Whose job is it to set explicit boundaries and model acceptable behaviours in the workplace?

4 basic rules for workplace manners

Yesterday I went to see the Hidden Figures film about the black women mathematicians who were pivotal to the early NASA space programme. By calculating the landing site and when to pull out of orbit, Katherine Goble Johnson enabled the first manned orbit of Earth. John Glenn the astronaut specifically asked that Katherine Goble Johnson recheck the mainframe calculations at the last minute. Without her confirmation, he would not have taken off.


Everyone in the cinema was so moved by the film – there were sharp intakes of breath when Katherine was left outside the Nasa control room having the door rudely slammed in her face.

Katherine was only black woman in the all white male room trying to get an astronaut safely into orbit and back down.

She was the key person – mainly because she cared so much for the John Glenn’s life, was the best mathematician, thought creatively and spoke up.

The particular moment that had us all sobbing was when she had to explain to her supervisor’s boss the reason she had so many long breaks from the office. Because she had to walk half a mile to the black women’s toilet.

What was so degrading was that she had to say this outloud in front of a room of men. It was so shocking that nobody had either noticed or bothered to ask. Nobody said sorry. It was inhumane.

It’s not a surprise that many people find a white collar office environment, particularly one populated by people who never look up – to be isolating.

I have personally had a boss 1 tier above me who didn’t speak to me in the lift in eight years. Maybe it’s shyness but in my book it’s just plain rude – bad manners. In that time I had delivered a number of high profile projects which he had been very happy to take credit for.

To me the height of rudeness is not making any time to talk to people you work with every day.

Women in particular don’t want to work in that sort of isolating work environment

Just to be clear this isn’t about empathy it’s about manners, awareness, noticing, asking and believing. Then acting.

Empathy is assuming that you know how others feel – but you are not them.

I’m a privileged white woman – my husband and children are mixed heritage part Jamaican. When my husband tells me that as a black man he has had the humiliation of being stopped and searched by the police multiple times, and that the same will happen to my son – you know what? I believe him – and any black hoy that tells me their experience – even though it has not happened to me.

My son will have to learn how to accept the humiliation of being profiled and how to defuse his anger to avoid being arrested – even though he has done nothing. This upsets me. I don’t feel empathy about this – I feel anger at the injustice.

At work – it’s not the women’s job to prop everything up. To set the standards. To empathise and parent the workforce, manage behaviours or set boundaries. That’s the company leader’s job. Leaders – please take notice and lead – it make it so much easier for the rest of us.

If you are an expert in your field but you can’t talk to people and you can’t model what you want them to do – then bluntly you should have the self awareness to realise that you cannot lead.

I’m sure that my lift ignoring boss thought he was someone who had excellent manners.

The only way you can tell is what bosses do – not what they say. Whether they respect and give time and credit to their ‘subordinates’ for creating the intellectual property that their reputations ride on.

Anything else is stealing.

Manners are simple – my mum taught me these 4 simple rules from age 2.

  • Treat people as you would like to be treated.
  • Put other people before yourself (women – maybe not so much – men – more please).
  • Be kind
  • Look after one another

If you are not sure how people want to be treated but can see they are unhappy – then ask them.

Give a shit about your workers and co-workers. You spend more time with them than your family.

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