How-to: Manners and etiquette

Office gossip, office lunches, the exit interview and more.

How to avoid the office rumour mill

Be careful what you say in front of your colleagues. Do they really need to know about your weekend bender or your child’s discipline problems? “There is an awful lot of garbage that comes out of people’s mouths that is not helpful to their reputation,” says Franke James, author of Dear Office-Politics: The Game Everyone Plays. She advises considering whether the information you’re sharing would sound good in a press release or newspaper story about you. People are also less likely to gossip about colleagues they respect, so be helpful, friendly and share the glory on successful projects.

How to tell a colleague his lunch stinks

If you find a co-worker’s sardine sandwich offensive, let him know. But phrase your complaint as a helpful tip. “You can say, ‘I respect you as a colleague, but I think you need to know there have been some complaints,'” says Louise Fox, owner of the Etiquette Ladies. “You can’t tell people what to eat, so you need to suggest they should eat it elsewhere.” Similar tact is required for dealing with colleagues with strong perfume or body odour. “But it’s better it comes from you than from someone in HR, which is where these problems eventually end up,” says Fox.

How to behave at an important lunch

Managing your cellphone: When sitting down for a meal, make a show of turning off your phone. “That says to other person ‘You’re really important and I respect you,'” says image consultant Anne Sowden. If you are expecting an important call, explain the situation in advance and ask your colleagues for indulgence. When taking a call, always leave the table.

Excusing yourself: If you need to excuse yourself from the table, fold your napkin loosely and place it on either side of your plate on the table. Don’t scrunch it into a ball, and never toss it on your chair.

Rescuing a conversation: Trapped in a discussion about Bradford’s Law or the Pareto Principle? To redirect things, identify the “alpha person” in the group and pepper them with questions about something more broadly appealing. Chances are, they’ll be happy to oblige.

Ordering: Allow the host to order first and take their cue about whether you should order an appetizer or dessert. Avoid sloppy meals like spaghetti, ribs or chicken wings. Only drink if your host or client is also drinking. Restrict yourself to two, maximum.

Seating: The outward facing seat should go to your client or distinguished guest. The guest should sit to the right of the host with other attendees taking the remaining seats.

The cheque: The person who issued the invitation should always pay the bill. Of course, some men still refuse to let female colleagues pay. “I handle that by saying, ‘I’ll let you pay this time, but next time, we have lunch and I’m paying,'” says Sowden.

How to give an impromptu speech

Consider the purpose of the gathering, then choose one to three salient points to mention. Keep it brief and try to avoid rambling. Open the speech with an outline of your key points, then expand upon them and then close with a summary of what you just said. Nervous? “I just remind myself that I’m not being asked to speak so I’ll be put in a position to fail,” says Janice Weir, former district governor for Toastmasters in Toronto. “I’m being called upon to speak because I have something valuable to share.”

How to handle an exit interview

Departing employees shouldn’t treat exit interviews as an opportunity to vent with impunity. “Be very, very cautious,” says Gene Hayden, a career coach and author of The Follow-Through Factor. “It’s very tempting to let it rip, but if you show anger, they will immediately think of you as a disgruntled employee and everything you say will be discredited.” Phrase any complaints in professional terms or translate them into “lessons learned.” So don’t say your boss was a control freak, say, “There was an issue with micro-managing,” suggests Hayden. Remember, you could find yourself working with the same people in the future. “You never know when you’re going to see these people again or need these people again,” she says.

How to keep your germs to yourself

Contrary to popular belief, handshaking is still acceptable; there is no need to fist-bump for sterility’s sake. Still, avoid hacking or sneezing into your hands; use your sleeve-covered elbow to catch errant germs. It’s also crucial to wash your hands frequently and stay home when in doubt. “The workplace culture should be that if you’re sick, stay home,” says Gerilynne Carroll, Toronto Public Health’s manager for pandemic plan and preparedness, “because you need to get better and we don’t want your germs interrupting the office flow.”

Let’s bring back … Formal introductions

“When being introduced, the usual thing is to shake hands and say, ‘How do you do?’ and neither to expect or give an answer. … It is important to smile pleasantly at each person to whom you are introduced, looking them straight in the eye.”
—Barbara Cartland’s Etiquette Handbook, 1962