16 Unspoken Office Etiquette Rules You Might Be Violating

Are you unknowingly rubbing your colleagues the wrong way?

Woman with hands over mouth
Updated May 28, 2024
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Welcome to the office, where the game consists of unwritten rules that nobody explains. The stakes? Your job.

If you scratch your head at the dynamics in the workplace, you may be unintentionally violating some key points of etiquette. This can make it difficult to advance in your career and move beyond living paycheck to paycheck.

Here are some important office behaviors to avoid.

Microwaving smelly foods

TommyStockProject/Adobe man putting leftover dinner into microwave

While the other half of last night’s takeout curry or teriyaki salmon might sound delicious to you, nuking these with the break room microwave can cause a smell to linger for hours.

This doesn’t win you any points with co-workers who sit close to the break room. Save your odoriferous leftovers for dinner at home.

Taking personal calls out in the open

Krakenimages.com/Adobe woman speaking on the phone

This can be awkward for everyone. No one needs to know the details of your kid’s soccer game or your sister-in-law’s latest drama.

Especially if you work in a cubicle environment, taking personal calls where everyone can hear you is distracting and unprofessional. If you must take a personal call, step outside.

Going over your boss’s head

Bojan/Adobe male boss discussing online project

Going over the head of your direct supervisor can cause major issues. Jumping up the food chain can result in alienating your supervisor and eroding trust. Even if your boss is a stickler, it’s best to go to them first.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule in the case of major violations, such as illegal behavior, abuse, or harassment.

Scheduling meetings at the last minute

Oleksandr/Adobe Irritated angry young businesslady

Each time you do this, you send the message that your meeting is a more pressing priority than everything else your co-workers are doing.

While a last-minute meeting is occasionally OK, such gatherings should be outliers.

Getting drunk at work events

Daniel L/peopleimages.com/Adobe Party with business team

Excessive drinking clouds your judgment, which is the last thing you want when your career is on the line.

Getting hammered makes you look unprofessional, and with your inhibitions lowered, you can create disasters that you have to mop up once you are sober.

Not attending social events

olly/Adobe Sitting at his desk

Whether to attend work events outside of 9-to-5 hours can be a tough call for many people, especially introverts, commuters, and single parents.

While you don’t need to attend every social event on the calendar, it’s worth getting to know your co-workers outside the cubicle.

Even if it never leads to a promotion or raise, having great relationships with co-workers will make work more enjoyable.

Gossiping too much

Pixel-Shot/Adobe Young man sharing gossip

When you dish the dirt about others at work, it leads co-workers to wonder what you say about them when they’re not around.

We all love to be the one with the latest tidbit of news. But if you need to vent about something going on at work, it’s best to do so to someone who doesn’t have ties to your place of employment.

Not keeping your workspace clean

kreus/Adobe A messy desk

Ever since cubicles and open-concept workspaces became a thing, your desk has been on display for all to see.

And while that little corner is technically your own, having a messy, unkempt desk doesn’t reflect well on you. Keeping your space tidy shows respect for co-workers who share an office with you.

Looking at your phone during meetings

iStocker/Adobe On phone during meeting

We’ve all been in meetings where playing solitaire on your phone under the table seems more intellectually stimulating. But “checking out” at a meeting is disrespectful.

Be as present and engaged during others’ presentations and comments as you would like them to be for you. Unless it’s a true emergency, a text or email can wait.

Acting like the smartest person in the room

Andrey Popov/Adobe businesspeople getting bored in office

We all want to put our best foot forward, but there is a line between confident and cocky that you don’t want to cross.

Acting like your ideas are always the best isn’t going to win you points with your boss or co-workers.

You are there to get a job done. To achieve that goal, you likely need the collaboration and input of everyone. A little humility goes a long way.

Never exceeding expectations

fizkes/Adobe Bored at office work

Last year, a Gallup poll found that around half the workforce was “quiet quitting” — putting in only the minimum required for the job and nothing more.

While this might sound liberating to some, it can backfire in a tight job market.

Now that layoffs are a reality and a possible recession might be knocking, you might want to contribute more than just the minimum to your team. Working a little harder can boost your job security.

Not showing loyalty

Dragana Gordic/Adobe Boss looking concerned

Loyalty to your co-workers and boss means you're reliable and don’t throw them under the bus. Make commitments carefully and follow through on them.

Consistently delivering high-quality work that meets deadlines is a great way to show your colleagues that you are pulling your weight and have their backs.

Not giving advance notice of vacations and other time off

pathdoc/Adobe Employee heading to vacation

Sick time is spontaneous by nature, but your beach trip to San Diego or Christmas with the in-laws isn’t.

Give work plenty of lead time when you ask for PTO. Failing to do so just creates resentment among your boss and team.

Dressing inappropriately

sofiko14/Adobe Man sitting on orange bean bag chair

Your clothes send a message to others about how you want them to treat you. If the company culture is business professional, but you can’t be bothered to wear a tie, you’re dissenting from the norms and inviting others to treat you more casually.

For better or worse, managers can consider these choices when making hiring and promotion decisions. The adage “dress for the job you want” is still true in 2023.

Listening to music that others can hear

Scott Griessel/Adobe Woman with headphones singing

Whether you love Beethoven or 50 Cent, you can’t assume that others share your taste in music.

The same songs that help you focus may be distracting to others. Show your co-workers respect by investing in a pair of headphones.

Sharing too many personal details

LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe Businesswomen gossiping near laptop

The workday passes more quickly when you have good relationships. However, your colleagues don’t need to know everything about you.

Keep your personal life personal. Stay professional and prevent rumors and misunderstandings from spreading.

Bottom line

GR/peopleimages.com/Adobe Executive shaking hands with new employee

Some of these unwritten rules may seem inconsequential. But while a single violation probably won’t cost you a job, a repeated pattern of disregarding office norms isn’t great for your career.

Most of these points of unspoken etiquette come down to the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated.

Do so, and you will improve the odds of advancing in your career. You might even do well enough to retire early.

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Author Details

Jenni Sisson

Jenni Sisson is a freelance writer and editor who focuses on personal finance, real estate, and entrepreneurship. She has been published in Business Insider and The Ways to Wealth. In addition to writing, Jenni hosts the Mama's Money Map podcast to help fellow stay-at-home moms on their journey to financial freedom.