Some Basics of Office Etiquette

by Carmen D. Browne

from VCCA Journal, Volume 9, Number 1, Fall/Winter 1994, 35-38

Copyright 1994 VCCA Journal

What is etiquette? Webster's dictionary defines it as "the forms, manners, and ceremonies established by convention as acceptable or required in social relations, in a profession, or in official life." Thus, office etiquette is an established manner of personal behavior by employees in an office to promote positive interaction between co-workers and between employees and clients. In an academic setting, all clients are potential students.

Educational institutions in general and community colleges in particular can utilize the principles of office etiquette posi- tively to impact enrollment and retention. At best, the principles will improve the public's image of the institution. Individuals can be intimidated or encouraged by others during face-to-face contact or over the telephone. A potential student can be intimidated by the first contact with an employee of an educational institution and decide at that moment never to attend or recommend that institution to another person. Conversely, that first smile or first greeting is important to a person who has not yet made a decision to take a course. This positive interac- tion may motivate the person who is wavering to make a decision.

Some business organizations have administrative manuals in which acceptable codes of behavior in the office are listed. Many edu- cational institutions do not record the expected behavior of employees, so the responsibility is left with each employee to demonstrate acceptable office behavior or office etiquette. In addition to using the required technical skills on the job, employees should behave in a way that will increase office productivity without losing their identity.

Recruitment is vital to community colleges, and office etiquette principles can be of help in this process. Some principles which office employees can utilize to make a contribution follow.

Be polite, pleasant and courteous when answering the telephone. The way in which a telephone is answered conveys an image of the institution. Since there is no visual and physical contact between the caller and the person who answers the telephone, you must project courtesy despite your state of mind. The voice should be pleasant. Instead of anger or sarcasm, warmth, sincerity and concern should be projected. Even when rushed, try to appear calm and unhurried while leading the call to a conclusion. Always be polite.

Listen carefully and avoid asking callers to repeat what has already been said. However, this does not apply to numbers, addresses and names. In order to have correct information, numbers should always be repeated and names should be spelled to the caller to ensure accuracy.

Answer promptly any telephone that rings in the office. When an employee is busy or absent from a desk, and the phone rings, someone else in the office should answer the phone quickly--by the third ring, and do not keep a person on hold for a long time. An unanswered telephone suggests that employees are too busy to service clients. Maybe you are busy, but clients are very important--without them there is no business, no job.

Avoid blowing and popping gum in the office. Seeing a bubble in an employee's mouth or the chewing and popping of gum can distract and annoy a client who is trying to exchange information. This behavior appears to be very unprofessional and distorts the communication process between employee and client. Furthermore, he popping or cracking sound of gum in the mouthpiece of a telephone should also be avoided since the sound is magnified and may have a negative effect on the caller.

Be discrete when coughing or yawning. These are necessary physical functions. However, when done with a wide open mouth, besides being unattractive and distracting, they are also unhealthy. Germs can be easily transmitted from one person to another in this manner. Clients are seeking information or some kind of assistance, not an illness. When coughing or yawning, cover the mouth; if possible use a tissue, and turn away from those around you.

Avoid applying makeup at the desk. The personal appearance of each employee is very important because the image that is projected can affect the transaction with a client. However, makeup which improves the appearance should be put on before starting to work. It should be applied at home or in the rest room. Applying makeup at the desk implies that the employee has no time to pay attention to a client, so a client may not seek help.

Use positive body language. Positive body language shows clients that you are happy to serve them. You can convey this by smiling and paying attention to the person. Stop doing other activities and listen to the person's concerns. Attend to those concerns or direct the person to someone who can help without sending the person on a "wild goose chase."

Avoid eating at your desk when dealing with the public. Lunch or snacks should be eaten privately. A person cannot eat and serve clients at the same time. If you eat onions or any other foods with strong odors, use mints or brush your teeth before attending to clients. Strong food odors are offensive to many people.

Be tactful with rude people. You may have a bad day but you cannot show your feelings to the people you serve. On the other hand, if the public is rude to you, be patient and courteous. Count to ten silently and slowly, then respond politely and positively. When necessary, give instructions slowly and clearly--even if you are doing so for the tenth time that day. If you do not have the correct information, route the client to the appropriate person.

Avoid personal conversation when a client is waiting. Personal conversations can either be conducted face-to-face or on the telephone. Talking with your friends while a client is waiting is very annoying and frustrating to the client. Wait until your break time, then you can have private conversations away from the public view. If another employee wants to talk when you are attending to a client, try responding with a nod, or tell the employee you are busy and will talk later. Attending to your duties on the job is priority, not socializing. Personal telephone calls should be brief and such conversations should be terminated when a visitor or student approaches.

These office etiquette principles can help serve clients efficiently and effectively. The first telephone call to an institution by a potential student can be the last call, or the first of a series of calls that lead to enrollment as a student. Services offered with positive interaction encourage repeat business by clients and their friends. The institution will be seen as caring, and this is important since the largest percentage of the potential student population need to be encouraged, cared for and motivated.

Retention is also important because the goal is to have students complete their programs. Retention is a two-pronged activity. One prong is the responsibility of the student to meet all of the requirements by working conscientiously. The second prong is the responsibility of the employees to serve their clients eagerly and enthusiastically, despite their personal feelings. Knowledge and practice of office etiquette can assist the employee to make a positive contribution to the retention process.

Other things employees should watch out for follow.

Be punctual. Be at work on time. You do not want to keep clients waiting unnecessarily. People can be on the campus at any time during work hours to collect literature or information. Office workers should therefore be punctual at all times-- beginning of the work day as well as after lunch and break times.

If no one is at the desk or in the office the caller may never return. For some individuals, it is a great effort to take that first step to enroll in a class, especially after being absent from the classroom for several years. Being unable to find an employee to serve them may be for them a "self fulfilling prophecy" that they should not have come in the first place.

Avoid annoying habits. There are distracting habits which others may perceive as unpleasant, such as picking your nose and tapping a pen or pencil while attending to a person. Identify your annoying habits, if any, and avoid doing them while on the job.

Practice teamwork. Employees need to work together as a team to serve the public. When one person is busy, office business continues. Any worker in an office can greet a client. If the person with the responsibility or knowledge to assist a client is away from the desk, you should not wait until that person returns. Offer your assistance immediately. The same is true when a deadline is to be met and the work day is ending. Offer to remain and help your co-workers.

Discourage personal office visitors. Conversations with personal visitors should be private, thus not taking place within the work area where clients seek assistance. Personal visitors should be in your office only if there is an emergency.

Do not use strong perfume or cologne. Your choice of cologne is private, but for work it should be mild, or soft. What smells good to one person may be offensive to the next, so if the fragrance is strong use it only on your personal time. In addition, some individuals are allergic to fragrances, and since you do not know who they are, avoid wearing strong fragrances.

Do not wear noisy jewelry. Your taste in jewelry is personal but consider others when at work. Some people love to wear noisy jewelry. The noise can be offensive and distracting. Jewelry should be noiseless.

Each employee is an important thread in the institution's garment--each person has a contribution to make to its successful operation. It is vital to demonstrate positive behavior patterns when interacting with co-workers and the public. In fact, the efforts of employees will be more fruitful and effective if each practices the common maxim, "treat a person the way you want to be treated."


Baldrige, Letitia. Complete Guide to Executive Manners. New York: Rawson Associates, 1985.

Stewart, Marjabelle. The New Etiquette. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Carmen D. Browne is an associate professor of office systems technology at Central Virginia Community College.