Mea culpa. I'm here to learn.
July 13, 2012 7:45 PM   Subscribe

I started a new job in a completely new place and I want to be the best colleague I can be. What are some tips or commonsense things for me to remember and internalize about appropriate workplace behavior?

At past jobs, I've been an asshole. I would gossip, take sides, make friends, make enemies, make inappropriate jokes, get too personal, be too distant, interrupt people, slack off in meetings, use social media at work, be really negative, the whole nine yards. It's immensely humiliating to remember that I've been such an insufferable colleague in the past. When I'm outside of work, I'm a sensible, diplomatic and mature person, but when I'm surrounded by the characters that show up in your typical workplace, I can't seem to rise above it and I revert to my behavior in my high-school burger flipping gig rather than that of a 30-ish white-collar professional. I feel like workplace politics represent a void in my social understanding and I want to fix that.

What are some tips or commonsense things for me to remember and internalize about appropriate work behavior? How do I identify and recover from a faux pas? How do I straddle the line between distant and too-familiar when it comes to socializing with my colleagues? I'm at a web firm and it's expected that I continue using social media if I want to be on the best terms with my immediate team, so tips on how to behave online are also welcome. For example, I need to learn to stifle potentially-offensive non-sequiturs in my tweets, especially now that my colleagues have friended me.

I welcome ideas from every situation (surely everyone has dealt with someone like me in the workplace), but specifically, I'm female and work mostly with men on a 4-5 person team within a 15-20 person department. (Gender matters: I've had problems in the past with colleagues who think I'm flirting just because I make jokes with them in the room. Do I need to go humorlessly G-rated if I want to be taken seriously?)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Agree with polite, pleasant, and hardworking. Also, I think it's good for the new person to be relatively quiet at the beginning. Also -- you can be funny and even edgy/sarcastic but also nice. Nice matters. Be nice.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:23 PM on July 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're somewhere like the USA, don't talk politics. Definitely don't ever push politics. Even people who vehemently disagree with you aren't going to say anything, especially if they're not part of the conversation and merely nearby, but they will remember that you're not like them, or that you despise people like them, or that you trivialize their beliefs, or that you're young and dumb, or whatever.

As regards online - set up big barriers between your office life and your private life. If not a separate twitter account, then learn to be a master of the privacy settings, especially facebook which has powerful and clumsy and obscure privacy tools. eg, have a everyone from work assigned to their own list, so they can be automatically excluded from things. You should definitely ensure that when a friend tags you in a photo, facebook will not make the photo visible in your profile to your coworkers, or notify them that you're in a photo. etc.
Basically, you want you to be in control of your interactions with your coworkers, while at the same time still free to lead your life.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:44 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't gossip. I can't stress this enough.

Unless your coworker tells you something in front of someone else, assume it was said in confidence. Jake got totally trashed at a friend's awesome birthday party last night, Laura and her boyfriend can't agree where to go for their honeymoon, Mike has put in for a transfer to another department — don't repeat it. (This is not to say that repeating something like that will always end in total disaster, just that always erring on the side of caution will absolutely win you Workplace Points in the long run.)

Also ... whether or not it is grounded in reality, there is a stereotype that women are particularly gossip-y. In this context — a predominantly male environment, you say, that already seems to be prone to jumping to conclusions with interpreting friendly joking as flirting — I would make a serious effort to be careful about gossip, especially at the beginning.

My strategy at work is to become Very Busy and Involved With My Work when gossip-y conversations come up. "Sorry, can't chat, I need to make some copies." "Hold on a few minutes, I have a couple more paragraphs to go and I'm on a roll." If it comes up in a context where I-have-to-work excuses aren't applicable and there's no easy way to exit the conversation, just smile politely and listen. Don't contribute to the discussion. If anybody seeks your opinion, give the most non-committal response you can. (Mine is usually to shrug and say, "I really don't know enough about the topic/people/situation to be able to form an opinion one way or another.")

And also everything Harlequin said, ha.

I promise you, there is a happy medium between overly distant and overly personal. It might be especially hard to locate it if you've spent a lot of time at one or both extremes, but once you do, it will take a lot of work-related stress off your shoulders.

Good luck at your new job!
posted by hypotheticole at 8:59 PM on July 13, 2012

Repeating the above: don't gossip. Don't invite it, don't repeat it. That doesn't mean you have to be rude if people come to you with gossip; the smile-and-nod method works--just don't repeat it and don't be particularly enthusiastic about receiving it.

Other than that, some tips:

1. Treat everyone the same. And the baseline assumption there is that you'll be polite, friendly, kind, helpful, etc. to everyone, above or below you.
2. Ask people how things are going with them and genuinely be interested in and responsive to their answers. If you're in any sort of management position, remember that everyone needs slightly different things from their boss, and you'll be a better boss to the degree that you figure out and attend to those differences.
3. Do your job well and be beyond reproach regarding things like deadlines, productivity, response to new and/or additional work, interactions with other departments.
4. If you've ever worked retail, think of the new job, at least initially, sort of like retail. If you've not worked retail, what that means is that the default is a smile, friendliness, and a response that of course you can do that. It may not always work, it may not always apply, but a) it does more often than you'd think--and it prevents you from ever falling into the dreaded trap of becoming that person whose first response to anything is irritation or refusal and b) simply smiling and trying to be friendly is usually about 60% of the work of making yourself actually feel and be happy and friendly.
5. Separate as much as possible your online work and non-work lives. In your online work life, don't write anything that you wouldn't be comfortable having on the front page of the NYT, and you'll probably be fine. In your online private life, that's probably still a good idea, but if that's not your mode, then be careful about maintaining privacy.

Good luck!
posted by Levi Stahl at 9:12 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

When someone addresses me by name ("oh hi, désoeuvrée" vs. "oh hi"), it always gives me a good impression of them. And it's good to remember details about people and ask about them later ("so how's your go-cart coming along?")

In terms of tweets, etc (I don't tweet, but I do this for Facebook status updates), I find it helpful to hold off a couple hours before actually posting something. Usually if it's inappropriate or ranty or lame, I realize it when I come back to it with fresh eyes.

Note the people at work whom everyone seems to like or whom you would like to be like, and observe and imitate them (obviously not in a weird blatant way, but just observe their general habits and demeanor, what kind of stuff do they do/say/post or not do/say/post... Maybe a better word is emulate).

And be sure to retain a fulfilling life and sense of identity outside of work. Otherwise it's easy to start getting neurotic and paranoid about what your coworkers think of you, etc (IME at least), and when I'm insecure about what people think of me, that's when I tend to "act up" and get obnoxious/weird.

(Sorry if the above is super obvious stuff that everyone already knows... Those are just the things that came to mind for me.)
posted by désoeuvrée at 10:16 PM on July 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do not personally socialize with your co-workers. Create a HUGE distinction between "Church and State."

You get me here?

No after work drinks unless you are prepared to keep your conversations positive and light, no personal info ever discussed. EVER.

That's the secret. Keep your private life private. Avoid gossip. Go forth!
posted by jbenben at 11:12 PM on July 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

« Older Help us open this door   |   Help! Brand new ikea furniture gives me a stuffy... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.