News & Politics

Our Guide to Workplace Conflict: Are You the Jerk?

Some expert advice for anyone returning to the office.

With the Biden administration pressing for federal workers to get back to their offices this fall, lots of locals may find themselves in situations that just don’t arise when your desk is next to your bed. To help everyone relearn the social habits of the workplace, we sat down with Kate Zabriskie, an office-etiquette expert who runs the Maryland consulting company Business Training Works. Here are her thoughts on some potential problem areas.


Food Fights

That sandwich in the communal fridge? If you didn’t put it there, it’s not yours. These days, many employees are treating office kitchens like the supermarket, grabbing puddings and granola bars that don’t belong to them. Most people aren’t thieves; they’re just accustomed to wandering into their own kitchens for a snack. So if you bring food to the office, “put a label on it,” says Zabriskie. “ ‘This is mine—please don’t take it.’ ”


Hygiene Headaches

Employees have long been irked by coworkers who do their private grooming in public, so keep the nail-clipping at home. Since the pandemic, problems have also cropped up with, let’s say, people not showing up in peak workplace condition. If you’ve gotten used to showering infrequently or skipping deodorant while sitting at your home computer, it’s time to get back to older routines. And if you notice an issue with a coworker, it’s best not to confront the person directly, Zabriskie says. If the situation is bad enough to interfere with your work, take it to HR.


Social Stress

One of the things people missed most during the pandemic was hanging out with colleagues after hours. But those kinds of informal gatherings can make some coworkers feel left out, so as post-work socializing ramps back up, try to be inclusive—or at least keep it low-key while making plans. If you’re in a position to do so, plan activities everyone can participate in (especially those that don’t involve alcohol). Zabriskie suggests cooking classes as one example.


Clothing Kerfuffles

If managers are serious about coaxing employees to the office, they probably have to scale back prior dress codes. But nobody wants to see you padding around the conference room barefoot. How relaxed is too relaxed? “Look at the people who are in senior roles, who are well respected,” says Zabriskie. “What are they doing? Copy that.”

This article appears in the September 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Nick Pasion
Editorial Fellow