March 4, 2006 | Episode 9

Hosts Rob Keefe and Cydnee Welburn  get some office etiquette lessons from Real Simple magazine Managing Editor Kristin van Ogtrop
Hosts Rob Keefe and Cydnee Welburn  get some office etiquette lessons from Real Simple magazine Managing Editor Kristin van Ogtrop
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11 Office Mistakes…

…you might not even know you’re making

Mistake No. 1: Thinking Your E-Mail Is Private

Consider everything you write in your office e-mail as public information. “The American Management Association did a study that showed that nearly 90 percent of the companies they surveyed were doing some kind of surveillance on their employees,” says Cynthia Shapiro, a career coach and the author of Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn’t Want You to Know — And What to Do About Them. “So people lose their jobs over e-mails all the time.” In addition, there’s no such thing as deleting an e-mail. “I’ve talked to business owners who have gone through the deleted-mail caches of all their employees and fired them for what was there,” warns Bob Rosner, a syndicated columnist and the author of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Mistake No. 2: Thinking that Human Resources Works for You

Contrary to popular belief, human resources is not the best place to go with a personal issue or a workplace problem, according to Shapiro. “You can go to HR to ask benefits questions, procedure and policy questions, or to get clarification on something in the employee manual,” she says. “But that’s really it. When you are talking to HR, you are talking directly to your boss or directly to the CEO. So you don’t want to give them any information that will put you in a negative light. If you go to them with a problem, it looks like you can’t solve your own problems, and it breaks trust with your boss because there is no such thing as ‘confidentiality’ with HR. They may not chat about your issue around the water cooler, but they will absolutely tell your boss and possibly the CEO.”

Mistake No. 3: Taking the Work/Life Balance Thing Too Far

Many companies pride themselves on their encouragement of a work/life balance. But Shapiro says such claims may not always be sincere. “A company will pretty much let you do whatever you want — let you dress however you want, decorate your office however you want, let you go on sabbatical if it’s offered, or leave early once a week for your kids’ soccer game,” she says. “But just because the company allows it doesn’t mean that they are OK with it. So it’s important to keep in mind that while you are technically ‘allowed’ to leave early for soccer games, the company at the same time may be judging you against it.”

Mistake No. 4: Asking for a Raise at the Wrong Time

The biggest no-no is waiting until you’re angry to ask for a raise, says New York career coach Malcolm Cullen, who has worked with executives of Fortune 500 companies, such as American Standard. “Then you end up doing it in a threatening way,” which will no doubt ruffle your boss’s feathers. To do it correctly, do it at the right time, says Carolyn B. Elman, CEO of the American Business Women’s Association. “There’s not much point in asking for a raise if it hasn’t been a good year for the company,” she says. Shapiro adds, “The big mistake with raises is that employees believe they should get a raise because they have personal reasons for it — they just bought a house or they’re having a baby, for example. That is not going to sway your boss to open the coffers. You have to prove you are worth more to the company and that you, personally, are adding more to the bottom line.” To do this, write down all the good things you have done for the company, like winning clients and saving them money. Then find out the market rate for your job from websites like Bring all that to your boss, make your case, and leave it with him. “You have just given him all this good ammunition to go and be your advocate,” Shapiro explains. “Chances are, even if the company doesn’t have the money to give you, they’ll give you something.”

Mistake No 5: Getting Too Chummy with Coworkers

“You never know who’s going to be your next manager,” Elman says, so you may want to be careful about getting too chummy with your coworkers. “You may share very personal things with a peer, and the next thing you know she’s been promoted and has some leverage that you wish she didn’t have.” Rosner agrees that divulging too much personal information is a bad thing, even if you feel something is ancient history. “Even some aspect of your past that somebody knows about can come back to haunt you. So if you want to be safe, it helps to find friends outside of work.”

Mistake No. 6: Treating Your Boss Like a Boss

“Alienating your boss is the number one secret career killer,” says Shapiro. The first mistake, she says, is that most people tend to look at the boss-employee relationship the wrong way. “The main problem is that most people see it as being a slave to someone else’s whim. Instead, think of yourself as a self-employed entrepreneur and your boss as your best client. That way, you will automatically provide stellar service and you will have a natural air of professionalism and leadership. And your boss will only see you as an asset and a partner,” she says. Shapiro also advises to treat your boss’s problems as your own. “You are there to support your boss. That is how you are judged, and that is what allows you to get promoted. You don’t ever want to be viewed as a threat instead of an asset.”

Mistake No. 7: Undervaluing Your Employees

“Many managers don’t put a high enough expectation on the people who work for them,” says Cullen. “People tend to perform to what is expected of them.” So if you treat someone like an underachiever, she is going to deliver underwhelming results. “Give people a chance to do well and they will do well,” Cullen stresses. And not appreciating your staff is another critical error that can be easily avoided. “It’s not unusual for people to resign from their jobs because they are not appreciated,” says Cullen. “Simply saying ‘thank you’ for a job well-done goes a long way.”

Mistake No. 8: Ignoring the Unwritten Rules

People can be prickly about things that are not always in the employee handbook, like who parks where or how long you can take for a coffee break. So don’t forget to suss out the unwritten rules in your workplace, especially if you are new on the job, says Elman. “First, it’s important to sit back and watch, look around, and see who is approachable,” she says. “Then invite that person to lunch and say, ‘Tell me what I don’t know and what I don’t know to ask.’” It’s also important to note that it’s not always the best thing to immediately draw attention to yourself, adds Elman. “It’s always smarter to listen and observe until you really understand the office politics before attempting to make your mark.”

Mistake No 9: Overspending Your Company's Money

It is a grave error, says Shapiro, not to treat company money as if it were your own. “If a company is cutting staff and they don’t know whom to pick, the first place they turn is the expense reports,” she says. “So if you cost more than the average employee when traveling or entertaining, you are going to be the first one laid off.”

Mistake No 10: Speaking Too Freely

“Before you criticize your boss, look in the mirror and take your shots carefully,” says Rosner. “Don’t criticize anything unless you have credibility and a good track record. And if you have a really big criticism, write it down, sleep on it, and bounce it off some colleagues before you start down the path of potential career suicide.” Shapiro says, “A company will never tell you that being openly critical or speaking your mind will get you on the next layoff list, because they don’t want to mess with your ‘freedom of speech.’ And they actually want you to feel free to speak your mind, because it shows them if you can really be trusted. So anytime you are around anyone from work or using company equipment, you have to be 100 percent supportive, because any negativity will be seen as a betrayal.” There are ways, however, to express your opinion diplomatically, she says. “Show open support for the things you believe in and silence for those you don’t. Companies pay close attention when a cheerleader goes silent.” And don’t air your complaints on the Net, even anonymously, if you want to keep your job. “There are companies out there actively looking for bloggers who air their complaints about them on the net,” Shapiro warns. “And they are looking under every rock to find out who those people are. To them, that is about as big a betrayal as you can get.” Keep in mind that if you choose to publicly bash your company anywhere, the company may also be able to take legal action for defamation.

Mistake No. 11: Resting on Your Laurels

It’s easy — and tempting — to bask in success. But even if things couldn’t be better at the office, it’s important to always think about what’s next. “The average tenure of a job, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, is 2.9 years,” says Rosner. “So that’s why it’s important to go on interviews even when you don’t want a job — it keeps you sharp and in practice for when you really need to excel.” And dismissing training programs, conferences, and skill enhancement, no matter how much experience you have, is another critical error, Rosner points out: “Your skill base is potentially a much more important asset for you than your retirement fund. So invest in them.”

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