It seems like there’s one in every office … one person who engages in baffling, inexplicable, or sometimes downright rude behavior. There’s the woman who talks on her cell phone in the bathroom every day, the man who microwaves noxious leftover fish, or the girl who leaves her personal papers on the copier glass.
Work is the place where we spend most of our time, but we don’t really get to choose whom we spend that time with. Some coworkers are courteous and fun, while some are so obnoxious that we tell stories about them years later, like my boss who used to have his briefcase messengered to his house because he was too lazy to carry it on the train.
Most people at any place of business are just trying to do their work and get through the day with the minimum amount of drama. To ensure that the water-cooler conversation stays focused on last night’s episode of Lost and not on you, avoid these cringe-worthy behaviors.
1. Don’t Trash the Kitchen
When everyone shares common areas, such as a kitchen, it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep them tidy. So don’t be the person who leaves dishes soaking in the sink, leaves crumbs all over the counter, or allows last week’s lunch to sit in the refrigerator and turn into next week’s science experiment. If your office has a dishwasher, there’s no excuse for leaving utensils out on the countertop. Unless you enjoy receiving notes about your sloppy habits from your ticked-off colleagues, clean up after yourself.
2. Leave Your Personal Life at Home
As long as your office permits it, it’s natural to take a few personal calls during the workday, or to occasionally use the shared printer to print out a recipe or an interesting article from the Internet. Just don’t make your cubemates listen to extended phone conversations with your spouse, or litter the equipment area with printouts of your vacation pictures and faxes from your doctor’s office. To your coworkers (and your boss), it can seem as if you spend more time on personal business than you do actually working.
3. Don’t Make Yourself at Home
Every office has its own level of formality and its own set of unspoken rules of decorum, but some things are non-negotiable. It may be okay to toss off your stilettos while you’re working at your desk, but don’t walk around the office barefoot. The dress code might be casual, but that doesn’t usually expand to include pajama pants or Crocs. Don’t pick your teeth with a business card or clip your nails at your desk, either. Even in a casual office environment, there are some things people just don’t want to see.
4. Mind Your Cell Phone Manners
If you need to take or make an extended call on your cell phone, either step outside or go to a quiet area so that your coworkers aren’t distracted by the conversation. Also make sure to keep your phone’s ringer set to quiet or vibrate. Nothing’s more annoying than having to listen to someone’s phone play a “Love Shack” ringtone over and over because she’s in a meeting and can’t answer it.
5. Stay Home If You’re Ill
Everyone appreciates dedication, but if you can’t make it through the day without coughing, wheezing, sneezing, or retching, just stay home. Not only can it be distracting to spend all day listening to the sounds of illness, but no matter how much Lysol you spray around your desk, you’re bound to leave some germs around, and your coworkers don’t want to get sick. Not everyone has the ability to take time off for each little sniffle, but when you feel genuinely rotten, do everyone a favor and take a sick day.
6. Be Brief in the Bathroom
While few people would object to their coworkers’ flossing after meals or touching up makeup before leaving for the day, the bathroom is not a place to hang out in interminably. It’s not a place in which to have private conversations with another coworker, engage in plucking, tweezing, or other kinds of personal grooming, or make personal phone calls.
7. Try Not to Interrupt
It’s great to be friendly with your coworkers, but everyone has a job to do, so it can be irritating to be constantly pinged with email forwards, bombarded by personal conversations, invited to look at pictures of someone’s new baby, or deal with other non-business-related interruptions. People do tend to naturally socialize at certain times of the day—like first thing in the morning, during lunch, and at the end of the day—so try to bond with your team during these moments when people are most likely to be up for a conversation. Constant interruptions can make your coworkers view your adorable-animal videos as mere annoyances.
I once worked in an office where the kitchen featured a large sign warning, “DO NOT REHEAT FISH IN MICROWAVE.” Apparently, people were tired of experiencing the accumulated smells of a floor’s worth of lunches. Odor travels in an office, and your coworkers will appreciate any efforts not to overwhelm them with any of your personal scents. If you fancy a midday workout, make sure to freshen up before you return to your desk—and dousing yourself in perfume or cologne won’t cut it, since many people are more bothered by those scents than they are by gym funk. You may enjoy keeping fragrant flowers at your desk, but your neighbor with allergies could find them a nuisance. And while what you bring for lunch is a personal decision, know that if you insist on microwaving swordfish fillets, chicken curry, or last night’s liver and onions, you may not receive many invitations to dine with your coworkers in the break room.
The office isn’t so different from any other public space—if you exercise respect and discretion, there’s no reason why everyone can’t get along just fine. As long as you refrain from discussing last night’s party at your desk, your coworker will be more likely to keep her cell phone quiet—in theory, that is. There will probably always be one person who scratches inappropriately and can’t remember to get his dishes out of the sink, but as long as you follow these words of advice, at least it won’t be you.
Updated on March 2, 2011