Maintaining civility on the job

From cliquish colleagues to bullying bosses, work can be uncivil at times. Even in the age of Zoom meetings and virtual calls, interactions can drip with pettiness or be downright rude. How can you improve your own behavior or better respond to your colleagues?

Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette, and culture expert, offers these six tips for civility awareness.

  1. Use the Titanium Rule

This takes the Golden Rule — do unto others what you would have done to you — a step further. The Titanium Rule is to do unto others as they would like you to do. We learn what people would like by observing, asking questions, watching behavior, reading cues, noticing preferences, and even observing their clothing choices. What makes them feel comfortable, appreciated, seen, or heard? By paying attention to our colleagues’ preferences and needs, we create healthier, more productive workspaces.

  1. Understand cultural conditioning

We all have our own cultural conditioning — where and how we were raised, the society and family structure we grew up in, or as third culture kids — and it runs deep. You may be culturally conditioned to share a quick, short greeting and get straight to business, while a colleague may expect 5-10 minutes of chit chat prior to in depth business. They may be offended or feel uncared for when that small talk doesn’t occur. For you, it’s about efficiency; for your colleague, it’s about fostering trust and rapport.  We all recognize respect when we see it, don’t we? Small slights can be disrespectful, which can build into resentment over time.

  1. Build relationships without depending on technology

Now that we’re slowly making our way back to the live workspace, pay extra care to validate presenters by closing your device or laptop during in-person meetings. Avoid using virtual platforms, video conferencing, and other technology as weapons for bullying or passive-aggressive behavior. For example, avoid ignoring a message because you’re annoyed at someone when you could respond with “Let me get back to you a bit later today.” Allow yourself to cool down and come up with a kind, appropriate response. Email and text may be convenient and even necessary in these times, but these avenues don’t build relationships as well as direct face-to-face visits, which are crucial to long-term trust building.

  1. Cast off the clique

As humans, it can be natural to gravitate toward others with similar interests, the same sense of humor, or compatible work styles. However, as tempting as it may be, avoid joining an office clique as if you were still in high school. It’s not cool to only hang with the “cool kids.” Be someone that the executive team can rely upon as a role model, especially when it comes to being inclusive with others in the workspace. Use your social skills to expand beyond your usual circle and take initiative to develop a potential new professional relationship with valuable insight.

  1. Upgrade your personal brand

Remember that your image reflects your self-esteem. Use this to your benefit, even in virtual meeting contexts. Not only will you feel better clean and showered, but also your colleagues will appreciate your fresh, professional image. Save the baggy pants for your days off and that cute skimpy sundress for Saturdays at the pool. Brand yourself as a professional ready for action and opportunity.

  1. Check your habits

Since we quarantined during the pandemic, we may need to brush up on our social skills in public situations. Maybe we developed some bad habits or became a little lazy, so do a little self-assessment and adjust as necessary. For example, remember to smile when you walk by a colleague — even wearing a mask, people can see the smile in your eyes. In fact, a Chinese study demonstrated that it’s actually the eyes, not the mouth, that best demonstrates an authentic smile. Ask to hold the door for others, keep your work area neat, put your phone on silent, and monitor the volume of your conversations relative to others around you.

Sharon Schweitzer JD is a cross-cultural and international etiquette expert to current and future leaders. Her Access to Culture program can be found at