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Workplace Etiquette: 21 Dos and Don’ts of the Workplace

This post was originally written by Class of 2012 alum Michele Richinick, who is now a senior reporter for Law360.com.  It has since been updated for clarity and style.


When it comes to working in an office or other professional setting, etiquette matters. How you present yourself and interact with those around you—whether your coworkers, supervisors, or direct reports—speaks to who you are as a person and as a member of the team, and can directly influence the trajectory of your career.

I’ve been working in New York City for the duration of my post-grad life, ever since Northeastern’s Commencement in May of 2012. But I’ve actually been learning about the professional world since December of 2008, when I began working at my first co-op. 

In that time, through trial, error, and observation, I’ve learned a lot about what works in the workplace—as well as what doesn’t. 

Because etiquette is so important to professional success, I wanted to share useful tips that other graduates can use as they begin to enter the professional workforce, whether as a part of an internship, co-op, or postgraduate life. I polled a few friends (most are fellow Huskies) and coworkers, and this is a compilation of our advice.  

Workplace Etiquette: The Don’ts

Let’s face it: There are certain actions and behaviors you just shouldn’t bring with you into a professional workplace. Doing so can have major negative impacts on your career. But for many individuals, proper workplace etiquette does not come as intuitively as you might think. Below are some of the biggest don’ts of office life. 

1. Don’t “Reply All” to an email chain. 

Understand the differences—and repercussions—between hitting “Reply” and “Reply All” when responding to an email. Carefully consider whether or not all of the parties who received the initial email need to be included in your reply. Additionally, by “replying all,” you may find yourself embarrassed as your entire organization reads details that were only meant to be shared with one or two others. 

When in doubt, always do your part to keep emails and other correspondences friendly and professional. As a general rule, treat your emails as a professional form of communication, and make sure that the information you share is appropriate for the time, place, and people involved.

2. Don’t have personal conversations at your desk. 

If you must have a private or personal phone conversation when you’re at work, try not to have the conversation at your desk where others can hear you. Many workplaces have conference rooms that you can use for phone calls; otherwise, it might be a good idea to step outside.

Having a personal conversation at your desk can be distracting to the coworkers near you, and may open you up to gossip about being someone who “can’t leave their personal life at home”—which isn’t good for your professional image.

3. Don’t bring your emotions into the office. 

It’s best to leave your personal emotions at the door when you get to work. Your desk neighbor doesn’t want to hear your sob story from over the weekend. If you truly can’t focus on your work because something has happened, it’s probably a better idea to take some personal time to process your emotions. Or, if something in the workplace is bothering you, reach out to the human resources department or your supervisor to resolve the issue so it doesn’t interfere with your work.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. 

Asking questions—no matter how silly they may seem—will help you clarify expectations and avoid erroneously completing an entire project only to realize you did it all wrong. There’s little worse than overconfidence—especially if it isn’t actually backed up by experience or skill. 

So go ahead and ask your questions, and be sure to truly listen to the answer.

5. Don’t gossip about fellow coworkers…or your boss. 

Gossiping is one of the cardinal sins of office work: Just don’t do it. Whether you’re tempted to gossip about your boss, co-worker, or the company as a whole, you’re not hurting anyone but yourself when you do. 

Gossiping can portray you as someone who can’t be trusted or someone who isn’t a team player, which won’t help you reach your professional goals. It can also be duly harmful if it gets back to the target of the gossip.

6. Don’t use emojis or multiple exclamation points (if any) in work emails. 

Disclaimer: This bit of advice will depend on the specifics of your workplace. Some workplaces may embrace emojis and relaxed conversation; others may expect a level of formality at all times. Regardless, be cognizant and intentional when crafting your communications. Work emails don’t need to be all serious all the time, but you’ll want to maintain a sense of professionalism so that others see you as the competent expert that you are. 

When in doubt, always communicate professionally in your workplace emails, regardless of how relaxed your superiors might seem. After you’ve spent some time on the job, you’ll have a better idea of what is deemed appropriate in your workplace.

7. Don’t talk back to your boss.

This bit of advice should probably go without saying, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Even if there isn’t much of an age difference between you and your boss, you should never talk back to them. Always show your boss respect, and do your part to not be sarcastic or glib.

This is not to say you can’t disagree with them about aspects of the job, a project, or the company’s strategy. You should always feel free to share thoughts or concerns if you’ve got them. But the way that you do this matters.

Hopefully, you will have the chance to climb the career ladder someday. You will want to have your boss in your corner to help you get there.

8. Don’t forget that at work socials, you’re still at work. 

Company outings can be a great chance to socialize with your coworkers and get to know them outside of their 9 to 5 personas. But it’s important not to forget that, while you should be yourself, you’re still among office mates who you’ll be working side-by-side with tomorrow. Be especially careful not to overdo it if alcohol is being served. Everyone will know why you “called in sick” the next day.

9. Don’t be nervous, but also don’t overstep your boundaries. 

In the workplace, you’ll often find yourself walking a fine line in how you present yourself. You want to be respectful, but you don’t want to come across as being stuffy; you want to appear confident, but you don’t want to overstep your bounds; you want to express your opinions, but you need to keep them G-rated.

Learning the balance will take trial and error on your part, but it’s an important balance to learn.

10. Don’t forget an umbrella. 

This one might sound silly, but it’s important to be prepared for all of life’s annoyances, even at work. Sitting in wet clothes all day is not fun. Walking around with a coffee-stained shirt because your coffee lid popped off is not fun. Talking to someone with spinach stuck between your teeth from lunch is not fun. 

Keeping an umbrella, spare pair of shoes, dental floss, and even a change of shirt in your desk (or the trunk of your car) for emergencies can be smart.

Workplace Etiquette: The Dos

1. Do arrive early. 

There’s some common advice often given to new workers: You want to be in the office before your boss, and stay until after he or she leaves. You will be remembered for answering your phone at 8:01 a.m. in a world where tardiness is common (especially in major cities, where traffic can cause all kinds of headaches). Conversely, you will also be noticed if you consistently show up 15 minutes after everyone else—just not in the way you want. 

2. Do network with people outside of your cubicle. 

Of course, it’s important that you complete your work on time and up to standard. But it’s also important to remember that a perk of having a job at a company you appreciate is meeting other people with similar interests who can share advice from their past experiences that you can use on the job. 

That’s why it’s important to take networking opportunities seriously, especially when you’re first starting on the job. Grabbing coffee or lunch with your coworkers, attending happy hour or other company functions, and simply making yourself available can go very far.

3. Do be willing to help out a coworker.

If one of your coworkers asks you for help in completing a task, you should generally say yes —as long as you feel that you can realistically help them while also hitting your own deadlines. This is an opportunity to stand out and demonstrate your own knowledge and skills. It’s also an opportunity to make a friend and bring someone into your corner for the future; you never know when that might come in handy.

4. Do bring in goodies. 

Who doesn’t love to eat? If you have free time one night, baking cookies, brownies, or some other treats can be a really nice gesture for your coworkers—especially if you’re celebrating a big win or going through a stressful period. 

If you do choose to bring in treats, though, it’s important to understand ahead of time whether any of your coworkers have allergies or dietary restrictions like gluten insensitivity. Bringing something in that everyone can enjoy will only make the gesture that much more meaningful.

5. Do create a proper personal email address. 

It isn’t uncommon to need to communicate with your coworkers after hours or on the weekend. While many organizations allow employees to log into work email remotely, some do not. It’s important in these cases that you have a professional email address in the event you need to send an email to a coworker or your boss. “Foxychick123” isn’t going to send the same impression as “firstname.lastname”.

6. Do jump at the chance to complete a new task. 

If your boss, superior, or coworkers ask you to work on a task that you’ve never worked on in the past, it’s natural to feel nervous. But, that’s no reason to decline the work. Accepting new projects expands your skillset and can lead to exciting opportunities down the line. 

You were likely chosen because they have confidence in your abilities. Just make sure to ask questions, seek advice, and make sure you’re on the right track before getting too bogged down in the task.  

7. Do be flexible. 

Sometimes, you’re going to be tapped for a project or initiative that requires you to be flexible. You might be asked to work earlier or later hours than usual; you might be asked to perform duties or tasks that you don’t necessarily want to perform, or that you weren’t hired to do. There may come a day when you are asked to work a holiday—either to cover someone else’s shift or to usher a project through to completion. 

While it’s never fun to work a holiday, a weekend, or to do “someone else’s job,” being willing to roll with the punches demonstrates that you value the company and take your role seriously, which will only help you in the long run. 

8. Do dress appropriately for the office. 

What constitutes appropriate will depend on the particular culture of your workplace. But it’s always a good idea to dress to impress, especially when you’re first starting a new role at a company. Even if you don’t have a formal dress code, save the crop tops, flip-flops, and see-through shirts for the weekend—no one will take you seriously if you don’t.

9. Do make sure your earbuds are plugged in securely to your computer. 

Have you ever made the mistake of listening to music or a video on your laptop while in public, only to realize that your earbuds weren’t plugged in and that everyone around you could hear? Talk about embarrassing.

Take it from me: It’s only more embarrassing in the workplace. Your coworkers don’t want to hear lyrics streaming from your 2 Chainz Pandora station.

10. Do be open-minded. 

Whether you’re taking on new work, building relationships, or advancing in your career, you should do your best to remain open-minded. Nothing is known for certain, and being flexible and open to change will only help you in the long-run.

And finally…

11. Do wear a smile. 

Having a positive attitude about being at work will affect your job performance significantly. Appearing happy, friendly, and approachable at work can do wonders for your career. Never underestimate the power of a smile!

It’s okay to make mistakes!

It’s understandable to be nervous as you move into your first job after graduation or when you make a career change to a completely new company or industry. But, it’s also important to remember that it’s okay to make mistakes; Nobody is perfect. As long as you’re constantly growing and learning from those mistakes, and make an effort to stop making the same mistake in the future, your coworkers will notice. 

Michele Richinick graduated from Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design in May 2012 with a journalism degree. She now works as a digital reporter for MSNBC.com in New York City. Tweet her at @mrich1201. 


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