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Professional Etiquette Basics: Unspoken Rules and How to Navigate Them

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

This post was originally published by Vault, and was written by Kaitlin McManus.

Person in a blue business suit

When you’re new to the workforce, it can feel like there are all these unspoken rules that everyone seems to know—except you. And asking what those rules are might make you feel even more clueless. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “Kids these days don’t know anything about working in a professional environment.” A phrase like that can make someone afraid to admit when they don’t know something, which will only stymie their growth.

First things first, don’t let an ageist attitude that starts off with “kids these days” make you feel like you’re a lesser person just for not being alive long enough to know certain things. Part of being a professional is asking questions and clarifying parts of the workplace culture that aren’t clear to you. But here’s the other thing that no one seems to remember: Every single person in the workforce was, at one point, in your shoes. No one showed up to their first day of work at their first real job and knew everything out of the gate. Even the CEO of your organization—I guarantee it—made downright stupid mistakes when they were just starting out. So, for everyone’s benefit, let’s go over some of those unspoken rules of professional etiquette, in a non-judgmental zone, so you can start off your first job confidently and on the right foot.

Show up on time.

The most basic of basics, but the importance of showing up when you’re supposed to show up—including to work, to meetings, to any kind of event, etc.—cannot be overstated. Lateness is very often avoidable, so take the necessary measures to avoid it. If it’s possible that traffic or public transit might make you late, give yourself some extra time to get where you’re going. Set up calendar alerts to go off a few minutes before meetings so no one’s waiting on you to start. And if you ever are late—things happen—be sure to let those who might be waiting for you as soon as possible.

Respect your coworkers’ space.

This is another super important rule, and it only gets more important the closer your quarters are. If your office has an open-concept plan, you have to be more careful than, say, if everyone has a closed office. That means making sure your cell phone is on vibrate, taking personal calls to a designated area like a break room or outside, using headphones when listening to music or videos (and making sure the volume isn’t so loud that others can hear it through your headphones), taking it easy on any strong smells (food, perfumes, etc.), and not chatting someone’s ear off when they’re trying to get work done. Everyone deserves a comfortable workplace, so keep that in mind.

Reply to your emails in a reasonably timely manner.

Very few people expect you to respond to their emails within moments (and those people have unreasonable expectations, let’s be real). And sometimes ignoring your email for a bit is the only way to get any work done. But letting emails languish in your inbox with no reply for a significant period of time (for example, 24 hours) is extremely unprofessional. So do your best to stay on top of them. And if you know that you won’t be able to get to something until after the polite response-time window has closed, email and let that person know. A simple “Sorry for the delay, but I won’t be able to get to this until tomorrow morning” is much more professional than not saying anything at all—otherwise, you’re just leaving the person hanging.

Thank people for their time and effort.

A little thanks can go a long way with people. If someone provides you with something—a document you needed, an answer to your question, feedback on a piece of work product—thank them. Even if what they did for you is literally their job, thank them. There’s no excuse not to be gracious, so mind your Ps and Qs.

Set boundaries between your work and personal life.

This is a two-way street. On the one hand, make sure that your personal life doesn’t intrude too much on your work life. Feel free to talk about your family or friends, or share personal stories that are work appropriate, but don’t bring any drama to the office: dating mishaps, family blow-outs, etc. You and your coworkers may become friends, but keep private things private at the office. That said, be sure to set some boundaries that will keep your work life from intruding on your personal life. You don’t have to go to every office happy hour, you don’t have to answer your emails at 2:00 a.m., and you are entitled to all of your vacation days. Balancing your personal and professional lives is tough, but you’ll get the hang of it the longer you work.

Own up to your mistakes.

You’re going to make mistakes. We all do—if I don’t make at least a dozen mistakes over the course of the day, it’s probably because I didn’t get out of bed. The best thing you can do when you mess up is to own it. Admit to the mistake, explain—without giving excuses—what happened, and either say how you’ll avoid it in the future or ask what the correct course of action is. No one’s perfect, but the way in which you deal with your mistakes can set you apart from your peers (and even those above you on the totem pole) as a thoughtful, professional person to work with.

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