So you’ve landed a real job in that shiny office building. Your first day in your very own office (okay… cubicle) is something you’ve been working for the past four years, and it’s finally here. However, working your first real-world job is about more than just showing up and getting your job done each day; you also need to know how to navigate this new world with its own set of rules and proper etiquette. That’s right: We’re talking office politics.
So what’s appropriate and what’s not? What do you do if you find yourself caught up in drama or gossip? We’ve put together a guide for everything you need to know about office culture and how you should deal with it.
1. Respect is key
Showing respect earns respect. The Golden Rule has never been more applicable! Whether you’re dealing with your superior or an intern you’re overseeing, treat the other person the way you’d like to be treated in the workplace. Showing respect to your coworkers, regardless of whether they rank higher or lower than you, means your entire team will work more effectively together: Morale will be higher and communication will flow more freely.
For Kelly Reese, a sales assistant in New York, a lack of respect for her ideas is the biggest pet peeve she faces at work. “It just drives me insane when my project manager ‘no’s’ my ideas before I even finish them!” she says. “It’s like she automatically assumes what I have to say is worthless, and that obviously doesn’t feel good.” Your opinions are worth voicing—but not when it’s done in a way that puts others down.
Respect isn’t just about being nice to your coworkers or recognizing their hard work—it’s also about respecting their time. John Perri, the CEO of a New-York-based technology company, says he hates when people interrupt him while he’s working. “There’s one employee who comes into my office just to talk,” he says. “I’m the boss; I’m always in the middle of something. I don’t have that time!”
It’s one thing if you have a question for your boss about the work you’re doing—it’s another to treat work hours like social hour. Depending on your office environment, you may want to shoot your boss or coworker an email or calendar invite before popping into his or her office; you don’t want to interrupt during an important call or force her to lose track of what she’s working on when you walk up to her desk without warning.
2. Get personal (just not too personal)
The truth is, you’ll spend the majority of your life at work—which means most of your days will be spent with the people you work with. While it’s true that your personal life doesn’t belong in the office, it doesn’t mean your coworkers need to be strangers, either. Take the time to get to know them. Remember the names of their family members and ask about them from time to time.
Danielle Ward, a consultant at a top London recruiting agency, makes a point to ask about her colleagues’ children and partners. “It’s not only considerate, but it builds a rapport beyond being transactional colleagues,” she says.
If your coworkers aren’t interested in revealing too much about their families or personal lives, find other ways to connect. Ask how their weekends were and learn what their hobbies outside of work are. You just might bond over a favorite sport or TV show!
Most importantly, don’t skip out on office activities! If your department is planning a happy hour or your office has scheduled a team bonding experience, make sure you pencil these events into your schedule. Getting along with the people you work with goes a long way in creating a positive work environment for everybody, and the best way to do that is to get to know them and to have shared experiences.
3. Stay professional at office events
On that note, be sure your behavior is appropriate in any environment that involves coworkers, no matter how social the setting. Even if you’re out for drinks at a bar with your team, don’t say or do anything you wouldn’t do during the workday in the office.
Andrew Disbury, a member of the European Association for International Education Marketing and Recruitment Board at Leeds Beckett University, warns, “In work situations you are always ‘on view’ even when you are not ‘on duty,’ so be careful of the impression you make.”
If you’re at a professional lunch where your boss or a colleague is treating you, don’t go overboard. Just because you’re not paying doesn’t mean you can treat it like a buffet or as if your parents are visiting you. Abbi Gabasa, managing editor at Ms. Career Girl, suggests treating it like a “professional date.” Her top tips for handling the situation with grace: Follow the boss’s lead when ordering (“if they get a drink, feel free to get one, too”), always offer to help pay and thank him or her before getting back to the office. Afterwards, you can send him or her a written thank-you note as well.
4. Keep your social media out of the workplace
For all the good things the Internet has given us, it has certainly complicated the area between our work lives and our social lives. Who can really see this post? Will this status update come back to haunt me five years from now?
While we can’t solve all of your social-media problems, Gabasa has some tips to help pave the rocky path. “Your private Facebook is just that—it’s private!” she says. “Keep friend requests from colleagues waiting while you get to know them.”
If the Facebook freeze is ever brought up, you can always explain that you use your Facebook only with family and close personal friends.
When you’re at work, you’re there to do a job, not send out updates to your social media accounts. Too much time online could get back to your boss, and she’ll probably be less impressed by the hilarious GIF you shared during work hours than the six people who retweeted it were.
Ultimately, when it comes to the relationship between social media and your work life, the best rule is to shut up and shut off. Never, ever mention your company or any colleagues in any of your posts, directly or indirectly (unless it’s appropriate and work-related, such as sharing press on an award your company recently received or posting articles from the company’s blog), and unless it’s directly related to your job, don’t spend time browsing your accounts while you’re in the office.
5. Avoid the office romance (if possible)
What was beautiful for Jim and Pam might actually be a nightmare in real life! While romantic relationships in the office should be avoided as much as possible, Gabasa says you don’t necessarily have to rule them out entirely.
“Relationships just happen; they are never something you can definitely say no to,” she says. “You don’t need to hide it from everybody in the office; just take it one step at a time, and respect yourself and the relationship.”
Each company will have its own policy regarding office relationships, so make sure you know what that is before you get involved—especially if it’s a no-tolerance policy. But regardless of what that policy is, a relationship with your boss is never appropriate.
6. Stay out of office gossip
Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes… and office gossip. When you’re spending all your time surrounded by the same people in a single space, you’re bound to experience office gossip at one point or another.
The best way to deal with gossip? Stay out of it. If someone brings up rumors about someone you work with, change the subject subtly, or, if you feel comfortable doing so, ask directly to be kept out of the loop.
If you overhear someone spreading rumors about you, don’t be afraid to confront him or her. That doesn’t mean making a huge announcement or sending out a company-wide email, of course.
Jackie McDonald, an accountant in Texas, remembers overhearing an embarrassing rumor about herself once. “I was sitting in a bathroom stall, listening to these two women saying the most ridiculous things about me that weren’t even close to true!” she says. “The next day at lunch we were all sitting together, and I said something like, ‘You’ll never believe what I overhead the other day!’ That shut the rumors down pretty fast!”
If the gossip is damaging, hurtful or incessant, especially to the point where it turns into bullying or harassment, reach out to HR rather than deal with it on your own. Your company should have a system in place to handle such a situation. You should never feel uncomfortable in your workplace!
7. Accept and learn from negative feedback
It’s inevitable: At some point you’re going to make a mistake, and a supervisor will approach you to discuss it. When receiving criticism from your boss, Gabasa says one of the worst things you can do is shut down and become quiet. Answer your boss’s questions honestly and directly, and admit to your mistakes. If you can, offer a solution to the issue. Ultimately, it’s important to show your boss that you can not only take responsibility for your mistakes, but you can learn from them as well.
If the criticism isn’t based on a mistake you’ve made but rather that the work you’ve presented isn’t of the quality your boss was looking for, don’t take it personally or get upset, and definitely don’t complain about it to coworkers after your meeting with the boss. If you disagree with your boss, give clear reasons why based on fact and the research you’ve done, not based on your personal opinion. If you’re not sure what your boss is looking for, ask specific questions and even check in with him or her as you’re revising to make sure you’re on the right track. Show that you are able to accept constrictive criticism and apply it to your future projects.
And if the criticism is personal or isn’t constructive? Take it to HR—they’ll be able to offer advice on how to deal, or they may be able to mediate a conversation between you and your boss (or a coworker) if the situation calls for it.
8. Dress appropriately
We’ve all heard the expression “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” However, if you’re working at a startup where everyone dresses casually, you probably shouldn’t show up to work in formal businesswear even if you want to be the CEO of a company one day.
According to Gabasa, you have to find that sweet spot between your aspirations, your personal style and your office culture. “Dressing for the job you want doesn’t always mean a power blazer or a two-piece suit,” she says. “It means carrying yourself well, being polished and letting your personality shine through.”
When you go in for a job interview, take a look around and see what everybody else in the office is wearing to give you an idea of what the office environment is like. If you didn’t get a chance to walk through the office you’ll be working in (for example, if you met with HR in a different office or with your potential boss off-site), you can always reach out to your interviewer to ask what the appropriate dress code is before you start a new position. It’s better to lean towards something more formal on your first day if the company doesn’t have a strict or specific dress code in place, and then you can cater your office wear to what the rest of your coworkers dress like. If there’s anything you’re on the fence about (for example, if you’re trying to decide whether that shirt is too low cut or that dress is too short), leave it at home.
Navigating the scene at your first job isn’t always easy, and your experience is going to differ from office to office—how you deal with an incident at one job may be different from how you’d deal with it at another. However, if you keep these eight tips in mind, you’ll be able to navigate any workplace with confidence and professionalism, no matter how tricky the situation.