The unwritten office manual
On your first day in most legal offices you will be handed a heavy folder called the Office Manual, which contains information on such things as health and safety, holidays and complaints procedures.
What you will not find in any Office Manual is information on the unwritten rules, otherwise known as “office etiquette”, on how you should behave towards your work colleagues. The word “etiquette” has connotations of a set of rigid social rules – think “Downton Abbey” for fastidious rules relating to cutlery placements or standing aside for someone regarded as a social superior.
Office, or business, etiquette on the other hand is essentially a set of rules based on the assumption that we want to make other people feel comfortable by showing them respect whatever their position in the office hierarchy, in the hope that they will accord us the same respect. If we follow these rules we have a better chance of rubbing along together in close proximity without causing offence. In modern parlance we are simply “respecting each other’s boundaries”. On the other hand, breaching them could make you very unpopular or even spell the end of your career at your firm. The difficulty with these rules is their unspoken nature.
Keep numbers to yourself
Nearly all your colleagues, clients and contacts will have mobile phone numbers and some will have several. You will acquire many of them through your work directory or client database and they could end up on your smart phone. Unless you are told specifically, you will probably not know whether these numbers are personal or relate to work. Even if they are work numbers many will not be found on the web or otherwise in the public domain and their owners may not wish them to be freely available.
You should not give out mobile numbers unless their owners have consented. Ask yourself:
Have the numbers been put on the web, thereby implying they are for anyone to use?
Have your contacts made it clear that they don’t mind if you share their numbers?
If you have to refuse an initial request for a third party mobile number, do it courteously and the person asking should respect you for not being free and easy with someone else’s personal information. The reasonable person will understand if you politely say “May I take your number and I will ask X to call you back?” You can counter insistence by being honest and admitting that you don’t have permission to give out X’s mobile number, adding helpfully “I know he picks up his emails on his BlackBerry very regularly and I will email him straight away with your number”.Is your telephone call really necessary?
Phone calls can be intrusive and people don’t appreciate getting calls on their mobiles (the same applies to home numbers) if:
- they are from a stranger
- they are not urgent
- they interrupt something very important.
As you might imagine a combination of any of the above would be extremely unwelcome.
Respect down time
Remember that colleagues who work fewer than five days a week are entitled to privacy on their days off. The same goes for colleagues who are on leave. You should not contact them about work matters unless you have specific permission to do so. If you think a matter is so urgent and important that they would really (and we mean really, really) want to know about it even on their down time, seek the advice of someone more senior first.
Taking the initiative or taking liberties?
Independence and initiative are two of the qualities that law firms value, but sadly it is possible to irritate even when you imagine that you are being helpful. Fetching coffee with milk for a colleague who always takes it black can be rectified in a matter of moments, but other helpful initiatives can produce a much sourer impression.
You and your supervisor are taking a business flight to visit a client. You have the booking reference and think it would help if you checked in online and printed off your boarding pass. As the booking reference applies to both of you, you check in your colleague as well and print off both boarding passes. This will save time at the airport and give you both more work time at the office.
So far so helpful -- or is it?
- Your supervisor is late at an out of office meeting, goes straight to the airport to find that as far as the airline is concerned he has already checked in and is in possession of a boarding pass?
- Your supervisor or his secretary goes online to book additional baggage (it’s a Friday and he has just arranged to visit an old friend who is located near his client’s premises) and finds that this is too difficult?
- Your supervisor or his secretary goes online to make a seat change and finds that this cannot be done because of your intervention?
Choosing airline seats for someone else can be seen as intrusion rather than assistance if you don’t know that person’s personal seating preferences, which to you may not be rational. A window seat may make someone feel claustrophobic because of the lack of headroom or more comfortable because there is a view some of the time. Tall people often look for the emergency exit seats because they have more leg room and others want to be near the loo in case they are sick.
The unwritten rule here is that you should ask whether someone wishes to be checked in by you and then find out if he has any special requests. Boarding passes come in many forms -- printed, emailed or sent to a smartphone – so find out which form your colleague would prefer. And whether his air miles reference needs to be entered on the system.
To ask or not to ask?
Asking first before you make a blunder is usually best, but not always. The bothersome trainee who asks about every tiny move before he makes it can be just as irritating as the over enthusiastic one. Knowing when to ask is an important skill to develop. Watching what other people do will demonstrate your office’s unspoken code of conduct. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes and asking yourself “How would I feel about that?” will make you sensitive to the potential reactions of your colleagues.
If you do get something wrong and upset someone, then apologise straight away. Don’t just dash off a quick and abrupt “Sorry!” by email, whose brevity can be construed as continued disrespect. Even sending a longer apology by email can be counter-productive as it gives a colleague who is still feeling aggrieved a set of words that can be read and re-read for further offensive intention. Make the effort to apologise in person or at least by phone -- but not, if you can help it, to someone’s mobile on his day off!
Frequent mistakes and upsets suggest that it might be time to compare your perception of boundaries with those of your colleagues. You might have a different sense of what is and is not acceptable which you may need to adjust. Perhaps you don’t care who has your mobile number or you think it shows a good attitude to share your mobile number with anyone who wants it. Perhaps you believe people should be contactable whenever by whoever from work. But does this mean that everyone else should behave in the same way?
Although good bosses value workers who are helpful, they also value those who have a healthy respect for their own and others’ time and space. It may be exciting as a trainee to know that the finance director of a client company has your personal phone number and it may magnify your sense of importance if people interrupt your work to ask your opinion, but will you feel the same when you are a senior lawyer whose clients do not respect days off or whose lunch-times are constantly interrupted by trainees needing help? Perhaps now is the time to adopt some of the unwritten rules that you have observed in order to protect your own personal space in the future.
Elizabeth Cruickshank and Professor Penny Cooper of The City Law School are the authors of ‘All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor’ (Longtail, 2008) and together with Boma Ozobia of “The Survival Manual for New Wigs” (Odade 2010).