Unspoken office rules of etiquette that you should know

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Etiquette is defined as “the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.” What’s hard about it is that most of these rules are not written in the employee manual. When you’re a newcomer, knowing these is essential to your survival in the workplace.

Why is etiquette important?

Most offices today are designed to have an open plan wherein we work within close quarters with one another. This means that our actions greatly affect the people within our area. Can you imagine how you’ll be able to work if the co-worker next to you plays loud music or if they keep talking to you when you’re busy? This is why following the rules of etiquette is so important – it allows us to work efficiently and ensures that we maintain a harmonious working relationship with others.

Considering that we spend most of our time in the office, having a harmonious and peaceful workplace is necessary for every employee’s well-being. It is also good for business.

Here are some unspoken rules of office etiquette that you should know:

Common courtesy

We say “common” courtesy but what is common to one person may not be common to another. Office cultures vary from one country to another, come to think of it, even from one office to another. While rules of etiquette are largely based on respect (and logic), some can be very specific and may need a bit of observation for you to decode. The following are general suggestions that you may take into consideration:

  • Small gestures of politeness are always appreciated. “Please” and “thank you” go a long way.
  • Being attentive is a sign of respect. When someone comes near your desk to discuss something or ask a question, look away from your computer screen or mobile phone. Look at the person and give them your full attention.
  • If you need to listen to music or watch a video in your cubicle, use a headset so you don’t disturb others.
  • Respect personal space. Avoid leaving your things in another person’s area or desk or extend your workspace to the next person’s space. Knock before entering a co-worker’s room and ask first if you can speak to them (whether in a room or not) especially when they’re busy.
  • Keep your voice down when talking on the phone or when having conversations around other co-workers who are busy.
  • Don’t make personal calls or conduct personal business on company time.
  • Keep your workspace clean and organized. This will not only help you work more efficiently, it will not be an eyesore for others. Having a messy desk also does not reflect well on the image of your company.

Food etiquette

These are small matters that can bring major irritations. Consider these suggestions about eating and bringing food in the workplace:

  • If you’re running on a tight schedule, eating at your desk is acceptable. Just make sure that your food’s smell does not fill the room and that it is not very messy. Otherwise, it will be safer and more pleasant for everyone if you eat in the pantry or canteen.
  • Generally, people are sensitive to food smells. If possible, avoid microwaving food like fish, popcorn, or barbecues at the office.
  • Make sure not to take food that isn’t yours (from the workplace fridge).
  • Always clean up after yourself in the break room.

Office etiquette tips with “Mister Manners”, Real Business

Office politics

These are rules related to workplace interactions involving power and authority. These are suggestions to help keep you away from controversies that are often unnecessary and stressful in the workplace:

  • Stay away from office gossip. If possible, don’t be involved in divisive issues. Many times, we don’t know the complete details to a story. It would be good to suspend your judgement before you get involved (or better yet, don’t get involved at all!).
  • Keep confidential information confidential. This is how you will be trusted by your boss and co-workers.
  • Don’t play favourites, especially if you’re the boss. Be fair.
  • Observe the right channels when reporting or complaining. Talk to your manager first if you have issues to discuss. Don’t go straight to the CEO, unless you’re directly reporting to the CEO.


Digital technology has become a staple in every workplace. With its use comes new rules of etiquette, not only when you’re communicating online but offline as well:

  • Check your screen saver. Some companies require certain images like the company logo to be the default for all office computers. If it’s not prescribed, make sure to choose an image that is appropriate for the workplace.
  • Reputations are now built online. Even if you’re using your personal account on social media, it is not proper to trash your boss, co-workers or the company. This can also be grounds for your termination.
  • Everything you do online leaves an electronic footprint. A post you made 10 years ago can be retrieved and be used against you at work. Make sure that you cultivate a positive online reputation.
  • Avoid taking photos of people and sharing them without their permission. After taking a group photo at an event, for example, announce that you’ll be posting it on social media or on the company website. Usually, people won’t have objections, but if they do, make sure to take the necessary steps and honour the request.
  • Don’t create, watch or share inappropriate materials online, especially while on the clock. By inappropriate, we mean text, photos or videos that are violent, offensive (e.g. showing extremist, racial, criminal or anti-social behavior), or pornographic content. Even politically incorrect statements can get you in hot water.

Seems like a lot of rules to follow! What it all really comes down to is respect and consideration for others. When you’re in doubt about something, always take the safest option. Choose the action that will not offend or disrespect anyone. Always be professional. Better yet, ask when in doubt. According to professional mentor Linda Yip, the most common mistake new hires make is that they don’t ask for help. It takes a lot of time and observation to decipher unspoken office etiquette. Don’t make it harder on yourself by not asking.
Sources: Etiquette in the Canadian Workplace, University of Victoria; Manners and etiquette, The Canada Guide; Office etiquette: Rules to get through that 9 to 5, Victoria Dinh, CBC News; and Don’t break these important unspoken office rules, Sam Becker, Cheatsheet.com. Accessed November 21, 2019.

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Community Resources

Want to learn more about workplace culture? Read the basics here: Understanding workplace culture: 5 keys to success in the Canadian workplace and 10 pointers to help you fit in at work.

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