Career Coach takes your questions on bad behavior in the workplace

Apr 16, 2014

Whether you work in a cubicle or a corner office, an assembly line or a sales floor, everyone could use a little career advice now and then. Our career coach, Joyce Russell, is here to help you solve your workplace conundrums, from how to ask for a promotion to how to deal with a difficult boss. Ask her your question now!

Want more? Read Joyce Russell's Career Coach columns.

Welcome to our April online chat. Today our focus is on etiquette in the workplace: the good, the bad, and the ugly (and what to do about the problems!).

Of course, feel free to send in any other career or work-related questions as well. And send in your suggestions and insights to help each other out.


J. Russell

I was walking down the hall and though I noticed someone wearing their sweater on inside out. Not really knowing the person, I didn't stop long enough to see if I was correct. It is possible the person knew and had a reason to wear the sweater that way, I don't really know. Is it OK to approach strangers at work and point out possible mistakes? Years ago, I was at a job fair and someone pointed out I had tags on the suit that should be removed. I thought it was a very helpful comment since I was trying to make a good impression.

Sure. I think if done in a nice way, they would appreciate it. I know I would!

I have been in my job a couple years and know that leaving is going to leave my office in the lurch, at least temporarily. How much notice should I give? (I have some flexibility on the back end regarding starting my next gig.)

Ideally, most people give at least two weeks notice, but if you can give more notice (a month or so), it would be really appreciated by the firm. It really depends on the relationships you have with them - would they view this in a positive way and be appreciative or would they be really upset with you? Depends on your relationship with your boss, but if done professionally, I would give them as much notice as possible. Best of luck in your new gig!

Several years ago, I had to leave a job that I had been at for many years. A new employee (who clearly wanted my job) manipulated many people who we worked with and used them as pawns to get them to say things that would discredit me. In the meantime, this woman was directly verbally assaulting me. This happened at least half a dozen times, but psychopaths are smart. She would only assault me when no one else was around. Even though I had figured out that I was working with a psychopath (she got my job, by the way) before I left, it did not help save me from the negative consequences of emotional abuse. It has been 7 years and I would say that I am just now feeling strong enough to make some kind of statement about this. I believe that it's important that people like this are exposed so that others can be spared the kind of pain I've been through. All the same people are still at this workplace. Is it too late for me to make some kind of formal complaint?

I am sorry you had to experience this type of workplace abuse and stress. I know it takes a long time to help a person heal from this, especially since it is often not what people expect from a workplace. At work, it may be difficult to really see what is going on and how someone can be manipulating others for personal gain. But, sad to say, it does exist, and much more often than we would want. 

While I agree with you that it would be good to expose this person before they cause even more problems, you also said that you finally are starting to heal from this process. Would bringing this up again help you in healing? If so, then youmight want to pursue this. Since you are working elsewhere I assume, you could still go back to talk to the HR person from your previous firm. Or, if you believe this to be harassment, you could reach out to the EEOC to ask questions of what next steps might be for you. You did not say what the size of the firm was or if it was a government agency or private firm. That might dictate who you could file a complaint with. You would have to check to see whether you still can file the complaint, depending on the type of firm and the laws that pertain to them. I hope you are able to successfully resolve this, continue to heal yourself, and protect others from these abuses. Best of luck.

How do you tactfully tell someone or a group of people that what they are doing is rude and disrespectful? Or just downright gross? I.E. cutting their nails at work, slurping soup at their desk, etc.? The list goes on and on!

This is tough and it comes up a lot at work - those nasty behaviors that disgust and/or annoy others. I think if it happens often (not just once), you could privately just ask them if they could refrain from doing it near you. I know it is awkwarad to do this (and what if it is your boss?), but if you never say anything, they will never change. Another thought - is there someone close to them that you could ask to bring it up? Sometimes that is a good strategy as well. Others have left notes or cartoons for people with these annoying behaviors, but usually those things do not really seem to work. The person often thinks they are for others, not them. So, the direct, private (said in a nice way) approach seems to be most effective at really getting someone to at least stop doing the annoying behaviors in front of you.

For years, I've worked in an environment where it's just been myself and my boss. I'm the operations mananger for a financial adviser and we now need to hire additional support. I'm going to be the manager of the new administrative staff and I don't have the experience managing other people. Any good books to help me learn how to manage people? I'm used to doing it all and need to learn how to delegate work, set expectations, communicate, etc.

Congratalations on your new job as a leader managing others! Great that you know you need to use some new skills in this role. That is the first step to being successful, and one that many managers don't even realize. There are plenty of good books out there on leading others. You did not say how many people you would be hiring, but you would want to read about leading others as well as managing a team. I would look at the Successful Managers' handbook by PDI/Previsor. It has great chapters on various facets of management and great resources to use. A number of us use this as a resource in executive coaching. I would also read any of the books by Kouzes and Posner (Leadership Challenge, The Truths about Leadership, A Leader's Legacy). They have some great practical examples and suggestions you can follow. There are also good resources from the Center for Creative Leadership (see their series of paperbacks that cover most aspects of leadership). Patrick Lencioni also has some great books on teams that are fun to read and convey great points (Five Dysfunctions of Teams). Best of luck!

I am starting a new job at a new organization as a senior manager where I will be supervising 15 people I have never met. In the past I have supervised people I hired directly or worked with before I became a manager. What preliminary things I should do to make a good impression, get to know them and get insights into the projects and organization? Thanks.

Great that you are asking the question BEFORE you start the job since the early days are critical for your success. I have a couple of suggestions. 1. Get your boss or someone higher up to make sure they do a good job of introducing you  to the team. This could be in person, in a newsletter, in an announcement, etc. You could even give your boss some talking points about things you want to make sure your new team hears about you (to enhance your credibility on the technical or managerial side). Often this is not done, and yet it can really make a difference in setting the stage for a smooth transition.

2. Spend the first weeks taking each person out individually, maybe to lunch, to learn a) about them as people ("Tell me about yourself - what do you like to do in your time off?") Listen and learn more about them as people. b) Ssk about their experiences at the firm ("tell me about what you do on the job"; "what do you most love about working here"; "what are your personal and prfoessional goals for your future"; "tell me about the key projects you are working on"; "If you have suggestions for me in my new role, what are they"). You really want to use the first few weeks to learn about them as people and to show respect for their knowledge on the worksite (since you are the newcomer). They need to feel that you are listening and learning about them and will respect their views (without any preconceived biases).

Just these two things will go along way in setting the right tone for your later success. Some folks make the mistake of immediately taking action, when first they need to establish relationships with their new staff. They need to build trust and credibility. Best of luck!

Hi, I wrote in last month about whether to tell a potential employer I was expecting. I did get the job, and now I'm wondering when etiquette dictates I tell them. So far I haven't had any symptoms that impact my performance; and I was considering waiting until after my first appointment to make sure all is well before I rock the boat, but that won't be until 13-14 weeks or so, which seems a bit late.

Congratulations on getting the job!

I would still wait. I am sure they will understand (when you finally tell them) that you were waiting to make sure all was okay. Continue to be a great performer and build your relationships with those in the firm. This is what you should be focusing on at this point. If you are a  stronger performer, they will be more inclined to cut you some slack once you do tell them. Be patient - sometimes that is the hardest thing to do!

I turn 50 this month and am looking to go back into an office with a business casual dress code. Should I expect to see belly buttons since pants now sit at or below the belly button? Thankfully I've stayed in shape, so my belly is flat, but still....I cannot imagine wearing pants like that or shirts that are THAT!

Congratulations on your upcoming 50th birthday! You are really not that "old" in the workplace today so I think you can be less concerned about this. Business casual dress codes can mean all kinds of things - it really depends on the firm. I would check to see what their policies are (if they have any). Also, I would imagine if you are starting the job, you have met with people who work there and could see what they wear, and what the leaders wear.  I would use this as a guide as well as what you are comfortable with. Generally, business casual still means that you are dressed nicely (no cutoffs, jeans, tank tops, bare midriffs, etc). It does depend, however, on the firm and type of industry. It may also depend on whether it is a job where you would be working with clients since generally the dress code would be more professional with external-facing work. Good luck in navigating this. You will be fine!

Hi Joyce, Just finished a phone interview and made it to the next level! I have been out of the full-time workforce for over a decade. I've worked for myself - telecommuting - but REALLY need a full-time job and this would be in an office. To be perfectly honest, I will be challenged - I hate the idea of being locked in a box for 40 hours a week, but I need to pay bills. How can I learn to love it? What kind of behavior is acceptable? For example, I don't smoke so taking breaks for that doesn't apply, can I take a 5 min "step outside" break anyway to breath real air and see real light? Thanks.

Congratulations on getting to the next level - great news!

I can understand your concerns since you worked for yourself and telecommuted in the past. But, I would be less worried about this today (than in the past). People are much more accepting of folks using standing desks, taking walking breaks in the office, going outside to get some fresh air, etc. The workplace is not as confining as it once was (of course, there are always exceptions). In fact, there is a great book to help your case - The Power of Full Engagement - which points out that our bodies were really not meant for these jobs where we just sit all day long. Maybe once you get the job, you can see how it goes, and if you need to have a chat with your boss to share this book or to talk about your style, you can bring it up then. But, first you need to get the job! Good luck.

Hoping for some proper advice on how to handle a problem. I'm a very type-b personality and prefer to go to work, do my job and go home. Also, I'm an engineer, so a lot of times I prefer minimal distractions so I can work out problems. However, there is a lady in the office that walks around and randomly talks to people - myself included. I've tried to disengage from these conversations as quickly as possible; however, I'd like to just avoid them all together. Any advice on how to do so without coming across as a jerk?

I think you can do this in  nice way, and that is what is critical. If she comes by your desk, you can always say "I'd love to talk more, but I need to get back to work now" or "Sorry, I can't talk now, I am working on something complicated that really requires my full attention." If you are walking by her, you can always smile at her as you walk by, and keep walking. Sometimes at least if you smile, you are being polite (even if you do not stop to talk).

Is there anyone that is close to "Chatty Kathy" that can let her know that it would help if she limits her "walking around and randomly talking to people" since it may bother others as well? If so, having that person speak with her would help. Good luck with this one. It seems to be very common.

I'm the bookkeeper at a nonprofit that moved just over a year ago. Our new space is larger and we knew it would be a stretch, but believed we would grow to fit it. Due to factors largely beyond our control, it is taking longer than expected to come up to our capacity. My problem is that people come to me asking when they will get checks that are due to them. I don't know what to say. "We just don't have it to give you," doesn't seem right. I won't lie to them. Any suggestions as to how I can gently phrase that we are experiencing growing pains, but not to worry long-term?

So, are you saying that because the firm is in this larger space, that it doesn't have the money to pay people on time? If this is the case, then do you know when they would be paid? Someone, whether you or the leader of the nonprofit, needs to inform people about these issues. If there is a leader that you report to (overseeing the entire nonprofit), then that person needs to let people know about these issues. They should not make you have to be the one to let them know there is no check for them. That isn't right.

Plus, the leader needs to be honest about their future. Even if he/she just got everyone together and let them know at what point he/she thought they would be in better shape so that folks would get paid, etc. I think this is critical for this leader to do. If a leader is honest (especially in a nonprofit) about the difficulties the firm is experiencing, often the employees will be understanding and may even come up with ways to offer additional help. But, if they are not told anything and see these problems with pay, they will become demoralized and look elsewhere.

I brought up the idea of a promotion with my boss a year ago. He agreed it was time, and said once I finished a high-profile project, the timing would be perfect. Fast forward: the project was finished a few months ago, I was asked to write the new job description (new for my company), it came back from comp review at a very high level, so they decided to raise my current pay, not change my title, so that eventual title change/promotion would look like a logical, more incremental step on paper. I now have a new boss (who reports to old boss), and she is still saying this will happen, but keeps pushing it off (e.g., after 1st quarter, saying they'll combine it with a co-worker's promotion as a package to HR, etc.). Am I being jerked around, or are there legitimate reasons they wouldn't want to change my title? I mean, they already gave me a 19 percent raise, which I thought was the tougher part of promoting someone! The title is important for my position, because I am the sole person responsible for a company initiative that is very public, risky and requires interaction with executives and people at all levels. A new title would lend legitimacy to the newly created emphasis of my job.

I think you have to be persistent on this title, especially if it helps in an external way. I would keep at it and explain why the title is important. If you can share any benchmarking data that also supports your case (others with similar titles in competitive firms), then this will also help bolster your case.

Do not wait for them to come back to you. Get all the data you can to support your case, and bring it back up. Of course, you may want to ask them (in a very nice tone) -  "can you help me understand why the title change is a difficult thing to do", then listen to what they say. Maybe there is a reason why they don't want to make the title change (e.g., might impact other title changes in the firm, etc).

Good luck!

I worked somewhere with a lot of smokers, and made a habit of taking "non-smoking" breaks every now and again during the day. And that's just how I defended it. Why should smokers be rewarded?

Thanks for sharing. Hopefully, you now work in a smoke-free environment since you are a non-smoker!

If you were in a job with a great boss but a topic you don't particularly care about and were offered a job with a great topic but not so good coworkers (and is a career advancement) what would influence your decision one way or the other? How much should the culture affect your decision? Thanks!

Great tough question! I think most would say the coworkes and boss really can have the greatest impact on your organizational commitment. While you would certainly want to have both a great job and interesting work, if it comes down to one or the other, I would pick the better colleagues. Otherwise, you can be miserable.  At least with a great boss, he/she might be able to help you figure out ways to expand your work role or engage in more interesting work. The culture is critical - everyone should look at it closely when choosing a job.

Great questions today about etiquette and other job aspects! Thanks for sharing.

I look forward to warmer temperatures when we host our next online chat on Wednesday, May 21st from noon to 1:00 p.m.



In This Chat
Joyce E.A. Russell
Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist.
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