Determining what behavior will fly at your workplace takes an understanding of the legal ramifications of your actions, common standards of professionalism and your company’s culture. Each company’s definition of acceptable behavior is different, based on the attitudes of its employees. Taking a conservative posture when you first arrive at any company can save you long-term headaches while you learn the lay of the land.
One of the easiest ways to learn what’s appropriate and inappropriate at your workplace is to read the employee handbook. If it’s detailed, it will include objective information such as how to handle parking, signing in and out, requesting expense reimbursements and personal time off, maintaining your workspace and personal use of company assets. It might also contain subjective guidelines covering gossip, dating, fraternizing, harassment, substance use and personal emails.
If you’re in management, you’ll have more legal issues facing you regarding your workplace behavior. Some laws that don’t apply to equal-level coworkers govern managers and supervisors, particularly regarding personal relationships. It’s a myth that you can’t ask a potential employee personal questions during an interview, but it strengthens his case if he sues you for hiring discrimination. Personal conversation can become the basis of harassment or discrimination lawsuits. Meet with your human resources professional or visit government agency websites, such as that of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), to learn what constitutes legal and illegal workplace behavior.
Using Company Assets
Get a feel for what your company allows regarding using phones, email, laptops, a company car, copy and fax machines and other assets before you use any for personal reasons. For example, if your company has a phone contract that doesn’t cost it extra money if you make long-distance calls, it might be OK to use the phone for personal calls during your breaks or after hours. Be aware that companies have the right to monitor your Internet and email use and those visits to shopping or entertainment websites might get you in trouble. Ask if it’s acceptable to use the copy machine for personal needs -- some businesses let you make personal copies if you’re willing to pay per page.
With gossip, you might be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. For example, simply nodding your head in agreement with a group of co-workers who are trashing a boss, co-worker or the company can come back to bite you later if it’s discovered, even if you didn’t start or add to the conversation. If you excuse yourself when gossip starts or tell them to stop, your colleagues might get the message they can’t trust you. Try to change the subject quickly when gossip starts or find a plausible excuse for heading back to your desk.
Showing up on the dot and starting to pack your things five minutes before quitting time isn’t a breach of your contract, but makes you look unprofessional. As more people take the opportunity to make up for their mismanaged work time by sending emails late and night and on weekends, you might have to make a choice between seeming selfish by not working after hours, or letting people take advantage of you. If you don’t need to send an email after hours, don’t, if you want to respect others’ time. If the culture is go-go 24/7, you might need to work those hours to remain part of the team.
Examples of inappropriate professional acts toward your co-workers include showing up late if it means more work for them, submitting your work after deadlines, keeping a messy workspace others have to see, not cleaning up after yourself in the break room, dressing down subordinates in front of their peers, bullying co-workers into doing work you could do or accepting your point of view, or pointing out the work-related shortcomings of others. More appropriate professional behaviors include praising subordinates in writing or in front of their peers, offering to help co-workers with their work if you finish yours early and giving peers a heads-up if you might miss a deadline because you’re having a problem with your project.
Whether it’s a one-night fling with a co-worker in a different department or a loving, long-term relationship with a close colleague, think about the workplace atmosphere you’ll create when your time together is over. Any awkwardness between the two of you might affect your co-workers, leading to a less effective office. When a subordinate and supervisor hook up, it opens up sexual harassment possibilities. Even asking a subordinate on a date can cause problems if that person isn’t interested and now feels uncomfortable. Before getting together with a co-worker, wait until the initial euphoria wears off and see if it’s still important enough for you to risk your job before taking the plunge.
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.