When it comes to how you’re perceived at work, it might be tempting to think that the quality of your work is all that matters. But the reality is that your colleagues’ perceptions of you depend on much more than just the work you produce.
Consciously or unconsciously, most people in a workplace pay attention to everything from who you hang out with to how you’ve decorated your office. And while that might sound superficial, it’s human nature to make assumptions from all the data you give people.
Wondering what signals you might be sending without even realizing it? Here are some of the most common.
1. What Time Do You Arrive and Leave Each Day?
In most workplaces, the number of hours you spend in the office still matters. If you’re out the door as soon as the clock strikes 5 PM every day or if you regularly show up after 10 AM, you risk being seen as someone who’s putting in the bare minimum, not fully committed to work, or even “getting away with something.”
In fact, research shows that even if you have your boss’s explicit permission to work a flexible schedule, managers often assume that employees who show up at work later in the day are less conscientious and less effective at their jobs.
(The good news? You might be in luck if your manager is a night owl. Researchers also found that night owls are less likely to judge people by what hours they choose to work.)
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2. Who Do You Hang Around With at Work?
No matter how good your work is, if your closest work relationships are with co-workers who slack off, chronically complain, or have strained relationships with your organization’s management, you’re at risk of being seen the same way. Colleagues will assume that you wouldn’t be spending so much time with these particular work mates if you didn’t share a similar orientation to work or at least sympathize with their viewpoints.
Whether or not that’s reasonable is up for debate, but it’s a common perception.
Of course, the opposite of this is also true: If you mainly hang out with your company’s high achievers, you’re more likely to be seen as possessing a similar work ethic and approach to office life.
(And it might even rub off for real—group norms about work ethic are often contagious!)
3. How Do You Behave in Meetings?
Yes, if you’re like most people, you attend too many meetings and struggle to stay awake at times.
But if you regularly remain silent in meetings and don’t participate, your colleagues are likely to think that you either don’t have much to contribute or that you’re disengaged. The latter is especially true if you’re obviously checking your phone, responding to emails, or otherwise preoccupied with your laptop screen.
Other meeting behaviors might be sending off signals you don’t intend as well. Spending the meeting slouched down into your chair can make you come across as uninterested or lacking confidence. Looking impatient to get your turn while others are speaking can make you seems overly aggressive or simply rude.
And of course, don’t forget to think about your facial expression: If you’re rolling your eyes or looking angry in a meeting, people are likely to notice it and think it anything from unprofessional to signs of a serious attitude problem.
4. How Do You Decorate Your Office?
Just like you might expect people to draw conclusions from how you dress and groom yourself, they’ll also draw conclusions from the way you decorate your office.
If your workspace is completely bare of any personalization—no photographs, no personal trinkets, nothing on the walls—you might be giving the impression that you’re just passing through. Rightly or wrongly, adding an art print and a few photos or knick knacks can show the space is inhabited and help change how people see you.
Of course, the opposite end of the spectrum comes with problems too. If your desk and shelves are spilling over with personal photos and figurines and visitors have nowhere to sit because your collection of clay rabbit figurines is taking up every spare surface, you risk looking like your focus is on something other than work. If you’d need to rent a small van to carry all your personal belongings home, it might be time to pare things down.
5. How Do You Interact With Higher-Ups?
How you interact with senior leaders will often shape how people view your readiness for more senior roles—and if you’ve ever seen anyone do it wrong, you know how much it matters to get it right.
Some people are overly stiff and formal when talking with their company’s leaders, which in most modern workplaces will come across as tone-deaf. Nor do you want to appear intimidated, obsequious, or overly concerned with being deferential.
Of course, on the other extreme, you also don’t want to bulldoze over higher-ups (or anyone!) in conversation or be overly adversarial. It’s fine to express dissent—and savvy leaders don’t want yes-men (or yes-women)—but if you cross over into pushy, you’ll come across as inappropriately aggressive.
6. How Do You Treat the Janitor?
You’re probably at least reasonably warm and polite to your boss; after all, your paycheck is riding on it. But how do you treat the office janitor, the temps in the mailroom, or the guy who sells pretzels in the lobby?
The old saying about judging a date by how he treats the wait staff applies at work too. If you snap at people or don’t acknowledge their presence—regardless of their role—you’ll come across as a jerk. But if you treat everyone with respect and warmth, you’ll usually earn respect at all levels.
7. How Do You Deal With Mistakes?
I used to tell my staff that in nearly every case, the way they handled a mistake mattered far more to me than the mistake itself.
Downplaying a mistake is one of the worst things you can do on the job. If your boss isn’t confident that you’ll give her bad news directly or be forthright about a problem, you’ll destroy her trust in you.
If you don’t proactively own up to and take responsibility for mistakes, you’re signaling that she can’t count on you to keep her informed when it counts. A smart manager will respond to that by giving you less autonomy and high-profile, important work.
The best thing you can do when you make a mistake it to come clean. Explain what you did, why you were wrong, and what you propose doing about it now. This also works in retrospect. For instance: “Do you remember how last month I argued for moving forward with that project when Jane insisted it was a bad idea? I was wrong. Here’s what I've realized since then.”
This type of candor and responsibility-taking is powerful because it instills in your boss the confidence that you will give her bad news directly, and she won’t need to worry that she’ll only get negative information if she digs for it.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on careers, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of “How To Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager” and “Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results,” and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, including hiring and firing.