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The Role of Etiquette in a Workplace Ethic

Basic Standards of Behavior in the Workplace Lagging the Influence of the Internet and Social Media

Are manners and civility missing from the workplace? According to a recent survey by Kessler International, the answer is a resounding yes. This comes as no surprise to me because today’s workers grew up with the influence of the Internet and social media and ethics is an oxymoron, to say the least. I have previously blogged about these issues and believe them to be an important element of a workplace ethic of a time gone by.

It makes a difference whether an employee was brought up with a strong foundation in ethics whether influenced by values in the home, a religious institution, or in school. Given that most K-12 schools shy away from teaching ethics for fear of being criticized for preaching a way of life that some groups in society disagree with, ethics is an afterthought at best and not a mainstream component of the curriculum. How can we expect a strong work ethic and basic standards of etiquette to take root and enhance ethics in the workplace?

The survey results are quite interesting and speak to the egoistic way in which today’s workers carry out their responsibilities and interact with others in the workplace. It leads to behaviors built on a “what’s in it for me” attitude. Here are a few of the responses given by managers that are included in the survey:

  1. Untimely and inappropriate use of cellphones
  2. Wearing inappropriate clothing to work
  3. Complete lack of courtesy
  4. Use of street talk and signs in professional meetings
  5. The inability of younger staff to write a letter or e-mail
  6. Lack of personal responsibility
  7. Failure to say please and thank you
  8. Lying to a caller on the phone
  9. Hanging up on phone calls when they feel confronted and were uncomfortable
  10. Cheating on time billed to clients and stealing time by arriving late and leaving early
  11. Cutting corners on work rather than staying after hours to correct mistakes they made
  12. Visiting sex and dating websites on company time
  13. “Sexting” on company-issued phones
  14. Inability to interact professionally with clients during a business function
  15. General lack of manners
  16. Lack of integrity

The responses that struck me most as a professor (I already know basic etiquette is missing) are the inability of younger staff to write a letter or e-mail and inability to interact professionally with clients during a business function. This is a serious matter because it highlights the communication skills lacking in today’s workers and that I also see in some college students as a result, I believe, of the excessive time spent on the Internet and social media sites that foster an impersonal form of communication and one in which a person can say anything and remain anonymous.

The question is can the increasing pattern of the lost art of civility be restored? I believe it can but it will require more classes in the K-12 education system that emphasize the ethics of social media including dangers of its use both for personal and professional reasons. It requires a commitment of teachers to evolve in their classroom instruction and teach a work ethic, manners, and basic ethical standards in today’s globally-connected world. It requires a commitment on the part of students to be open to discussion and debate about these issues especially with respect to workplace ethics. And, it requires a case-based approach to teaching these skills that use a real-world approach to teaching ethics.

There are some lessons to be learned from the results of the survey. They include:

  1. Shut off cellphones while at work and in meetings; it’s rude to use them while others are trying to work and speak
  2. Respect your coworkers and managers and you will get respect back; don’t treat them with disdain or in and “us” against “them” mentality
  3. Refrain from using colorful language in the workplace that may be common fare on the Internet and in social media but have no place in a professional setting
  4. Don’t take things from the office that don’t belong to you such as office supplies, computer software, and other work-specific materials
  5. Improve communication and interpersonal skills. I have heard from managers who are sometimes embarrassed to invite younger employees to business functions for fear they will say or do wrong things.

Colleges and universities have an important role to play. All too often business ethics classes ignore workplace ethics issues and fill the time with social responsibility and green issues. There is nothing wrong with this but the two go together. The social responsibility of business is to act in an ethical manner toward customers, suppliers, employees, and other stakeholders. Issues such as health and safety, meeting compliance responsibilities, and corporate governance are chock full of ethics issues and the latter should be integrated throughout the curriculum in all business courses to send a signal to students that ethics in the workplace is pervasive.

There are a set of etiquette every employee must follow in how they dress, behave in the workplace, or even web browsing. If you are in a job that requires you to use the computer for long hours, your mind may wander and you probably might check out personal sites or surf the web on topics that do not pertain to your job.

Even if you are a diligent worker who is always on target or performs well in the company, browsing the Internet for information that is not related to your profession is inappropriate and you wind up being paid for engaging in personal activities on company time.  It also negatively affects your productivity in some way or the other. To avoid falling into trouble, employees should act on values built on hard work, respect, diligence, responsibility, and the pursuit of excellence.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 12, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: