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How to Master Office Etiquette

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Bad behavior that requires you to think about it in the first place is a drag, but office etiquette is essential for everyone. Every single day at work, people deal with frenemies, distractions, rude interns, and mansplainers. Throughout your career, or while passing co-workers in your office as this very day progresses, you may wonder: How do you shut up that person who can’t stop talking? Do people even know who you are, and that you’re not an assistant? How can you ask to work from home? How can you just LIVE?

The Cut’s “Ask a Boss” writer Alison Green has tackled these etiquette questions and more in her weekly column, responding to letters from readers who have faced similarly infuriating co-workers. Read her advice below. (She also has etiquette guides on dating a co-worker and weddings and work.)

1. ‘How Do I Shut Up a Mansplainer?’

You can do three things, Green writes: Continue asserting yourself. Address the bigger picture — you can tell him he should listen to you rather than interject, because “it’s going to be essential to you performing well in your role.” (A direct nod to his ego.) And in some cases it can make sense to give the offender’s manager a heads-up. More tips.

2. ‘How Do I Ask to Work From Home?’

Is it a fair request if you lack compelling reasons why you NEED to work from home? Maybe you just like the peace and quiet, and your job duties don’t require your presence in the office.

“The typical advice about trying to convince your boss to let you work from home is to talk about how it would benefit your employer,” Green says. “But really, if you have a decent boss, it’s also okay to say that you’d like to work from home because, well, you’d like to work from home.” When you bring it up, say something like this.

3. ‘Should I Tell My Boss I’m Trying to Get Pregnant?’

This reader just started a new job that she loves. She also wants to start a family, but she has a medical condition that makes it difficult it get pregnant. Her worries are two-fold: She doesn’t want all her doctor’s appointments to make it seem like she’s slacking off. But if she explains she’s going to the doctor because she wants to get pregnant, will her boss stop giving her opportunities, thinking she’ll leave soon anyway?

First, less is more. You can tell your boss you were recently diagnosed with a medical condition that will require regular doctors’ appointments without mentioning pregnancy — your manager isn’t entitled to that information anyway. “There’s a reason that there are laws protecting pregnant women from discrimination at work,” Green says.

Second, decisions about getting pregnant and timing are choices only you and your partner can make. “You were good enough to work your way into the job you have now, with all the opportunities that it gives you, and that means that you’ll have a pretty solid foundation for your professional life once there’s a baby in the picture too.” More here.

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

4. ’My Intern Is Unbelievably Rude!’

The world’s rudest intern makes his grand debut in this column. He asks an impressive amount of inappropriate questions such as: “What do you do — do you even do anything?” and “How much money do you make?” and “Why don’t you exercise more?”

Nice. “You should do two things, and neither of them involve sucking it up,” Green advises. Step one, when it happens again: Say in the sternest tone you can muster: “Why on earth would you ask someone that, let alone someone at a company where you’re an intern hoping to make a good impression?” And two: Relay all of this bad behavior to his boss. If you feel guilty about the prospect of doing that, read this.

5. ‘How Do I Tell an Employee He Dresses Like a Slob?’

Here’s a true winner: He arrives at the office in frayed baggy pants and an untucked shirt, gross sneakers rather than actual shoes, and he looks … like he just rolled out of bed. Everyone else on the team wears polos and khakis, but HE has the forward-facing role and works with multiple departments.

“The way he dresses is fine for his life; it’s just not appropriate for this job,” Green says. “That matters because if you go into the conversation thinking ‘ugh, you’re such a slob,’ it’s likely to come out in the framing and tone you use. But if you go in thinking, ‘I want this guy to be noticed for his work rather than his frayed pants,’ you’re more likely to sound like you’re on his side, which will give you both a better shot at an easy resolution.” You could say something like this.

Photo: Ryan McVay/Getty Images

6. ‘How Do I Shut Up a Chatty Co-worker?’

Politely tell a chatty co-worker to go away by setting his expectations straight — right when he shows up at your desk wanting to talk. Green has a few suggestions: Use an innocent white lie, like saying you’re on deadline. Tell the person you have only five minutes to chat before a phone call. And you can send physical cues with your body language — when a talker arrives at your cubicle unannounced, continue typing for a few seconds before you look up, and they’ll know you’re not particularly free. “The great thing about being at work is that you have an easy built-in excuse that everyone will believe: You have work to do,” Green writes.

7. ‘Should I Stop Covering Up My Work Wife’s Mistakes?’

Your own career is on the line if you cover for someone who’s seriously messing up — even if it’s your closest friend in the office. This reader said her company lost clients because of her co-worker — and she lies to their managers whenever they ask about it, trying to cover for her friend.

You have to stop, Green advises. “That’s really serious. Like, really serious — to the point that it could have a significant impact on you professionally if they figure out what’s going on themselves and realize that you knew but didn’t tell them. That’s the kind of thing that will deeply shake your manager’s confidence in you, make people wary of giving you more responsibility, and affect your credibility for a long time to come.”

You can still give your friend a heads-up before going to your managers to tell the truth. Here’s how.

8. ‘Do I Tell Someone She Complains Too Much?’

If someone has a terrible attitude and complains alllll the time, talk to them. In this column, the complainer in question is an arrogant, needy intern. “You’ll be doing everyone involved such a favor if you do talk to her about this,” Green writes, “including her, because it sounds like it’s seriously hurting her reputation.”

Photo: FPG/Getty Images

9. ‘Everyone Thinks I’m an Assistant! Can I Correct Them?’

This 23-year-old woman works in a two-person HR department booking travel and managing her boss’s schedule. She says she has no problem with administrative tasks and enjoys them. But when two people call her an assistant, she corrects them. “Is there a way for me to avoid being confused for my manager’s assistant?” she asks. “I am hoping to eventually be promoted to a management role as our firm continues to grow.”

Green has some grounding thoughts. “Based on what you’ve described, it sounds like part of your role is being your boss’s assistant. And that’s okay — there’s no shame in that. Junior roles when you’re just starting out usually do include some assistant-type duties. But it’s not your whole role!” Here’s how to emphasize that to other people.

10. ‘My Awful Co-worker Has Cancer!’

This woman reported her nasty, rude co-worker to management, only to find out the colleague is fighting ovarian cancer for the second time. Is it wrong to add stress and negativity to another woman’s fight with cancer? “I think you’re right to ask the question,” Green writes, “but that you’re also right to draw the line at chronically rude behavior.” Read her thoughts on how to talk to the woman’s boss.

11. ‘My Co-worker Overheard Me Bad-mouthing Her!’

So: You talked about a co-worker behind her back, she heard you, and now you feel awful. It’s terrible but … a lot of people have been there. “The reality is that most of us do occasionally vent about people who annoy us,” Green says. Stop for a moment and think: Were you really just gossiping, or were you being unkind? Here’s what to do.

Photo: Getty Images

12. ‘My Co-workers Are Gossiping About Me!’

Not okay! At this reader’s office, people spread a false rumor about her dating a male co-worker who was a friend. He immediately went to their boss to straighten things out and say it wasn’t true, but it still bothers her. How do you stop a rumor in its tracks?

“Most obviously, you can try to stop it,” Green writes (the awkward, entirely okay way to deal with it). “A totally different option, and one that might seem counterintuitive: You can ignore it.” Here’s why.

13. ‘How Do I Tell an Employee He’s Expecting Too Much?’

This woman’s employee is fresh out of grad school and seems to expect way too much from the job itself: He’s unhappy because there isn’t always a lot of work to do, but as a middle manager, she doesn’t have the authority to create more opportunities for him. How can she stop feeling guilty, and make him realize that the job is what it is?

“Lots of jobs just aren’t that glamorous or exciting,” Green says, especially jobs at the start of a person’s career. You can tactfully readjust his expectations. Sit down with him and have a straightforward conversation. Start by asking him how things are going. Then say this.

14. ‘My Co-worker Keeps Stealing My Ideas!’

Maybe you share an idea with someone at lunch, and later he presents it to your boss as his own. How do you get him to knock it off without seeming petty?

Green says first, give this co-worker the benefit of the doubt and talk to him about it — he might not realize what he’s doing and back off if you mention it. If it happens again after you talk to him, that’s different. “If you see James taking credit for your ideas again, you should say something in the moment,” Green writes. “For example, you could say, “Yes, that’s the idea I was sharing with James right before you came over. My thinking on this is …” Here’s what else you can do.

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How to Master Office Etiquette