Work etiquette for entry-level employees

Posted October 16, 2017 by


In my recruiting days, I counseled many college students on the transition from being a student to being a professional. Even if you’ve been employed since graduation, there is plenty to learn about behaving professionally. Work etiquette matters if you want to earn respect of your superiors and colleagues. I spoke with Vicky Oliver, author of “301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions” and other bestselling career books. She has some top-notch advice for entry-level employees who work in an office environment.

College makes you feel like you’re in a bubble, and then you leave college and realize you will be judged on your business etiquette.

Listen to our conversation by clicking on the video below, or read the major takeaway pieces of advice she has for entry-level employees in the blog post below.

Topics of conversation you should generally avoid at work

At least until you really establish yourself at work, avoid talking too much about what you did over the weekend. Don’t ask your colleagues about their weekends or your boss about his weekend. Try to talk more about the projects that you are there to work on. Show enthusiasm for the tasks you are given. More than anything, don’t engage in gossip. Oliver admits, “At first, I would have joined the conversation about what I did over the weekend. However, remember that you’re there at the office to work. Therefore, some of the details of your personal life I would hold back on. You don’t want to get too personal too fast.”

If you go out to the bar with coworkers, keep a few things in mind to avoid regretting mistakes later.

It can be fun to go out with your colleagues and get to know them. However, you need to know your limit when it comes to drinking liquor. Something Oliver recommends is stretching out your liquor intake. She suggests asking the bartender to make any mixed drinks half the normal amount of alcohol, or by asking for a glass of water with the drink. “As a general rule: do not drink more than two alcoholic drinks when you are out with colleagues.” Oliver warns, “Liquor loosens lips in a bad way, and you might say something you did not mean to say.”

The main thing to remember, whether you are out with your colleagues at a bar or you’re at an office party is that you are, basically, still in the office. Sometimes colleagues might let secrets slip if they’ve had a lot to drink. When that happens, Oliver recommends not bringing it up the next day. Relationships with colleagues are different than relationships with your friends. Therefore, while you might actually have good advice for something they told you, it will most likely make them embarrassed.

A surprising tip for handling a business dinner with a client

Businesspeople shaking hands at networking event

Minerva Studio/

It’s counter-intuitive, but don’t discuss business at a

business dinner. It’s boring and is not the point of the dinner. The point of the dinner is to build a relationship with the client. In Oliver’s book, “301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions”, she give readers 26 topics to discuss other than business. She suggests discussing light topics like hobbies, books, and movies.

Being invited to join a client to business dinner is a very impressive thing, so be proud. Then, do some research on the client. At dinner you don’t want to say things like “What do you do?” or “how long have you worked with the company?” You want to be discussing things that are interesting to you both. Use the opportunity to get to know the client as a person. It will also provide for a smooth and better business relationship.

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Oliver advises veering away from talking about politics, as it might complicate the relationship. She says, “Let’s say you are a Democrat. You bring up something political and your client is hard core Republican. It’s not going to sit well.” Even if you and your client couldn’t agree more about some issue and what should be done, somebody who works at that company may not agree. However, right now with everything that is going on, it’s likely to come up. Do your best to say something without being rude, and change the subject. Similarly, avoid conversations of religion. People tend to have very strong opinions and can be offended easily if you vary greatly in belief.

Etiquette mistakes that could cost you a promotion

Be careful not to talk about topics that shouldn't come up at the office

Never talk about company business in an elevator, says Oliver. There could be someone from your competitor taking the elevator with you, and now the company secrets are out. Consider this hypothetical situation, she says: “if you’re in an elevator sometimes a boss will turn to you and say, “What are you working on right now?” The tendency to go into great detail, but be aware that there could be a competitor in the elevator. They could overhear what you’re working on, take that information to their company, and steal your idea.”

Instead of talking in a public setting about private company details, make a quick appointment later to chat. Oliver encourages asking when you can drop into someone’s office. An added bonus to this is that it can give you some exclusive one on one time with someone in senior leadership.

How to address conflict in a professional manner

The best way to address conflict is to skip the email and talk in person. An email is a legal document so you do not want to say something you might regret.

It’s inevitable, you will have disagreements with colleagues. It’s just an unfortunate fact of life. If you are unable to discuss it in person, pick up the phone and give them a call. Being direct with someone is respectful, and it makes it harder to hide behind ambiguous sentences Discussing either face to face or voice to voice is best.

Consequences for complaining about your organization or your boss (and when it’s okay)

“Try hard not to complain about your boss,” says Oliver. The word will get back to him or her, and then they will wonder why they hired you. Don’t be a gossip.

Oliver urges people to instead “vocalize your complaints. It’s natural to have some complaints about someone you work for or with. That is normal.” It’s impossible to spend hours everyday with someone and never have a disagreement. Complaining to coworkers not only is bad for morale but it makes them uncomfortable. If you start talking poorly about a coworker, the colleague you are talking to will automatically wonder if you ever talk about them that way. Gossip is a detriment to any relationship.

An exception, she explains, is “if someone said or did something discriminatory it needs to be complained about.” Sexual harassment is far too common in the workplace and you cannot stand by if you or someone you know is being sexually harassed. In that case, you must come forward and report it. There is a big difference between harassment and someone annoying you. Reflect on whether someone’s behavior is making you uncomfortable enough that you cannot perform, or if that person is breaking policy and should be reported, or if the behavior is simply annoying a difference of work style.

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