bad manners in the office can hamper employee morale, and even can diminish productivity. Most importantly, managing inside the office space we share with others to enhance employee/employer relationships can perhaps even prevent office interactions from becoming later issues of employment litigation.

Try to examine your own behavior from time to time and follow some tips for making the cubicle, the mailroom, the conference room and the corner office a more civilized place:

  • Know when to take a sick day. There can be a fine line between working hard for the company and bringing illness into the workplace. As we move into the height of cold and flu season, have some mercy on your coworkers and work from home when you are obviously ill.
  • Keep the office healthy and hygienic. If you sneeze or cough, cover your mouth and nose. Wash your hands often and visibly. (You can even announce, “Oooh, I better wash my hands.”)
  • Garlic isn’t just bad for vampires. Depending on your office set-up, really think about where you are eating. You might love the smell and taste of your lunch, but it might not be what all of your colleagues want to have wafting in their personal space. If you have a private office, feel free to eat your lunch there, but understand that visitors will be assaulted by your leftovers long after  lunch is a memory. Certainly, if office headquarters are a tight fit, with many people sharing space, then do what you can to eat in a break room or a cafeteria.
  • Get the lowdown on high tech. Talk with colleagues and bosses as to what the standing corporate etiquette in your company is regarding cell phones, tablets and laptops at meetings. Is everybody expected to bring their phones with their calendars to all meetings or just some? Is setting the phone on vibrate good enough or is even that considered rude or  too distracting? Are mobile devices expected to be invisible during client meetings, especially during financial negotiations? Ask around as to what is expected or even generate a conversation at the beginning of a meeting so everybody is adhering to an agreed-upon set of norms.
  • Be on time or understand what the definition of “on time” is. If you work in an international setting, timeliness varies greatly by culture. In order to not offend clients and coworkers, it is crucial that one understands the difference between, for instance,  typical German punctuality and the more laid back approach to time in southern Europe. In general, in the U.S., business time is considered to be paramount and punctuality is valued. Be sure that your schedule allows you enough time to get from meeting to meeting without causing others to wait on your behalf.
  • Recognize that the office is public space. If you don’t want others to know your business, don’t have heated discussions over the phone with your friends and family in the midst of the cubicles. More importantly, understand that even if you don’t care what others hear about you, many people are very uncomfortable accidentally eavesdropping on your family issues. Sometimes in a crisis, there just isn’t a lot you can do. The best advice might be to tell coworkers, for instance, “My Mom has a new caregiver and Mom is really angry about this situation. I am going to do the best I can to manage during this transition. I apologize in advance if you have to overhear my discussions with her, her caregiver or other members of my family. I appreciate your tolerance.” Sometimes an honest admission of the issues we face can actually help create a good kind of closeness in the office. You may find that others have experienced what you have in some way and may be a surprising source of support.
  • When you must confront, be as honest and gentle if you can. If others’ manners breaches are really impacting you, think carefully about how you can gently approach them and in the spirit of colleagiality, make things better. And if somebody comes to you with an etiquette issue, accept their constructive criticism as gracefully as you can. Try to empathize, and try to think about what you can do to improve the harmonious workings of the office with your magnanimous response.
  • Think carefully before confrontations, both verbal and in the cyberworld. Your words live forever in other people’s memories an on their hard drives. Before you yell out or click “send”, take a break, walk away, consult with somebody else to “check in” and see if you are on the mark or if you are being difficult, too.