you, being unprofessional

Ever look back at your career and realize that you weren’t always the consummate professional that you (of course) are today? That you didn’t always have a strong grasp of office etiquette and what is and isn’t professional?

Last week, I asked readers to confess their unprofessional deeds from the past. Your answers … well, I am still not done laughing. That was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had in some time.

I’ve compiled 10 of my favorites below.

1. Inappropriate calendar choice

We were allowed to have our own wall calendars in our space. It was the 1980’s. I was young. It was Chippendale’s.

Worst part: my supervisor told me the last week of December I should pick a different type of calendar for the new year. I guess I should be thankful the entire department was women and it couldn’t be seen unless you actually stepped into my cube. But we were all in each other’s cubes all the time . . .

2. Benefit blunders

When I as an intern, the HR people responsible for orienting us and organizing events and all that jazz constantly bragged about how much the company values its perks like yoga classes, Spanish classes, all of the onsite “work-life balance” stuff that they use to make sure you never have a reason to go home. At the time, I didn’t know that those HR people were basically responsible for marketing the company as a workplace – I wasn’t technical but it was a tech company and those love to coddle their engineering interns.

So I would freely sign up for those classes or skip off to a lecture or presentation without asking my bosses if it was okay. I would just tell them I was going to be at an event today from 2-3 or from now on I’m going to have 2 hour lunches on Mondays and Wednesdays for Spanish class or hey, I’m going to yoga this afternoon. I thought this was GOOD because look, I was showing interest in all of these things that the company really values! I’m such a great fit for the culture! (I did get rehired there for 4 internships but I didn’t get a FT job – they weren’t exactly handing out functional entry-level jobs in 2010.)

3. Hiding from the client

I would like to blame this on being young – but I wasn’t that young and should have known better. Many years ago, I had three children under the age of 5 and my husband’s firm gave him an amazing offer in another state — and we so we relocated. I thought this was the perfect time to work from home. I had skills that could be freelanced, and wanted to spend more time with the kids. Plus, I wasn’t looking forward to a job search.

I quickly got a large project from a local company and eagerly set about completing it. But — turns out having three kids under 5 isn’t conducive to “working” from home. I certainly spent more time with them, but I didn’t get much work done. Deadline day comes, and the project is nowhere near done. I’m afraid to call the contact, so I don’t. And he doesn’t call me, which is a relief. It gives me some breathing room and I vow to myself that I’ll work day and night to get the work finished. But I don’t. And each day that I don’t get the work done, or call my contact, and he doesn’t call me, makes it easier to think that the deadline wasn’t really that important. But we all know it was. Eventually he calls. We have a very uncomfortable conversation.

I hire the high school girl next door to come and watch the kids while I finish the project. The quality of work was still very good — but there was no way that firm was ever going to use me again. Especially not after I made my husband drop off the flash drive with the files on it because I was too embarrassed to face the client – yes, I really did that.

4. Board meeting faux paus

In my first job post-college, I got asked to take minutes for a board meeting. (The person who usually handled this task was out.) For some reason, I didn’t realize that this was a serious thing. Because the meeting was really early in the morning, I assumed it would be laid-back? Or something? Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking, but I showed up in jeans and a hoodie. Needless to say, everyone else was in a suit.

5. Borrowing the limo

I asked my boss at a temp job if it would be cool if I used his limo. Just for a night. You know, if he wasn’t using it or anything. That guy had the patience of a saint.

6. Office or salon?

I used to use my cubicle as an extension of my vanity at home. I’d usually put foundation and eye shadow on at home and then finish with mascara, blush, and lipstick at the office. (WHY?! Why could I not just apply those at home when I was obviously already in the throes of applying make-up?!) Sometimes I would just wait and put on all my make-up at the office. It was ridiculous. I had a full make-up kit in my drawer at work. I had an eye shadow palette. I had blending brushes. I had a hair straightener. What must people have thought as they passed my desk and saw a hair straightener plugged in?

7. Not quite Remington Steele

When I was in high school, I worked in a small florist shop, and often I was the only employee there. There weren’t many walk in customers, and I often got very, very bored (this was long before computers or phones to keep one occupied). One day it was raining outside and there hadn’t been a single customer all afternoon. I was wandering around the store, down to the basement and back trying to find something to do, and noticed the lock on the basement door. For some reason, I decided I would teach myself to pick the lock (I had been watching a lot of Remington Steele around that time.) I grabbed some paper clips, went into the stairwell and closed the door. I soon realized that (1) I had locked myself in and (2) it’s a lot harder to pick a lock than it seems on TV. I was there about an hour before I heard the jangling of the bell over the door. I knocked repeatedly on the door until the confused customer finally opened the door to let me out.

8. Jilted love

In my early 20s, I worked as a peer minister at a college church. It was a unique situation, and we got paid in room and board. One of the responsibilities during the year was to give a talk during a weeknight service on our own faith journey.

I was totally completely enamored with a guy who attended the church, but the week before my turn at the church talk I found out that he had started dating a mutual friend. My talk never included specifics, but it was all about jilted love, people not recognizing the people in front of them, etc. The room was dark, so I have no idea how he reacted in the moment, but he, along with every one of our mutual friends who could figure it out, was gracious enough to never ever talk about it.

9. Hippogriff mishap

In my first job at a nonprofit, I thought I was hot stuff and had some serious swagger (I have since humbled myself quite a bit). I was often a bit inappropriate with the staff, including the CEO, COO, and CFO. Thankfully, they thought my snark showed spunk and gumption and didn’t fire me, but it certainly rubbed other members of the staff to see me be so sassy and sarcastic (and just plain obnoxious, to be honest).

When I left for a new job, I decided to do a “last act of evil” (and yes, I called it that)–I was moving on to SUCH bigger and better things, who cares about burning bridges?! The CEO was a huge Harry Potter fan, so I photoshopped her face onto a photo of a Hippogriff and emailed it to the entire staff. WHY this seemed like a great idea is beyond me.

I squirm, cringe, and turn red even thinking about it now! While the CEO was displeased, she has kindly been very gracious since my departure and has been a good mentor (gently guiding me on professionalism) and a solid reference.

10. Not that kind of suit

One time I wore a legitimate bathing suit cover-up (it was really cute and if made with the right material, would have been an adorable dress) with a white slip underneath thinking that made it okay. It wasn’t until I went out after work and my friend kept asking if I was wearing a bathing suit cover-up that I realized I most definitely should not do that again.

{ 67 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonsie*

    Reading that thread really made me feel like maybe I haven’t made near so many mistakes as I thought I had in life.

    1. ArtsNerd*

      That’s funny, because reading that thread reminded me that I’ve made many more mistakes than I care to remember! I just choose to block them out in my day-to-day life.

  2. Andy*

    I made the list! I kind of wish I had made a different list…
    but I’ll take it!

  3. YandO*

    I was just reading an old post of yours about an employee who would shut down after criticism by his manager.

    It was enlightening. “Professional behavior” varies so widely form office to office and culture to culture. There is really no size that fits all.

    However, I realized that some things I would consider perfectly professional, yet not necessary overly friendly ( lack of eye contact) appear to be completely unprofessional. This led me to consider a question: “What is university professional behavior?” or more importantly “What is not?”

    And how do we learn it? I am mortified to realize that I’ve behaved terribly unprofessional in instances I thought I was perfectly appropriate. Also, behavior I considered to be completely inappropriate is apparently professional.

    Alison, have you done a post/list on professional vs unprofessional behavior before? If so, would it be something you would consider doing? It would tremendously helpful to clueless young professionals like myself.

      1. Marina*

        I’d like to add to #1 on that list–don’t just follow what many people in the office are doing, pick the most professional person in the office and emulate them, specifically. I’ve made the mistake of thinking that because other people are acting unprofessionally it’s okay for me to do it to, when in fact the whole group of us acting the same way were slowly losing the respect of everyone in the office. It’s not usually something you can identify the first day or week on the job, but after a couple weeks if you can pinpoint a couple coworkers who are generally respected, liked, and have great output, model yourself after them.

        1. Anonsie*

          I’ve always felt like that’s a bit of a Catch-22, though. Know what’s the most professional behavior by watching the person who’s behavior is the most professional– wouldn’t you already have to have a pretty solid understanding of the expectations before you could pick that person out from the rest? Just going off people who are generally well liked/respected or do good work is dangerous because plenty of great producers are crummy coworkers and plenty of people with terrible habits are well liked.

        2. Michele*

          “I’ve made the mistake of thinking that because other people are acting unprofessionally it’s okay for me to do it to, when in fact the whole group of us acting the same way were slowly losing the respect of everyone in the office.” That is an excellent point.

    1. KT*

      And more importantly, so glad I’ve grown the heck up and now can at least pretend to be a functional adult in the workplace!

    2. West Coast Reader*

      Haha, your story was my favourite. While the others are amusing, I find myself shaking with laughter picturing the CEO’s head on the hippogriff. :)

    1. Snowglobe*

      That was me! I have never told that story to another person, I was so glad to get it off of my chest after all these years.

      1. Amazon*

        I laughed so hard I cried!
        (I too used to work in a very boring flower shop with little to no business and I took a nap on the workbench one day. Not nearly as exciting as Remington Steele!)

      1. Expendable Redshirt*

        Apparently writing a zombie apocalypse survival manual for work is NOT the most unprofessional act committed at work.

        I’m both relieved and worried by this.

  4. Mimmy*

    This makes me feel so much better about myself!!

    I did see last week’s thread, but I’m just now remembering some of the unprofessional personal decorum faux pas I’d made at one particular job–things I didn’t think would be really noticeable but apparently were. One time I’d asked a coworker for a pair of scissors–I don’t remember if I was trying to cut a rough toenail or a piece of skin that was getting irritated. I don’t remember if I was upfront to my coworker about what I was doing, but it somehow got back to my supervisor.

    The other faux pas was….ahem….tooting, which the summer intern could hear, but I never heard about her complaints until several months later during my annual review. I didn’t even realize I was doing it! Otherwise, I would’ve absolutely made an effort to stop.

    Thank god my name is anonymous here….. :/

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I am dying here. I think I would have to move to Greenland if I got called out during my review for farting!

      1. Mimmy*

        LOL!! This was my first truly professional work environment, so I was still working out the kinks of my decorum. This was well over 10 years ago.

  5. IDK*

    Oh joy….remembering when I was working at Boeing (fresh out of high school) in Travel Accounting. Looking back, it must have been totally unprofessional of me to tell my boss that I didn’t like to file. That may have been an acceptable statement but for the fact that filing had become part of the job…

    …30 minutes later, I was asked for my badge. I was at least professional enough to make her ware of my disdain at the end of the day! Geesh

    1. Camellia*

      You say “had become part of the job”. Does that mean when you were hired it was not part of the job? If that is the case, that’s a slightly different scenario. Yes, you might have found a more professional way to say it but if one’s job changes I think that is an acceptable topic of discussion with one’s manager.

  6. Ling Cod*

    some of these don’t seem particularly unprofessional to me. i dont really care if someone puts on their makeup at the office. *shrug*

  7. Leah*

    The other tricky part is that something that would be considered professional for someone else would not be for you. The boss can send around a funny youtube video, but an employee tries that at their own risk, you know? Or one beloved employee who is considered very professional comes in 20 minutes late every day, but they’re just so good that nobody minds. But they’re the only one who can get away with it and still look professional

    1. misspiggy*

      Ha – that’s just reminded me of one of my faux pas (faux pases?). I was new to a large nonprofit where email banter was frequent and friendly. So I sent round a hilarious video file which I thought everyone would enjoy – to all staff, of course. The file was so large it caused a crash of the system when people tried to run it at the same time. IT were very clear with everyone why we’d lost several hours of email function.

      1. Middle Name Jane*

        Heh! A couple of my coworkers got busted for streaming the Casey Anthony trial. Our network had slowed down, and IT investigated the complaints until they discovered what was causing the problem.

  8. hayling*

    Also some of that depends on the company. In my office of 20, nobody cares if you send a relevant/funny YouTube video. But when I worked at a company of 250, we didn’t need the reply-alls of “Go Sports Team!” during football season.

  9. Still not using my normal name*

    I am secretly thrilled I’m number 1–I learned from that experience to address questionable cube decor right away and in a private space!

  10. anon for this...*

    These are great!! I missed the original thread but a few times in my first months of a new job, I took my teacup dog with me in a carrier. I just set him in the corner with a bone and worked. I’m still so ashamed of that one; like, wtf was I thinking?! :-/

    1. Windchime*

      This one is a “know your office” situation. In previous workplaces, bringing a dog to work would make as much sense as bringing your pony to work. But in this office, people will occasionally bring their dog to work. Example: The team is working after-hours to do an upgrade; many people will bring their dogs for a few hours. People just put up baby gates and deal with it for a few hours and it’s not too disruptive.

      I like that you just carried him in and started working–so funny! :)

    2. AnotherFed*

      Confession: When I have to work weekends, I bring my dogs to work with me. They’re big dogs, so one of them will take all the space under my desk, one of them will lie down somewhere else in the cube, and one of them will be ‘patrolling’ the office. They’re well behaved and they don’t leave my coworkers any steaming presents, so I figure if they have to give up their frisbee and dog park time, they can at least get a car ride and to hang out with their human for the day.

      1. Connie-Lynne*

        Our poor EAs had to put in place a “dog policy” at one office I worked in. We had so many irresponsible dog owners bringing in animals that fought with others, or left presents for humans to find (that the owners were leaving for the porters to clean up)!

      2. Amazon*

        One time a former co-worker went in on the weekend and let in a stray dog from outside…who subsequently ate another co-worker’s cookie bouquet. She had some explaining to do on Monday. LOL!

    3. Mallory Janis Ian*

      I took five kittens to work with me every day for a week. And a playpen for them to live in. They were not weaned yet, and their mother was killed by a dog. They had to be bottle-fed every two hours around the clock, and several of my coworkers joined the feeding brigade. They’d show up in my office every two hours, and we’d all sit around and feed the cats.

    4. Lindsay J*

      Haha, are you my cousin? This is totally something she would do.

      She was an adjunct and brought her dog with her to class every single day.

      1. anon for this...*

        Yeah…some of it was adjuncting. So, my puppy was just chilling in the corner of a grubby classroom. But I under-sold in the post; some of it was a real office. Dunno if there’s even an emoticon for the shame.

  11. Amber Rose*

    I have a good story from my last job I forgot about until my husband remembered.

    We did construction layout. The field crews were supposed to look for wooden posts in the ground before anything else, but the last wood post was planted 30 years ago and wood deteriorates so none of them had ever seen one.

    A year and a half into my stay, a guy (call him Tom) found one. My boss was so excited. “Tom found wood!”

    So that was the buzz at the office.

    “Did you hear about Tom’s wood?”
    “We’re gonna take a field trip to see Tom’s wood!”
    “Tom proved that there is wood after all.”
    “It’s little but you can find it.”

    I couldn’t take it. I took twice as many breaks to laugh myself silly in the bathroom.

  12. Missy*

    I am a teacher and my first year of teaching high school I became a little too wrapped up in the soap opera that is high school students’ lives. Like who’s dating who, etc. Many of them were students of mine, so I found it interesting. But it was unprofessional because there has to be that boundary of “friendly” vs “being friends”. At least that’s how my principal explained it to me when I was called into her office and written up for it. (Apparently a parent had complained that I was too into the school gossip) Whoops!

    1. Lindsay J*

      My high school band director always knew all the gossip before the rest of the students did. This was pre-Facebook pre-Myspace and all that, so we always wondered how he found out everything about everyone so quickly.

  13. Middle Name Jane*

    That thread was great therapy, Alison. It made me feel so much better about mistakes I made years ago that have continued to make me cringe when I think about them.

    Probably the worst thing I did was in my first job out of college. I was working for a college. In our staff meeting that morning, our department’s director mentioned that she would be having lunch with someone–I think it was a person wanting an information interview or discussing a mentorship. This being a college with a good dining hall, we all used to troop over there for lunch every day and sit together. So our office went over to lunch as usual, our director met the woman she was having lunch with, and they sat down. By the time I had gotten my lunch and was looking for my colleagues, I couldn’t find them in the sea of students, faculty, and other staff crammed in the dining hall. I panicked. I felt like I was in middle school all over again with nowhere to sit. But then I spotted our director. I walked over to their table and–rather than politely asking if the director knew where our team was sitting–I asked if I could sit with them! Oh my God, the mortification. To her credit, my director said okay. I sat down, but immediately realized what a blunder I had made by intruding on a private meeting.

    Needless to say, I kept my mouth shut and ate quickly so I could make my exit. And not 10 minutes later, a colleague spotted me from a few tables away and mouthed “What are you doing?”. That afternoon, I e-mailed an apology to our director for intruding on her meeting. She was very gracious about it, but I have been really embarrassed about it for over a decade even though we’ve both moved on to different employers and never see each other.

  14. Nina Morris*

    Two goofs from the time that I was an Intermediate Business Admin Apprentice stick in my mind. I worked in HR, but I also helped out a different department. Once, when HR didn’t have anything for me to do (my initiative was lacking) I went to the other department and said so! My second goof was asking my manager about inviting my mum to a meal at Nandos. Yes, this is bad, but it gets worse: coincidentally, my mums birthday was on the same day that we were holding a meal for a colleague who was leaving! At the time, I was embarrassed when I was told that the first one was embarrassing for HR and the second would not go ahead, but now I can see exactly where they were coming from now my skills have come on leaps and bounds as an Advanced Business Admin Apprentice. The HR Manager has proved an invaluable reference and mentor, and will be helping me to arrange a transfer this Friday (long story short, I was not enjoying my first department as an Advanced Apprentice at all).

  15. Justme*

    I’m coming to this post way late, but I had a former co-worker (we have both since moved on to different departments) who would apply her smoky eye at her computer, using the turned off monitor as a mirror. Every morning.

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