Cultural no-nos in the government?

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This topic contains 31 replies, has 20 voices, and was last updated by  Terrence Hill 8 years, 4 months ago.

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  • #141106

    The other day on Quora they had a series of truly fascinating Q&As surrounding “cultural faux pas” at various organizations, including The White House and Facebook. My favorite was the FB rule where you’re not supposed to interrupt someone wearing headphones, because you should know that “they’re coding.”

    It got me to thinking that the government is truly unique…we have our own set of no-nos that perhaps the world at large does not know or understand.

    What do you think – what are some of the government’s biggest no-nos in terms of etiquette, norms, etc.?

  • #141168

    Terrence Hill

    Here are some that I have learned over the ages:

    • Always spell out acronyms the first time they are used in a message.
    • Never bypass the chain of command…ever.
    • Never criticize the current President/Administration…ever.
    • Never use Government equipment/resources for personal affairs.
    • Never talk to the press, unless specifically authorized.
    • Avoid fraternizing with supervisors.
    • Keep your religious beliefs to yourself.
    • Try not to attend conferences in resort areas (e.g. Orlanda, Vegas, etc.

    I’ve got lots more, but this is a good start.

  • #141166

    Cindy Lou Baker

    Oops! Hahahahahahaha!

    Just kidding Terry. Not sure any of us are this perfectly pure however. I also like how you used ages rather than years!

  • #141164

    Cindy Lou Baker


  • #141162

    OK here are a few –

    1. Being self-promotional.

    2. Heating up smelly lunch in the microwave.

    3. Leaving your printouts on the printer.

    4. Jamming up the copier and walking away.

    5. Disrespecting other people.

    6. Micromanagement.

    7. Inability to distinguish between times when you must go by the book despite the delays, etc. and times when you must go outside the box despite the hassle of the fact that the system is not set up for that.

    8. Taking credit for other people’s work.

    9. Compulsive overdocumentation and litigiousness.

    10. Dominating a meeting.

    11. At meeting, acting like you’ve got something better to do (Blackberry-itis).

    12. Constant negativity.

    13. Coming in and thinking that govies are stupid and you know better and will tell us how to fix it.

    14. Flip-flops to work.

    15. Dressing too well (unless you’re in Public Affairs)

  • #141160

    Joseph L. Smith

    Mmm, good discussion.

    How about:

    1) Never assume your colleague is of the same political stripe as you.
    2) Please don’t burn your popcorn in the break room microwave!
    3) Tying up the printer with pages and pages of personal documents.
    4) Please don’t complain all the time–some of us are thrilled and honored to be here.
    5) Why are you talking so loudly on the phone? I can hear everything you say.
    6) I really don’t want to hear about your “wild weekend of partying.” Really.
    7) Assume the best in me, I just *may* surprise you!
    8) Not all military veterans are angry warmongers—some of us are quite cool.

  • #141158

    Here’s one: ranting about your job on GovLoop 🙂

  • #141156

    Tamara Lamb-Ghenee

    Great list! I would add only that not all military veterans got their positions in the government just because they are veterans – many are extremely well-qualified and dedicated civil servants.

  • #141154

    Brenda Price

    Do not speak to the press and identify yourself as anything other than John/Jane Q Public because suddenly you will be identified as a representative of XX organization and your organization will be taken to task for your personal views!

  • #141152


    In my 30 plus years of government experience, both active and retired, I would offer the following as “no-no,s” par excellence:

    Do not, OPM, continue to deduct the higher, incorrect FEGLI premiums causing a loss to employee of $20K.

    Do not, OPM, when correspondence is received at Boyers, PA dispose of as file is “dropped, inactive” due to DOL/OWCP involvement.

    Do not, OPM, continue to ignore the half-dozen “Designation of Beneficiary” forms as file is “dropped, inactive.”

    Do not, OPM, ignore Congressional and Senate inquires on behalf of constituent in regard to above.

    Do not, SSA and component EEOC and OCREO aspects, issue a $5k award for discrimination and fail to cut the check.

    Cultural, yes, because retired and/or disabled employees are “human beings.”

    Etiquette-related, yes, because Ms Manners would suggest a prompt response.

    Normative, yes, because to permit the above abuses to occur(and continue as of yet)defies both imagination and belief.

  • #141150

    Ed Albetski

    A lot of good ones; but a couple puzzle me, Terry.

    “Never use Government equipment/resources for personal affairs.”

    This is probably the most violated one. If I had a buck for every Phd. candidate using the copiers early in the morning or late at night to make multiple copies of their thesis, I would be a rich man. A more likely caveat is Don’t even think of trying to blow the whistle on these folks. You’ll find yourself a pariah in less than an hour.

    Also “Try not to attend conferences in resort areas (e.g. Orlanda, Vegas, etc.”

    Aren’t places like this where conferences are usually held? Over the years my wife and I have been to Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Dallas on business. Yes, we’ve been to Memphis and Missoula too, but you go where the conference is, you don’t get to choose. I would advise, if you get the chance to travel anywhere, jump at it. It’s good for your career.

    One no one mentioned it yet, if you have a community coffee pot and you take the last cup, make the next pot. Don’t be “that guy” who thinks he’s too important.

  • #141148

    Never walk into the office without saying good morning. Even if the morning hasn’t been so great thus far.

  • #141146

    For those of us that work in high rise buildings, elevator etiquette is sometimes lacking:

    -If you are able bodied, is it necessary to take the elevator to go up/down one floor? Taking the stairs occasionally won’t kill you, I promise!

    -If the elevator is full of people and the door is closing, don’t pull a stunt and dive through the door so that you won’t delay your journey to buy lottery tickets, take a smoke break, or go to the cafeteria! The 10 other people in that elevator have someplace to be as well, perhaps catch the next one…

  • #141144

    Not supposed to know too much about social media. Have to pretend it’s this wacky thing college students use. Or if you use it, say, “but I can never quite figure it out…what the heck is a Tweet anyway?” And the newer stuff – Foursquare, Spotify, etc. – don’t dare! 🙂

  • #141142

    RIchard Merrick

    How about remembering to mute your phone during a conference call, especially when you are in an airport/airplane?

  • #141140


    Please do not:

    • Play a radio, or listen to music without headphones.
    • Chew gum too loudly.
    • Wear too much perfume or cologne.
    • Be habitually late for work.
    • Forget that an office is a place of business.
  • #141138

    I need to save all these b/c they’re great and I think I break a few too. Last week I discovered another one – at meetings when things make no sense, you’re not supposed to say “I don’t get it” or “That doesn’t make sense.” Oops 🙂

  • #141136


    @Dannielle, Please define what you mean by “dressing too well”.

  • #141134

    Bill Brantley

    1. There are very few reasons to yell at people. It is acceptable to express disappointment at your coworkers but be civil and mannered about it.

    2. Don’t pry into peoples’ personal lives. Some of us have nothing to hide but we like to keep our family and friends lives separate from work life.

    3. Also, do not burden other people with your personal problems if they do not want to hear about it. I am sorry you are going through a divorce/having problems with your kids/taking care of elderly relatives/etc. but I am not a professional therapist and cannot give you any advice. I will be glad to support you by covering for you at work or donating leave but if I want to change the subject, please do not be offended.

  • #141132

    @Susan – extravagant would be seeming very out of league w/ your GS level/salary. It’s positive to dress aspirationally, but you don’t want to raise eyebrows about where your money is coming from or get people jealous. Also it makes you seem like you are from the private sector and not “one of us.”

    That said, you do want to dress a little bit better than others, to show you are serious about success.

    Put it this way – Nordstrom Rack rather than Nordstrom itself.

  • #141130

    Sheila Duhn

    My favorite is your number one one your list 1. Being self-promotional. This drives me crazy to talk to people who all they talk about is how great they are an how much they know. I can’t get out of the room fast enough.

    Sheila Duhn

  • #141128


    I am not sure I agree with your Nordstrom or private sector examples. But, I understand your point.

  • #141126

    Like and affirm, these are all good govie sense.

  • #141124

    Are these cultural norms or hot buttons?

  • #141122

    Funny you should mention this. We’ve had customers ask whose –fill in make/model of vehicle– is always parked out there and why are we taxpayers paying them enough to drive one? Funnier still, it was the vehicle of a volunteer, not a staff member. Public perception is important but it can be difficult to control.

  • #141120

    Susanna McFarland

    I was just thinking the exact same thing.

  • #141118

    Terry, while I agree with many of your workplace cultural “no-nos”, I disagree with your caveat about religious beliefs. I am very open with my co-workers and supervisors about my religious beliefs. I don’t mean that I bring them up every day, all the time, or try to proselytize, but I certainly don’t hide who I am. When I request leave for religious accommodation, it’s approved because my supervisors know what my faith tradition entails because I’ve told them. Because I am open about my beliefs, I have to make sure that I “walk my talk” daily–and some days, it’s a real challenge.

    When my employees and co-workers are having issues, I add them to my daily prayer list. In fact, my employees and co-workers ASK me to pray for them! They frequently stop by my desk to request prayer for a variety of reasons. I am humbled and honored that they do so. Practicing my faith doesn’t stop when I walk into the office. Persons of faith–regardless of their denomination–should be the same persons regardless of where they happen to be. I respect my co-workers’ religous traditions that are different from mine and they respect my beliefs.

    One thing I do make clear to people I work with, though, is that I am offended by cursing. Way too many people–women as well as men–use profanity regularly in general conversations without thinking about who they might be offending.

  • #141116

    @Dr. Rashad

    Welllll, I took Terry’s message (“Keep your religious beliefs to yourself”) as a “safest path” recommendation. Sometimes it’s better to just leave it out of the workplace altogether. It’s just depends on the culture.Sounds as if you have a great-n-receptive work culture. That’s a good thing!!

    Unfortunately (or fortunately), all cultures aren’t built the same :).

    I think the real takeaway here is that we need to be aware of the religious discussion environment in our workplace. We then decide how, or if, we want to adjust accordingly.

    Great discussion!! – James

  • #141114

    Jane Hendron

    I think it comes down to common sense. Maybe more of a rule that you should dress according to what your agency does and where you’re doing it from. Big difference between working in a HQ in Washington DC vs a remote field office in a rural town and your job is focused on agircultural issues.

    The faux pas is to fail to dress according to what is expected of you.

  • #141112


    Good Point (regarding dress attire). It reminds me of that old adageWhen in Rome, do as the Roman’s do“.

  • #141110

    Daniel Crystal

    Something that hasn’t been mentioned, but I think is important: don’t hoard information. It’s always bad for morale when getting someone to help you fill out a travel voucher is like pulling teeth.

  • #141108

    • Never, ever, ever discuss sensitive information in a public place .
    • Do not speak to the press unless you are authorized to.
    • Be cognizant of rank but also of, for lack of a better term, “position power” (ie, the power that a person holds in an organization due not to their paygrade but their position within the organization and the influence that it accords them).
    • Try not to tick off the budget office, the HR folks, or the IT guy. (this one is less of a “cultural” thing and more of a common sense thing; and would probably apply within a private sector organization as well)
    • Do not criticize the Administration / the President–at least, not the current one.
    • The corollary to the “do not overdress” someone mentioned…For headquarters/DC staff, it’s almost the opposite: Do not UNDERdress. This doesn’t just mean the obvious, like watching what you wear and putting on a suit, but also your clothing’s condition and your grooming (no sloppy hair, scuffed up shoes, completely clashing accessories, etc.) A rule of mine is to ask myself, with regards to my haircut, grooming, clothes, condition of my shoes, etc etc: “Would I be embarrassed to be seen in this by the President or the Secretary?”…if the answer is no, I don’t wear it.
    • Don’t remove your jacket during a meeting/etc. unless the senior people do.

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