October 6, 2011
You suspect your co-worker might be pregnant; do you congratulate her or mind your own business? What if a colleague's parent or loved one dies—should you send a card, even if you barely know each other?
There are plenty of occasions in the workplace that may leave you walking on eggshells. To help you navigate those sticky situations, we turned to expert Vicky Oliver, author of "301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions" (Skyhorse Publishing).
Your cubicle mate seems to have a baby bump. Do you:
1.Congratulate her and deliver her favorite sweet.
2.Make subtle comments about babies and pregnancy and hope she spills the beans.
3.Say and do nothing.
Answer: Say and do nothing. "You should never comment if you suspect someone is pregnant, even if they are showing," Oliver said. "One comment about a bulging belly could even be taken as a form of harassment … even if you're their manager or boss. Don't say anything until they tell you they will be taking maternity leave because it can be misinterpreted or even taken as hostile."
You notice a colleague is no longer wearing their wedding ring. Do you:
1.Ask them about it.
2.Start setting them up with your friends.
3.Talk about your relationship status and hope they follow your lead.
4.Mind your own business.
Answer: Mind your own business. "If your co-worker or boss wants to share the gritty details of their divorce, they usually won't hold back," Oliver said. "The issue here is more about gossip. They may be happy discussing it because it might be therapeutic to talk about it, but sometimes the person getting their ear talked off can't get any work done. If they start in, say, 'I heard and I'm around if you want to get together for a drink or for coffee after work and talk.' That way you aren't dragging it into the workplace."
If someone suffers the loss of a loved one, you should:
1.Send them an email saying you're sorry for what they are going through.
2.Leave a hand-written letter on their desk.
3.Stop by their cubicle or office and tell them in person.
Answer: Leave a hand-written letter on their desk — but make sure you do it correctly. Oliver said you don't want to write a note saying you'll be there if they need you. "That can be awkward and it's one of those clichés. It's an over-promise. You can't truly be there for them but what you can do is make your note to them personal … . If you heard a story they told about their loved one, you can weave it in nicely."
True or false: You absolutely should attend the funeral if your schedule allows.
Answer: False. "Unless you are more than colleagues and have a close relationship with the person who is suffering the loss, you don't have to show up to a funeral," Oliver said. "And whatever you do, don't go to advance your own cause and try to look good with your boss. Nobody should be posturing and schmoozing at a funeral. … There should be no corporate pressure to go to a funeral for a co-worker."
True or false: It's OK to lie to avoid going to a funeral.
Answer: True. "White lies are perfectly acceptable," Oliver said. "You can create a reason not to go. Funerals make some people very uncomfortable and I actually do think it's OK to write a note if you don't want to go and express this. You don't want somebody who feels that way at a sad event."
You suspect your co-worker has been ill or is undergoing chemotherapy. Should you:
1.Leave a "get well" balloon at their desk.
2.Pull them aside and ask if everything is OK.
3.Give them a note saying you are there if they need anything.
Answer: Give them a note saying you are there if they need anything — but only if you are friends outside of work. "It's OK to say you noticed they might not be feeling well, but only if you have that kind of a relationship," Oliver said. "But don't bring up cancer or ask if they are sick, even if you suspect that this is the case. It's up to the person to disclose this. Say, 'You seem stressed. Can I do anything?' And see if they open the door. But that's if you are close. Otherwise, say nothing."
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