The Definitive Guide to Behaving at Work

HR-friendly answers to your workplace etiquette questions.

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Business casual takes on a whole new meaning when a coworker is being a little too buddy-buddy. Or when your cube-mate's workspace is so messy that it'd pass as their high school bedroom. Real Simple's Modern Manners columnists Catherine Newman (etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy) and Michelle Slatalla (professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and former columnist for the New York Times) explain how to handle awkward situations at the office.

"I recently found out that a coworker of mine with a diagnosed mental illness has taken up a holistic lifestyle and is no longer taking her prescribed psychiatric medication. Her behavior is becoming increasingly erratic at work. She's in a high-profile position, and I'm afraid she's going to do or say something that harms not only herself but also our company. Is it OK to tell our supervisor or human resources what's happening? Or is that not an option, since this is a medical choice she's made? Do I just sit back and watch her implode?" — K.E.

I shared your question with Karen Godfredsen, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California, who recommends action—and compassion—no matter what but has different suggestions, depending on your relationship. If your coworker's medical status is common knowledge or rumor—meaning you heard it anecdotally, as opposed to her confiding in you directly—then address the issue as a quality-of-work problem. Find a time to talk, gently outline a couple of instances of compromised performance, and ask if she needs help getting her work back on track. "I'm worried about you," you might add, without mentioning the treatment choices she's making. If she then mentions her mental health, refer her to HR, who can share wellness resources and offer support. However, if you've been her confidante from the get-go, offer the support yourself. Find a sensitive way to express your concern—directly—about the medication issue. "People off their meds and needing them don't always have the best insight," says Godfredsen. "A trusted person saying, "Hey, you don't seem like yourself. Are you doing OK off meds?" can be a real blessing." People make bad choices for complicated reasons, or good ones that you can't fully grasp from the outside. Maybe you'll help her figure out which kind she is making.

- Catherine Newman

"There's a new coworker at my office who is really great but for one thing: Her perfume is extremely potent and pervasive, so much so that it lingers in a room long after she's gone. I get headaches when I have to work in a space that's so saturated with fragrance. What is the best way to handle this situation?" E.J.

Virtually no one likes the smell of heavy perfume. But from your description, it sounds as if you might be experiencing something worse than a nuisance. You may have a fragrance sensitivity, even if it's just a mild one specific to perfume overload. Silver lining: This takes your complaint out of the nebulous realm of etiquette and into the unambiguous area of health.

If you work at a large company, explain your issue to HR and ask if they'll send out a memo alerting employees that there's a sensitivity in the building. They might also institute a policy banning the use of heavy scent or set up a fragrance-free meeting room. If you're in a small office, you may have to send a group e-mail explaining your condition, but without singling out the particular colleague whose aromatic excess troubles you. My guess is that you're not alone and that many of your office mates will be grateful for a less fragrant workplace.

- Catherine Newman

"A male colleague of mine hugs me at work. He's an affectionate person, and I know his intentions are honorable, but it still makes me uncomfortable. What can I say to get him to stop?" — T.E.

My condolences—we've all had coworkers unfamiliar with the concept of personal space. And while this gentleman's hugs may be perfectly innocent, such physical displays in the workplace are generally not a good idea. While I can think of a few exceptions to the rule (at a retirement party, for instance, the guest of honor may give colleagues good-bye hugs), professional courtesy requires an arm's length.

The easiest hugs to prevent are the ones you expect. The next time this fellow, or any known hugger, approaches, preemptively extend your hand and greet him. Or let him know you're coming down with something and need to keep your distance. And if such hints don't work? Consider the possibility that the hugs may actually not be so innocent; enlist the help of your boss or a human-resources representative to explain the importance of avoiding even the appearance of sexual impropriety in the office.

- Michelle Slatalla

"I am currently temping at a startup company. There are a few full-time positions that will be available at the end of the year, but there's a lot of competition for them. A coworker of mine has a habit of putting me down in front of our manager. I've spoken to other coworkers about this, and they believe that she gets a pass because of our age difference. (She is 40; I'm 24.) I know she is doing this to make herself look better and increase her own chances, but how do I tell her—and my manager for that matter—that she is disrespecting me?" — K.W.

It's too bad that the promotion system at your workplace stirs up so much stressful and unproductive competition. Ideally, your manager sees this person's slanderous behavior for what it is and will be more inclined to hire a gracious hard worker than a campaigning back-biter. To that end, quit gossiping with other coworkers about this difficult relationship. It's more important to maintain your honest reputation and moral high ground than to invite speculation and rumor. Then have a conversation with your competitive coworker. Directness is the most effective antidote to passive aggression. Say, "I know we're vying for the same job, but let's agree not to put each other down in front of our manager. It's unprofessional, and it makes us both look bad." You can't make her change her behavior, but a polite request to behave decently might shame her into it, and it's better than asking your manager to referee. Better still would be making a pact to support each other. But now maybe I'm dreaming.

- Catherine Newman

"Recently there was a job opening at my company. I was not on the interview committee, but a colleague giving me a summary of the candidates frequently referred to one as "our minority candidate." I knew the candidate she was referring to was African-American because I saw all of the candidates walk past my office, and all but one were Caucasian females. It unnerved me that she referred to this candidate in this way. My husband is African-American. It makes me sick to think of my husband—or one day my daughter—applying for a job and being called "our minority candidate." I'm ashamed that I didn't say something to my colleague in the moment. Should I now, months later? Or do I let this one go and know that in the future I will speak up?" — J. P.

This is such a hard question that I asked Allessandra Bradley-Burns, a corporate-diversity expert and a cofounder of the firm DEILAB, which creates engineering and innovation training and products, to help think it through. She pointed out that the current highly sensitized racial environment can leave us at a loss about how to act and feeling as if minority is a word with negative associations. But, as she put it, "any time a company communicates the importance of hiring people of color, we should celebrate that." So the fact that your company made a point of noting a minority candidate is a good thing. "Of course, what we hope," says Bradley-Burns, "is that companies will see being a minority as one of the many assets that a qualified candidate will bring to the table." OK, now to your actual question: What should you have said to your coworker? Maybe something like "So what you mean is that she has everything we're looking for and she's a minority? That's awesome." It might be helpful to start a conversation—with that person or more broadly in your office—about how to describe all of a job candidate's qualifications equally, rather than leading with race, so that being a minority finds its place as one of many positive attributes.

- Catherine Newman

I really enjoy socializing with my four girlfriends at work. We eat lunch in the same spot every day, attend regular happy hours, and get together with all of our spouses. Recently one of our other colleagues has started making a habit of inviting herself to sit at our table. She seems to enjoy our company. The problem: She is extremely negative and hard to be around.

It's important to maintain professional relationships with people you work with, but where do you draw the line between personal time and working hours?


Is there a polite way for my friends and me to retain our intimate group at lunch and exclude our pesky coworker? — A.C.

It's too bad that your fun lunches are getting derailed. I can imagine how frustrating that is. That said, when coworkers eat together on the premises, professional courtesy must come first. It was unkind to exclude somebody back in the high school cafeteria; doing so in the break room is impolitic, too. In order to work well with your noontime interloper, you'll need your relationship with her to be free from hurt feelings or personal angst.

So does this mean that you're stuck with a dud tablemate? Not necessarily. Try to bring out your accidental companion's more pleasant side. Ask her cheerful questions ("Where would you travel if you could travel anywhere in the world?" "What's the best thing you ever ate?") and see if you can obtain upbeat replies. Her company might not be your first choice, but including her is a worthy endeavor and one that could turn out to be both personally and professionally rewarding.

- Catherine Newman

I work with an advisory board. One of the members is an accomplished, pleasant person, but he has the terrible habit of barking orders at me. I am in no way his secretary (not that this would make it OK), but I am often the person who manages logistics. Therefore I have to deal with his directives. He does this in meetings and via reply all on e-mail. I find it maddening and degrading. I'm not sure how to remind him that "please" and "thank you" never hurt anyone. How do I ask him to speak to me politely? S.T.

But you agreed to be his secretary, de facto, just by being a woman! Oh, wait. No, you didn't. And you're right to be maddened by this man's rude, patronizing behavior. Model politeness and try transparency. Take this person aside—or send him an e-mail—and describe your experience. "You're probably accustomed to being in charge at work," you might say. "But this is a more collaborative environment, and I would appreciate greater courtesy and respect in our interactions." That's what I would advise you to say. But I confess that my actual behavior has occasionally diverged from my own sensible advice. When I've received rudely imperative e-mails from coworkers, I have sometimes responded, "What's the magic word?" followed by—wait for it—a smiley-face
emoticon. ("Sure, happily," I'll always add afterward.) Passive-aggressive? Maybe. Gracious? Not exactly. But sometimes a gentle, good-natured reprimand just feels so right.

- Catherine Newman