As a workplace advice columnist for the last ten years, I hear about a lot of bad office behavior… which is great for me, because I love stories of people doing awkward, ridiculous, or outright insane things. But sometimes it can be hard to judge whether what’s going on around you is reasonable or normal. Sometimes a toxic office environment can warp your judgment and throw off your norms, making it really hard to tell whether what’s happening around you is okay or very, very not okay. Sometimes you might even be the perpetrator of the not okay.
How can you steer yourself through these murky career waters and avoid serious mistakes? APW has partnered with Squarespace this year to help sort out exactly that (and you can see more of APW’s career advice right here). And pro tip: If you’re looking to show yourself in the best light, Squarespace obviously has you covered there. They offer beautiful designer websites that are basically impossible to screw up (so “embarrassing website design” is at least one thing on this list you won’t have to worry about). Pulling from a decade of letters from people about the good, the bad, and the horrific in their offices, here are some rules for how not to be a terrible employee.
1. Recognize that part of your job is to get along with your coworkers.
I once received a letter from a manager whose employee claimed to be putting magic curses on her coworkers when they angered her, which was stirring up fear on her team. (It didn’t help when two of employees who she had “cursed” got sick enough that they each missed a week of work.) The novelty of magical spells aside, the real issue was that the employee was threatening and feuding with other employees—when at work, you really need to maintain reasonably harmonious relationships with coworkers, even ones you don’t particularly like.
Startlingly often, people forget that they’re being judged on their relationships with coworkers as much as they’re being judged on their actual work. If you don’t get along with people or you treat them poorly, it can hold you back as much as if your work itself is bad. That doesn’t mean that you need to organize office happy hours every night or be best buddies with everyone around you. But it does mean that, at a minimum, you need to treat people with consideration and respect. And you definitely can’t cast curses on them, no matter how strong the temptation. (Or if you do, you need to keep it to yourself.)
2. Embrace feedback.
I’ve had letters about people who give their bosses the silent treatment after even minor feedback, and even a letter about someone who asked his boss to stop giving him input on his work altogether. For real.
The thing about feedback is this: Even if it’s hard to hear in the moment, it’s how you get better and better at what you do. After all, when you picture yourself five years in the future, you probably imagine yourself more skilled and further along in your career. Part of the way you get there is by feedback, because it helps you spot places where you can improve. When you’re resistant to feedback—when you’re defensive or shut down or don’t want to hear it—you’re literally blocking yourself from the path to growing professionally and moving up. Plus, because managers are human, if you make it difficult for them to give you feedback about your work, you’ll often get less of it—which might sound like an outcome you could live with happily, but it means that you won’t know when there are problems with your work, and you might miss out on information that would help you get better projects, higher raises, and future promotions. In a worst-case scenario, this can even end with you losing your job if there are serious problems with your performance that you won’t let people work with you to fix.
3. Speak up when you’re overwhelmed.
One of the most amazing stories I ever heard at Ask a Manager was from someone who was overwhelmed by paperwork for some legal filings, couldn’t get any help with it, and finally in a fit of frustration… well, I’ll let him tell it: “After about a month of intense anxiety, insomnia, and occasional stress-vomiting, I told the director I was going to the post office to mail all of the various legal packets to the counties for what should be the final approval. Instead, I drove down a dirt road, pulled over, threw all the documents in a big pile and set them on fire.”
While admittedly there’s something glorious about that approach, in most cases you’re going to get better results if you speak up when you’re overwhelmed and ask for help. It doesn’t always work–some bosses will just tell you to find a way to get everything done—but a lot of the time it does, so at a minimum it’s worth a try before you resort to actually lighting it all on fire.
4. Do Not Try to Woo The Hiring Manager.
When you’re job searching, don’t rely on gimmicks over merit. When you know you’re up against a sea of similarly qualified candidates, it’s natural to look for ways to stand out. But you won’t be helped by gimmicks—like the person who sent a hiring manager chocolate, noting that few women wouldn’t appreciate chocolate (spoiler alert: he didn’t hear back), or the applicant who sent an employer a framed photo of himself along with his resume (?!). But that kind of courtship really isn’t necessary. The simplest way to stand out is with a compelling, personable cover letter and a resume that shows a track record of achievement in the areas the employer is hiring for. And if you’re in a field where you want to show examples of your work (such as design or writing), that’s where something like a portfolio website can come in handy. (Luckily, Squarespace offers beautiful, easy-to-customize design templates built in to their platform, so you don’t have to worry about going overboard there either. Their cover page option is also good if you just want a simple, stylish landing page that houses your resume.) But seriously, that’s it! No chocolates.
5. Take responsibility for your mistakes.
If you make a big mistake at work—like, say, sending your boss to Italy instead of Florida—most of the time how you handle the mistake will be almost as important as the mistake itself. If someone I manage makes a major mistake, I want to know that they understand what a big deal it was and what the impact could be, that they understand how it happened, and what steps they’re taking to make sure nothing similar happens again. If the person proactively tells me all of that on their own, there’s not a lot left for me to do. But if the person doesn’t own up to what happened, doesn’t take responsibility for their role in it, and/or seems cavalier about it, that’s usually far more alarming than whatever the original mistake was.
6. Be a decent person.
This one sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how often I hear about people doing truly terrible things to their colleagues—from the manager who stole an employee’s family heirloom (he’d been keeping it on his desk) and gave it as a gift to a business contact, to the person who misappropriated funds raised for a bereaved colleague, to the guy who kept showing up at his employee’s chemo sessions to talk about work. (!)
If being a good person for its own sake isn’t motivation enough, it’s helpful to remember that treating your coworkers well pays dividends in other ways: When you’re kind and considerate to people at work, they’re more likely to go out of their way to make your life easier when you need them to, whether it’s staying late to get you data you need, or cutting you some slack when you fumble a request of theirs. (I guarantee you that no one is staying late to help that person who stole that bereavement money, nor should they.)
7. Have some boundaries.
One of my favorite letters of all times was from someone whose receptionist insisted on aggressively hugging every visitor to their office. And we’re not just talking quick hugs either; the letter described them as “longer-than-necessary, full-body hugs.” Needless to say, people were Not Comfortable.
But even those of us who recognize appropriate hugging boundaries can still end up inadvertently violating coworkers’ boundaries in other ways. I regularly hear from people whose coworkers scrutinize their food choices, quiz them about their reproductive plans, or demand a full accounting of why they didn’t bring a plus-one to the office holiday dinner. This kind of meddling sucks in any area of life, but it’s especially problematic at work, where people are trapped with each other and often worry that asserting clear boundaries will cause tension in the relationships they need to maintain for work. So if you’ve ever made a judgy comment about a coworker’s snack (“You’re having a second cupcake?”) or otherwise butted into a colleague’s private life without a clear invitation to do so, resolve to maintain more respectful boundaries in the future.
8. Know when to advocate for yourself.
While picking your battles is important (you don’t want to fight every annoying thing at work, no matter how minor), it’s even more important to know when you should stand up for yourself and push back on something your employer or a coworker is doing. That doesn’t always mean you’ll have to have a Big Serious Conversation; sometimes it’s enough to just say, “Oh, that’s not for me.” Those people I mentioned earlier who were getting those unwanted hugs from the overly touchy-feely receptionist? It’s okay to say, “I’m not a hugger” (and back away if necessary).
But other times standing up for yourself will mean a more serious conversation. For example, if you’re not being paid on time or if your job has turned out to be very different from the work you were hired to do—where not speaking up could mean not paying your bills or accepting a significant career derailment—you’ve got to push past any discomfort and be willing to say, “I have a serious concern that we need to address.”
It’s really hard for a lot of people to initiate these conversations, judging from my mail. But that willingness to speak up—not adversarially or aggressively, just calmly and matter-of-factly—is essential to your ability to get what you want from your professional life, and to your quality of life overall.
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