Feature

A common sense guide to office etiquette

You can eat at your desk. You can't clip your nails there.

1. Personal grooming at work
I've heard tales of employees who wait until they get to work to actually get ready for work. They show up looking like they just rolled out of bed, and then proceed to comb their hair, put on ties, and so on, right at their workstation. Can they do that?

No. Eighteenth-century French nobles used to invite friends and acquaintance alike into the boudoir to chat while getting ready for an arduous day of flirting, strolling the gardens of Versailles, and oppressing the populace. Times have changed. It's one thing to discreetly doff your sneakers and run a comb through your hair after you've walked or ridden your bicycle to work. It's another to pull the electric shaver and nail clippers out of your desk drawer and subject your colleagues to the sounds and detritus of your morning toilette. (What do you think happens to all those fingernails that miss the waste basket and sail over the partition, anyway?)

The shared office environment begins at the front door. By re-enacting the college Walk of Shame every morning and strolling in dishabille, your are sending the message that you don't take the workplace any more seriously than Marie Antoinette took the plight of the French peasantry. And we all know what happened to her.

2. Personal phone calls at work
Maybe the person at the desk next to you doesn't spend a lot of time grooming himself — but does spend a lot of time on the phone with the company's medical insurance company. Isn't this doing private business on company time? Is it okay to do this?

Yes. Really, is there even such a thing as "company time" anymore? Any more than there is "private time?" Your office-mate might be just as likely to be filing a report from her iPad poolside at her daughter's swim meet as you are to be shooting your partner a quick text under the table during a conference call. The technology-enabled, 24/7, multitasking world we live in pretty much mandates that we all cross the lines between work and personal activities all the time. There are actually two separate issues at play here: productivity and professionalism. If your co-worker is populating the database from a spreadsheet while she spends all that time on hold waiting to find out if her children's orthodontia is covered by your company's insurance, then she's getting her job done, and you don't get to cry foul. You may, however, object if her conversation with the insurance company subjects you to distracting noise and/or information. For example, if she gets into an audible argument with an agent about refilling her husband's Viagra prescription, then that's just not cool. You might politely ask her if you should express sympathy for Carl's erectile dysfunction the next time you meet him at the annual family picnic, and leave it at that.

3. Eating at your desk
Meals are a mannerly minefield. There will always be someone waiting to criticize the way you break bread. They only get to do this, however, if you are breaking that bread with them, and getting crumbs all over them in the process. Provided your lunchtime repast is quiet (i.e. the sound of your crunching doesn't make visiting clients look up and wonder if the zombie apocalypse has begun) and not smelly (tuna, popcorn, and curry are the biggest offenders, but all leftover food and wrappings should be disposed of outside, just in case), your preference for eating at your desk should have no impact upon others.

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