How to Avoid Workplace Faux Pas

Photograph by Thomas Jackson/Getty Images

As a manners and etiquette writer, I’ve made a career out of discussing uncomfortable topics. When most of us think about manners, we think of Downton Abbey or snobby, white-glove dinners where using the wrong fork will be frowned upon. Sure, I cover proper dining etiquette and wedding toast dos and don’ts, but the best and most interesting articles come out of common, everyday experiences.

When I started writing Reply All … And Other Ways to Tank Your Career, I wanted to focus on the unmannerly situations of the professional world, ones we’ve all been in: job interviews, office happy hours, what to order during a lunch meeting, how to handle a co-worker who doesn’t wash his hands before leaving the bathroom, is it really possible to date your boss, and many others.

To achieve this, I interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs, entertainers, and tastemakers to hear their personal stories and get the truth from those who have already climbed the ladder and sit proudly on top of it.  Here are some of the anecdotes from my interviews:

Ken Austin, founder and chairman of Tequila Avión
Regardless of where you work or what industry you’re in, you’ll probably have to do some traveling for your job. Whether it’s a 10-minute metro ride or an international flight, traveling for work could very well be the Olympics of manners. Austin, co-founder of Marquis Jet, knows travel better than anyone:

“When people go into an airport, it’s amazing to watch personalities change. They start to panic and act irrationally. ‘Oh no, I’m going to miss my flight!’ Or, ‘I have to get in line!’… even when it’s not time to get in line. When you travel, you see people’s real personalities come out. And you can judge if this is the kind of person you want to spend time with. If they’re not nice to the flight attendant, to the person taking your bag, to other passengers, well, then you know something about their real character.”

The best solution for handling travel is to realize that, unless you have a private jet, it won’t be luxurious and people will be irrational. Show up early, don’t wear a ton of jewelry through the security line, and understand that the flight attendant is not your butler.

Barbara Corcoran, real estate mogul and resident shark on ABC’s Shark Tank
When it comes to hiring, many of the people doing the hiring use their gut instinct to make a decision. As Corcoran explains:

“Whether or not the person likes you is going to be decided within the first five or six seconds of your meeting. So you really better watch what you say and do in those first moments. I very rarely change my opinion after that initial five or six seconds. You sit down, you exchange cordialities, and usually the person doing the interview has decided if they like you. They might not have decided if they’re going to hire you yet, but they’ve decided if they like you. So you have to be very polished and think through how you come across. A lot of people think they have a warm-up period, but that’s really not true. The biggest impression you can never take back is those first few seconds.”

Corcoran points out how crucial the first impression actually is. So you better bring your A-game for those first few minutes. Be on time; call everyone by Mr. or Ms., and display respect and humility. Remember, it’s key to win the interviewer over with your soft skills.

Rob Samuels, chief operating officer of Maker’s Mark
After 11 years in the liquor business, Rob Samuels returned to Maker’s Mark experienced and confident, ready to join the family business.

“True story: My first day at Maker’s Mark, I got there nice and early, had an office that was nothing more than broom closet, and my Dad came in with a cup of coffee. He says to me, ‘OK, you’re here, what good ideas do you have?’ He caught me flatfooted. And I just blurted out, ‘I think we should advertise on television.’ He fired me right on the spot.”

Samuels got his job back, but the lesson here is that you have to be ready to handle anything. Regardless of who you are—family or not—the only way you’ll keep your job is to produce.

Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of Warby Parker
One of the coolest companies in the fashion sphere is Warby Parker. Its business model was shaped by young innovators who have an eye (no pun intended) for what makes a good employee:

“We are selective about choosing the people who work for us. … Some of the basics are often overlooked: Sit up straight, look people in the eye, and practice a firm handshake. Body language is crucial to being a professional. [When we’re hiring], we’re not just looking for a person who can handle the job; we’re also looking for someone to grow in the company. If they don’t have manners, a physical presence, or leadership potential, we really don’t want to waste the time bringing them in and training them.”

Blumenthal points out an often-overlooked fact: Sometimes an employer just won’t waste time trying to fix employees who aren’t a good fit for the job. If someone comes into the office with an oversize ego or no sense of proper interpersonal behavior, it may not be worth the effort of keeping them on board.

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