Starting a New Career in DC: Office Etiquette
Whether you just landed your first job out of college or arrived as a mid-career transplant, moving to the DC area can be a bit overwhelming. There are few places around the world that offers such cultural diversity with so many different customs, it’s easy to get confused. Below are a few office etiquette suggestions that are timeless, and should help you start off on the right foot, wherever you are in your DC journey.
Know Your ‘Why’
While this isn’t meant to be a deep philosophical question, you were hired for a reason. Why? Odds are, you are there to solve problems and push the organization in a specific direction to create long-term value and meaningful results. Having a professional demeanor not only inspires personal confidence but it also impacts the culture around you. As issues arise in the office place (and they will!), manners go a long way in treating everyone with respect. Conduct yourself with civility, even when there is disagreement among your colleagues. This will deepen trust and allow people to be more open and honest about various aspects of work and perhaps even their personal life. Knowing your ‘why’ will keep you driven to accomplish results in your role and will help you and others to seek fulfillment through teamwork and collaborative efforts.
Dress the Part
Outside of banking and fashion in New York City, DC is the home to an industry where dressing up has always been the standard. If an employee manual was not given to you during the onboarding process, ask for one. Most outline the do’s and don’ts and some may even have helpful suggestions. While many employers have ‘gone casual’ in in the past few years, it never hurts to dress ‘one step’ more professional than the rest. You’ll get noticed, but for all of the right reasons. Since much of DC revolves around networking, food and drink after work are commonplace. With that in mind, seek to build a wardrobe that is as much function as it is fashion. Achilles-cutting high heels and strangling dress shirts are no way to go through 16 hour days.
Be On Time
It has been said, “If you’re five minutes early then you’re five minutes late.” While not all work cultures practice this, in DC it couldn’t be truer. With a city that revolves around the action (or inaction depending on your perspective) of Congress, there is always somewhere you could or should be. From an important staff meeting, a committee that needs your testimony, some luncheon or a happy hour with all the important people, Washingtonians move with purpose. Be respectful of everyone’s time, especially your boss and anyone you request to meet for a call, coffee, or cocktail (the 3 C’s).
Getting to Know People
Today’s culture says to avoid anything unpleasant, even something as minimal as a momentary awkward interaction. With a diverse group of people, you’ll come across names you can’t pronounce and accents that are hard to understand. Do not be afraid to ask someone to repeat their name or spell it out for you. In DC, there are a lot of elected and appointed officials. While they all have different titles, it is best to use them unless told otherwise. In your office, default to the formal as it is better to be safe than sorry by speaking out of turn.
You now live in a city that by its density, is one of the most educated in the world. By default, people like to get their thoughts and ideas out in the public space; after all, most of the nation’s media and communications come out of DC. Truth be told, you’ll learn a lot more from listening than from speaking. There is a lot to take in and the unique perspectives will expose you to ideas, thoughts, and perspectives that might be completely foreign to your upbringing or education. There is always something to learn from everyone.
Your Office Space
While many of us are ‘out in the field’ with said meetings, we still spend a certain amount of time as ‘keyboard warriors’ within the office. Depending on the hierarchy or modernity of the layout, the space could be open and collaborative, corporate with cubicles (cubes) or a labyrinth of offices amongst hallways. Respecting one’s space is just as important as their time. Even though cubicles are open and without a door, they are not necessarily an open invitation for disruption. Here, permission is better than forgiveness. Asking “Are you available?” or “Is this a good time to talk?” is a high sign of courtesy and will be remembered. Talking over cubes will almost always be frowned upon as it negates their very purpose. Cubes aren’t soundproof so it’s important to remember nearly all conversation will be overheard. Meetings with guests are best held in conference rooms for the open space as well as the privacy. While one should never eavesdrop, if something private catches your ear, be sure to keep that confidential. While workplace rumors can be poisonous, having something spread from being misheard could be worse.
For those with an office, layout and décor set the tone for visitors. Always best to greet guests standing at the door as opposed to waving someone in while kicked back in a chair. The door for an office is a large non-verbal cue as to your focus so only close it when necessary. A door is best utilized during a confidential conversation, meeting with a visitor, or perhaps when you are trying to concentrate on something over a duration of time.
As mentioned earlier, maintaining privacy and using discretion is always appreciated by coworkers. You’ll often use a fax or copy machine to conduct business. On occasion, one may come across a coworker’s confidential or personal information. When you find documents left in the printer or on the scanner, best practice is to set them aside in an orderly manner and if needed, place them in the interoffice mailbox labeled for that individual.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
All of us have menial tasks in our jobs and some more than others. If someone is bogged down by a big project such as a mailing, if time permits, offer to help. DC is a place of horse trading and it never hurts to build goodwill with folks within your office. It is far better to be the one handing out favors as opposed to always taking them.
Passing the Torch
At some point, you won’t be the new person in the office anymore and someone new will walk through the door. As the seasoned veteran, it will be your responsibility to take the initiative, reach out and show them the ropes. Over time, people develop institutional knowledge and sometimes the incentives are misaligned to where one withholds information in order to maintain their value. Far better to build a network and team of people who see life with an ‘abundancy’ mindset instead of a ‘scarcity’ mindset. This approach to helping others first and sharing information when it benefits them sets the tone for a positive culture and increases the quality of life for all those within the workplace. While you should be helpful, also be forgiving as you did not walk through the door with all the answers on day one. Leadership is an exercise in lighting the torch and making sure the flame gets brighter with each passing from generation to generation.