Friday, July 11, 2014

Your Office Coach: Office etiquette is evolving

August 17. 2013 8:35PM
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Q: Since taking a new job, I have been appalled by my colleagues’ disrespectful behavior in meetings. Most of them bring laptops and type continuously while others are talking. I initially believed they were taking notes, but soon discovered that they are actually working on other things.

Cell phones are also a problem, with people constantly texting and taking calls. In one meeting, the leader responded to instant messages while her computer screen was on display for everyone to see. All this extraneous activity is extremely distracting.

When I attend meetings, I leave my laptop on my desk, silence my phone, and return calls afterward. However, since I am middle-age, perhaps my ways are just old-fashioned. What do you think?

A: While common courtesy never goes out of style, the definition of appropriate behavior does evolve over time. Children are still expected to use proper table manners, for example, but are no longer required to remain silent during meals. Because workplace norms also shift, your question does not have a simple answer.

To demonstrate respect, meeting participants should be expected to give their full attention to the person who is speaking. Using a laptop or tablet for note-taking or locating relevant information is perfectly OK, but working on unrelated tasks is unquestionably rude.

That said, however, there is a distinct and growing generational divide regarding technology. Younger people, who grew up surrounded by multiple communication devices, tend to be less offended by electronic multi-tasking. For them, simultaneous talking and texting is a common occurrence.

Older colleagues should try to understand that split attention does not necessarily indicate intentional disrespect by their juniors. At the same time, millennials have to realize that texting or emailing during meetings with senior managers could be a career-killer.

To prevent misperceptions, leaders need to establish clear ground rules for the use of electronics in meetings. They should also be sure to invite only people who really need to attend. Otherwise, some participants may multi-task simply to make better use of their time.

Q: After a bout with bronchitis, one of our co-workers developed a chronic cough. “Monica” has lengthy coughing fits two or three times a day and sometimes sounds like she is choking. We tried giving her cough drops, but that didn’t help. Her doctor says this problem is normal and temporary.

Several customers have asked whether Monica is contagious, which apparently she is not. However, since we are concerned about customer perceptions, we would like Monica to go into the restroom whenever she has an attack. How can we suggest this without hurting her feelings?

A: Even though your request is not unreasonable, being banished to the bathroom by co-workers might cause Monica to react defensively. So to avoid unnecessary conflict, try asking management to deliver this message. If Monica’s boss will agree to talk with her, that should take care of the problem. But if not, at least this is one issue that should eventually be resolved by the passage of time.

Marie G. McIntyre is a workplace coach and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.” Send in questions and get free coaching tips at, or follow her on Twitter @officecoach.

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