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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Worst Workplace Habits
See if these bug you as much as they do me

by James Gelatt

Welcome to the Professional Rudeness Awards: the first annual Worst Workplace Habits Awards competition.

We spend roughly half of our waking hours at work -- probably more if you factor in laptops, cell phones, pages, Ipods, Fed Ex, and the like. We need a way to acknowledge those behaviors that drive us all crazy.

Have you seen the movie Office Space? It has some wonderful examples of the worst workplace habits: People in their cubicles who insist on playing the radio on a station that drives the rest of us batty; people who seem to think their cubicle is soundproofed, so that they can talk VERY LOUDLY and not disturb their neighbors; people who become possessive over the smallest items, such as their own personal stapler.

Herewith, my list of worst workplace habits. Feel free to add your own.

The Cell Phone. I'm ready to treat the cell phone as the cigarette. No smoking. No cell phone. I am tired of overhearing (how could I help but?) someone else's conversation because he or she is on the cell phone. I really don't need to know that my colleague has a rash, or their kids are hanging up on them, or they don't know what to get for supper. I'm quite OK with the idea that they can work out those details themselves.

Why is it that people on cell phones seem to think that the person on the other end of the line has suddenly developed a hearing disorder? Or that everyone within a hundred yards really cares what the cell phone talker has to say? There was a reason why God created phone booths.

Answering the phone. I'm in their office. We're in a meeting and the phone rings in his or her office. Rather than let it ring, he (she) not only answers it, but then engages in a discussion with the caller. Hello! There is someone else in the room, with whom you have been talking. What kind of message does that send: "I'm going to answer this call, because anyone else must be more important than my conversation with you."

The corollary to that situation is this one: Why is it that people feel they need to be on the cell phone even when they are ostensibly with someone else? You've all seen what I'm talking about here: Two people are sitting at a Starbucks. One of them is talking to -- not the person next to him or her -- but to someone on the other end of the telephone connection. I don't know about you, but if I were the person sitting at that table, I would feel my importance diminished.

The Closed Door. Marshall McLuhan ("The medium is the message") may have been right when he observed that most of us commute into the office in order to use the phone. But if you are going to be in the office, doesn't that in itself suggest you are available to talk with others? I've seen offices where some staff members routinely have closed doors, sometimes with signs posted on them that say, in effect, Stay away. I'm busy. OK. You're busy. But why not work from home, if you don't want to interact with others?

I understand the need for quiet. Office noise can be a real distraction. But if you believe that there is value in interacting with your peers, keeping your office door closed sends just the opposite message. If the office setting is too busy for you, why not see if you can become a telecommuter?

Sometimes the "closed door" is symbolic. I've worked for people, as I expect have many readers of this column, who send a subtle message about entering their office. Although their office door may be open, you have clearly made a commitment when you cross the threshold. You can almost hear the boss saying, "What is it now?" as you do so.

There's an important point here: Small actions help shape the office environment.

Hey – I'm on the phone. Personally, I almost always leave my office door open, unless there's a good reason to close it. I like the interaction with others. I like the office buzz. I like feeling connected.

But leaving the door open doesn't mean "come on in" indiscriminately. It makes for a very awkward situation when I'm talking with someone on the phone – a student, perhaps, or a potential new faculty member; and find that someone on the hall has decided to take advantage of my open door policy. So now I'm torn: Do I ignore the person who has taken a seat in my office, while continuing on the phone? Do I exhibit some body language to that person that says, "Hey, I'm talking here. Can you come back later"?

Avoiding the face to face. I read once about a company in Manhattan that was situated on two floors in the same office building. Someone in the organization observed at some point that people were sending information from one floor to the other by means of Federal Express. Communication between floors was going from one office down to Fed Ex in Tennessee, and back to the office and correct floor.

Sounds absurd, to be sure. But we now do much the same thing via email. Rather than walk down the hall, we send an email. Especially if the message we are transmitting could lead to a confrontation.

Dress codes, or the lack thereof. I am really of two minds on this one.

Mind One
I see no reason why men should continue to wear ties. My wife and I are moving, and in the process of packing, we carefully laid out some 50 ties, almost none of which I wear anymore. In almost no role that I play -- as a teacher, administrator, consultant -- do I find it necessary to wear a tie. But there is still an unwritten rule that males in upper management need to wear a tie. Some managers live dangerously by wearing a loud colored shirt or wild looking tie. But the question remains: Why a tie? Why bind your neck? Why wear something that gets in the way when you are eating soup?

In some circles, the tie wearing takes on ritual proportions: white shirt, red tie, dark suit, black shoes. Does it add to one's credibility, or comfort, or ability to get the job done? I'm guessing not. I'm writing this article from my home office, wearing shorts, docksiders, and a polo shirt.

Mind Two
At the same time:

  • Don't wear jeans that are torn, with cutout knees. They are fine for working around the house, but they don't belong in the workplace.
  • What's with pants that are 12 inches too long? Why not get them hemmed?
  • Tops and bottoms are meant to meet in the middle. I'm really not interested in seeing an abdominal role.

I know this last sounds petty and even cranky. But while I see little reason for the kind of straight laced dress of our predecessors, I nonetheless feel that there is a difference between casual and sloppy.

Meetings for the sake of meetings. The next time you are in a staff meeting, bring your stopwatch. How much of the time spent in the meeting is really productive -- meaning that it advances the agenda of the organization? In my experience, most staff meetings occur because that's what staff do: they meet. The meetings are ill planned, run on much too long, rarely deal with important matters, and finally end because it's time for them to end -- someone else needs the room.

Stephen Covey has provided us with a very useful graphic that we might apply to office meetings.





Not Urgent




Not Important


Not Urgent

Not Important

Source: S. A. Covey, A. R. Merrill, & R. R. Merrill, First Things First

I would suggest that the time spent in most meetings falls into quadrants I, III and IV – and rarely in quadrant II. We deal with reports, with externally imposed deadlines, with matters that are marginally important. But we spend precious little time dealing with those things that are not urgent but are important: they are the essence of strategic planning.

We meet to talk about what we have done, but not about where we need to go. We talk about the due dates within the next week or next month, but not about what we would like the organization to become. We complain about conditions, but not about carving out a future.

Copying the immediate world. Don't you love getting an email from someone, where the CC line includes virtually everyone up and down the chain of command? I'm never sure whether the sender is: (a) trying to show how busy he or she is; (b) is engaging in CYA; or (c) is implicitly letting me know that the boss is aware of what's going on and I'd better shape up.

Getting online in a meeting. In part because workplaces are increasingly wired, it's now quite possible to be sitting in a meeting while at the same time surfing the Net or reading emails. I recently sat in on another instructor's class. I'm guessing at least a third of the class were "multitasking" by ostensibly listening to the instructor while sending text messages to one another. If you are attending a meeting or conference, you owe the person who is speaking at least a modicum of attention.

Confusing visibility with productivity. There's a difference between being in the office and getting work done in the office. A former employer who shall remain nameless used to prowl the halls to see who was and was not at his or her desk. The assumption was, if you were at your desk, you were a good doobee. If you were not, you were very likely goofing off or had sneaked out early.

The solution is frighteningly simple here:

  • Evaluate people on outcomes.
  • Don't treat the workplace as of it were study hall.

Not cleaning up after yourself. Your mother doesn't work here. She is not going to pick up after you. If you open a new ream of copier paper, put the wrapper in the recycle bin. If you spill coffee in the lunchroom, clean it up.

You have to wonder about some people's home life: Do they leave stuff strewn around, assuming someone else will pick it up?


OK. I'm feeling better. I'd love to hear from you about your own nominees for work workplace habits. Who knows? Maybe someone with whom you work will see themselves and get the message.

In the end, it's about professional courtesy, or the lack thereof.

James P. Gelatt, PhD, is the author of Managing Nonprofits in the 21st Century and general editor of Aspen's Fund Raising Series for the 21st Century. He is the president of Prentice Associates, a management consulting company specializing in associations and other national nonprofits, and a past-president of the Greater Washington, D.C. chapter of the National Society of Association Executives.

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