Behaving Badly At Work 101 (Not taught in school)

When you arrive at a new workplace, whether it is a charitable organization, military unit or corporation, there are certain guidelines to follow to keep you out of trouble. Often times, the “violation” is harmless and simply makes a bad impression with senior colleagues. However, sometimes the mistake can be more costly, and result in a loss of the job.

With that in mind, I decided to scratch out some guidelines on “Behaving Badly”, learned over 25+ years in the workplace. Let’s start with “Social” guidelines, and then move on to “At Work”.


Don’t Get Drunk With Colleagues

There are a lot of problems with excessive drinking that are much more serious than a violation of workplace etiquette. These problems include emotional, health and physical issues, and are complex and serious. Please seek qualified substance abuse help if you have this problem.

Like many adults, I enjoy socializing and spending fun time with my colleagues. Often times, having a few drinks and interesting discussion is one way to build camaraderie and better relationships. It is important not to confuse a few drinks in a social environment, which is acceptable and valuable, with getting “hammered” and losing control.

I am specifically talking about excessive drinking with a group of work colleagues. Often times, an inebriated person will say and/or do things that damage their long-term prospects of succeeding. If you do decide to drink excessively around colleagues, you can be sure that you will be tomorrow’s “water cooler talk”, and that whenever leadership evaluates you for a future position of responsibility, someone is going to mention that mistake. I guarantee it.

Don’t Be The Village Idiot

Deciding whether to act foolishly is sometimes a tricky decision for a new person on a well-established team of professionals. It is natural to want to fit in and be liked and accepted. This is fine, but you must be careful not to let this eagerness convert into vulnerability. There are always a few senior employees who are in constant need of “work entertainment”, often at the expense of the junior person. This usually comes in the form of doing something foolish in the work environment. Here are a few examples.

  • A junior employee attempted to eat a couple of boxes of donuts, while the entire office loudly cheered her on. She failed in a valiant effort.
  • A junior employee was encouraged by his senior team members to “photo bomb” the live on-air interview of a distinguished professional.
  • A junior employee was told to break-dance for the team.
  • A junior employee attempted to eat an entire chocolate cake in one sitting. He failed, and puked in a trash can.

It may seem funny at the time, but these frat-house antics should remain outside of the professional work environment. Remember, you always have the right to politely say, “no thank you”.


Be Careful With Social Media

My sister has been a corporate recruiter for 35 + years, and she tells me that all public information is reviewable by human resources in order to make the best employment decisions. Photos, statements, videos, blogs, are all fair game for analysis.

This is often a problem for junior employees, who are accustomed to an environment dominated by social media and electronic communication. There are multiple stories of employees who inadvertently sent private social information out via the general distribution list…to the entire organization. Understand that all messages sent on the organization’s computers or handheld devices are not private. Prior to hitting the send button, think about how you would feel if the information became public.

Avoid “Airing Your Dirty Laundry” 

Of course, everyone has conflicts in their personal lives. The key is to shield those moments from the workplace, because it is not relevant, nor productive, to your work colleagues. If you need someone to talk to, rely on your family, friends and professional counseling, not employees at work.

Do not expect your boss or colleagues to help you work through personal-life issues. After a few occurrences, your colleagues patience will wear thin and it will be viewed as disruptive to the team. Moreover, if you have a spouse, partner or special friend that works in the same organization, set some mutually agreed upon ground rules to ensure that your personal life remains outside of the office.

Say No To (Public) Office “Romances”

Public office “romances”…don’t do it!

We have all witnessed an office “hook-up” that doesn’t last, and the gut-wrenching humiliation experienced by the participants when it becomes “water cooler” talk. This is a classic mistake made by junior employees who are recent college graduates and may view the social rules in the workplace as an extension of their college days.

This is a bad assumption.

I recognize that smart, ambitious and motivated people who work together will often find the environment conducive to personal romantic relationships. Many marriages and partnerships began with a respectful work relationship. The problem is that if they don’t work out, the train wreck is in full view of your colleagues. Additionally, there may be senior-subordinate issues with human resources if both are not at the same level within the organization. So, I recommend that if two consenting adults decide they have the foundation for a long-term, positive and constructive relationship, it should remain private until they have agreed on plans for their joint future. Otherwise, date someone outside of your organization…

Pay Attention To The Invitation’s Details

When invited to a social event, especially one hosted by a senior member of the organization, please read the invitation carefully. Some common mistakes include arriving late, dressing inappropriately and arriving with friends not noted in the RSVP.

This is not a serious infraction, but it does give the impression that the junior employee can not follow simple directions, or are simply disrespectful to the host.


Accept Your (Temporary) Low Position On The Totem Pole

When you arrive at a firm, you have to understand that everyone else has been there longer than you and naturally expects respect from the new guy. Many “hot-shot” junior employees, coming off exceptional academic careers, military or athletic success, assume that their former status entitles them to important roles on the new team. Bad assumption. You must earn it from the bottom up.

After spending 7 years flying helicopters all over the world, two years at a fine business school program, I joined a major U.S. bank. One of the Managing Directors decided to take me on a business trip (to carry the books). As we were on final approach to our client visit, I leaned over and asked him a simple question:

“Peter, what do you expect of me in this client meeting?”

“Sit there, and shut up”, he replied dryly.

“Got it.”

Nuff’ said.

Get Off Your High Horse

This is similar to the point above, in that it usually affects junior employees with successful backgrounds and large egos. They may think that certain types of work, or tasks, are beneath them. When “menial” jobs arise and someone on the team needs to do them, of course they delegate it down to the new guy. As they used to say in the army, “rank has its privileges”.

Most junior employees get it, and have a good attitude. If they do not have a good attitude in these situations, senior team members will make a mental note of it. When it’s time to “cull the herd” through job force reduction, bad attitude employees usually end up on the clip list.

Don’t Equate Academic Success With Real World Value

Some think that they are superior because they did well in school. That is one discrete intelligence, but they lack some of the other attributes, like self-awareness and ability to read others. Older employees can sense if a young person looks on them with “disdain”, because of their superior education or perceived high intelligence.

Years ago, I worked with an excellent trader who emigrated here from a foreign country, and didn’t even have a high school diploma. He was an older gentleman, with unbelievable trading instincts and courage, and he had literally climbed the Wall Street ladder from a back office job.

He often mentioned that he recognized and helped the young college graduates that were humble and wanted to learn, but had no interest in helping junior employees who, by virtue of their formal education, felt entitled to success.

Develop A Sense Of Appropriate Timing

As expected, an eager new employee will want to learn as much as possible, as soon as possible.  In many organizations, that is done by “shadowing” senior employees as they work.  This is an excellent way to learn about a new profession, but you must be sensitive to the other person’s timing.

On a trading floor, the revenue generators are salespeople and traders, who are often fully engaged during market hours on the phone or computer.  Some junior team members who need to shadow us, find it awkward to ask for our time.  This is simple, but it requires common sense and observation.

If the trader has just lost big money on a bad trade, you may not want to approach at that moment to ask, “hey, how are things going today?”.  If a salesperson to about to take the first bite of a long awaited lunch on a busy day, just wait a few minutes.  Common courtesy.

I have found that this simple statement can be very effective when requesting time from any senior team member, in any organization:  “I know you are busy, so when it is appropriate to learn from you, please let me know and I will pull up a chair and listen”.

This technique demonstrates that you respect the other person’s time, recognize the value of what they are doing, and understand it is your job to learn.

Don’t Rely On A Narrow Network Of People Just Like You

This is the classic mistake made by members of under-represented groups in the workplace. It is natural for new people to gravitate towards those with similar life experiences. I am an active member of some military veterans networks, for example.

It is certainly fine to connect with people with similar backgrounds, as it helps the transition into a new environment. However, I encourage you to go beyond this, and avoid the reliance on your particular self-identified group. Instead, get outside of your comfort zone and build relationships with people who have very different life experiences. It will make you a well-rounded person with a more informed perspective on all issues. A broad and diverse network will also create a much larger universe of potential advocates to help you navigate your journey within the organization. And to be perfectly candid, the very definition of an under-represented group means there are probably not enough to help you, anyway.

Don’t Be Selfish

Simple rule. Don’t become the employee that thinks about his/her personal career so much that the raw ambition comes off as selfishness. If they only spent more time thinking about ways to make the people around them better, they would move up the organization’s ladder at a more rapid pace.

Don’t Take Things Too Personally (And No Fights!)

Sometimes tensions can run high in the workplace, and people can cross over the threshold into taking it personally and becoming angry. Certainly there are times when you have to stand your ground (see below), but often the reason for the anger and defensiveness is not associated with the current subject in disagreement.

In 1992, after finishing a year flying difficult missions in Central America, I transferred to the 4th Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Germany. This was the vaunted unit that defended the infamous Fulda Gap on the old Cold War border. For decades, the “Blackhorse” regiment patrolled the Fulda Gap, which was dubbed “the forward edge of freedom”. The unit was filled with bravado, and operated with a high level of readiness and precise standards.

As a new pilot in the squadron, I was laser-focused on proving my competence to the seasoned aviators. We had flown multiple helicopters to Berlin to conduct a tactical field exercise, and when it was over and time for my aircraft to depart, I decided that the weather was not good enough for the flight back to our air field. I made the decision to delay, and was immediately questioned by a well-respected, boisterous old pilot…in front of the rest of the pilots (in a way I perceived as condescending).

It embarrassed me that he publicly doubted that I had actually checked the weather, a very simple task, and I quickly took it personally. Well, somehow this simple disagreement about the appropriateness of the weather turned heated, and almost physical. We were nose-to-nose, ready to scrap, when another pilot separated us. Tensions were high, and at that moment I believed that I was correct.

Later on, when I cooled down and talked to other pilots, I was surprised that most perceived my actions as overly sensitive, insubordinate, and that the old bull was well within his mandate as a senior instructor pilot to question a new pilot to the unit. It was the way that the squadron regulated it’s own high standards. In a day’s time, I also realized my reaction was based on my insecurity as the new pilot in the unit, and I approached him and admitted that I over-reacted. He said he appreciated my integrity and willingness to acknowledge the reaction, and that “my stock had just doubled in his mind”.

The story gets even better, because later in my career I arrived at another new unit, and guess who was serving as the Chief Instructor Pilot? That’s right, the old bull, but it was a good development because we had reconciled our past heated argument.

Stand Up To Work Bullies

Of course, you must retain the right to stand up for yourself, especially when your colleagues’ behavior is inappropriate. Often times, junior employees do not distinguish between what is acceptable and what is not. Of course, it can be intimidating to push back against more experienced colleague because of the fear of creating a damaged workplace relationship.

However, if you perceive the work environment to be hostile in any way that falls outside of the organization’s formally stated values, then you should not accept it and address it through informal or formal channels.

When I say “informal” channels, I mean approaching the bully eye-to-eye, in a private conversation, to let them know that their behavior is unprofessional and unacceptable, and that you expect it to stop. You must have the courage to stand up for yourself. Remember, the bully likely understands that if the problem is escalated to HR, then his/her termination is possible.  This was always the path I preferred because I felt a sense of dignity when I handled it on my own. Additionally, it made the bully aware of the inappropriateness of his/her actions, and gave fair warning to correct the problem before escalation.

However, if you are non-confrontational, then you should talk to another well-respected colleague in a private conversation to share your concern, and get some feedback. Likely, that colleague will pull aside the bully and counsel a change in the behavior, or it will immediately be elevated to a formal issue. Most times, it stops there.

If the problem still continues, then you will have to utilize the formal channel; talk to your immediate boss, then Human Resources, and finally senior management if necessary. In most organizations, the problem will be corrected by that point.

Never Humiliate A Co-Worker

Regardless of the mistake or issue, never humiliate a co-worker or subordinate in front of other employees. This is a lesson I learned in the army, a profession that many would think is synonymous with screaming and public “dressing down”.

In a subordinate, it erodes their trust in your leadership capabilities, and demonstrates that you are “out of control” and not the cool and calculated leader that subordinates will follow into the most difficult circumstances.

In co-workers, it is embarrassing and forces them to match the vitriol in-kind, usually leading to an escalation in the dispute, regardless of the merits of each side. After the argument, it introduces resentment and the feeling of “vengeance”.  In the end, you realize that it would have been much better just to ask the person to step into a private office before expressing your discontent.

Hopefully, these guidelines will help to keep you out of trouble!


5 thoughts on “Behaving Badly At Work 101 (Not taught in school)

  1. Very good tips! I was always wondering about some of those questions.
    Frank, what do you think, young men who just joined the new company, should do at the begging in order to receive respect but at the same time remain humble?

  2. Maks – A few tips…Do more than expected – Ask others if they need help, especially with the work that nobody wants to do – Arrive first & leave last – Be curious about the details of the business – Stay positive – Look for small areas that can be improved, then take the initiative to make it happen. Thanks for the question!

  3. Great article, Frank!
    I would add… “Be very judicious with your sense of humor.” It is your responsibility to fit into your new employer’s corporate culture. Adopt an entrance strategy built on the importance of assimilation for your first 90 days.

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