Don’t put your foot in it at work: follow our tips for office survival

While working relationships are vital, you don’t want to be an accidental David Brent. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid.

Whether it’s leaning across the neighbouring desk to gloat about last night’s football or gathering your colleagues around your computer to see “20 cats that look like Ryan Gosling”, few deny that a bit of light office joshing is a nice way to break up the day. However, environmental psychologists will tell you that relationships in the workplace demand boundaries. Overstep the mark with friends, and you might have an argument – at work you risk much more than the awkwardness of a falling out. Take the example of the manager at Neath Port Talbot Borough Council who bit into the bottom of a male colleague 20 years her junior, drawing blood and prompting a disciplinary enquiry. The young employee ended up receiving tetanus injections in hospital. Other workers played it down as “horseplay that got out of hand”.

Different conceptions of acceptable behaviour in the office can lead to conflict, resentment and, ultimately, unhappiness – and according to academic research, unhappy workplaces are unproductive workplaces. We asked Joanne Eccles from the Forum for Private Business for advice on how employers and employees can minimise the risk of professional faux pas:

1 Talk of wages in the office. Is it advisable? What are the potential pitfalls? What should one do if it comes up?

If a company has a proper pay structure in place, staff would have an idea how much their colleagues are being paid without the need to gossip. It is advisable for firms to have such a system in place, with regular personal development meetings linked to any future pay rises. Everyone’s a winner, as it incentivises workers to knuckle down, and gives bosses the best chance of getting the most from staff.

2 Asking people about their weekend... should you or shouldn’t you? How much should you enquire about colleagues’ private lives?

We aren’t living in the Victorian era – what boss wouldn’t want to encourage a bit of friendly banter among staff. Everyone wants an easy-going, affable manager who’s interested in them as a person and not just a payroll number. Poor communication will not make for a happy workplace and staff won’t hang around long. And remember: recruitment is costly.

3 What about checking your phone and taking personal calls in the office?

Nobody enjoys toiling under workhouse conditions, and banning phones can be seen as draconian. Workers need to be contactable for all sorts of reasons, and a ban can cause resentment, particularly if other senior staff are seen using their mobiles (even if it is work related). Happy workers are more productive, but clear guidelines should be in place about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. This should be set out in a company handbook – all firms should have one of these as they can help avoid grievance procedures and even tribunals.

4 How should you approach email? What kind of sign offs are advisable? Should you avoid sending too many?

A proper and thorough induction process when a new employee starts will help them work out what’s expected by the company, and how to behave according to their position. Firms may wish to consider a house style for emails and letters as part of this. Common sense should prevail, though, as to what is and isn’t appropriate on email. Again, the company handbook should spell this out and also what the punishment could be for breaches – including dismissal.

5 The annual minefield that is the office Christmas party. How should one approach this?

The office Christmas bash: every year our legal helpline takes calls on this subject. Drink and work generally don’t mix, but it’s hard for employers to axe the Xmas do and not appear scrooge-like. We tell our members to remind staff that during work parties, it is still work time, and staff must behave accordingly. That means a drunken rant at a colleague at the office party is as unacceptable there as it would be in the office.

6 Is it acceptable to make allies in an office? Should you avoid always hanging out with a particular friend?

Encourage colleagues to be friends in the office. A happy workplace with happy staff is in everyone’s best interest. If people dread coming to work and there’s bad blood between colleagues they’ll spend more time looking for a new job than working hard in their role. But don’t for one minute hesitate to crack down on workplace bullying – a tribunal court beckons for those that allow this to run rife in the office.

7 Is career talk a taboo? Should you keep it a secret if you’re applying for other jobs?

There’s no problem in asking staff what their ambitions are – whether they are honest is another matter. The more you know about a member of staff’s attitude and career targets the better. Managers should always be succession planning mentally.