Crash Course in Office Break Room Etiquette

                                            By Helen Godfrey, MA, NCC, BCC, LPC


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The office break room is a place for camaraderie among colleagues and can be a happy place. Make yourself popular around the office by mastering the basics of professional etiquette in the communal gathering place for cleaning up, dining, and conversation.


Cleaning Up:


1.      Clean up after yourself. The most common complaints about office break rooms are about people leaving messes behind. Wipe your table after eating. Throw away all your garbage. Wash your plates and food containers and avoid leaving dishes soaking in the sink for indefinite periods of time.


 Consider using plastic bags from the grocery store for your personal trash. Throw your trash in your grocery bag, tie it and add it to the bigger trash can. Your co-workers will appreciate it. You can even reuse your Ziplocs. If you bring tuna in a can, for example, take the Ziploc you used for your apple and use it as a mini trash bag for your used can of tuna. Throw it out in the larger trash can stink free. Your colleagues will appreciate it.

2.      Clean up after others occasionally. People are more likely to clean up if the room is kept neat at all times. If you sometimes wipe off a dirty counter or wash a sink full of coffee cups, your colleagues may return the favor when you need it. It’s easy to do this while you are microwaving your lunch. Something always needs to be cleaned so take the 3-7 minutes it takes to heat up your food and use this time to clean.

3.      Take turns with the major chores. Sometimes the refrigerator needs a thorough cleaning. Volunteer for your turn or offer your assistance when you see someone undertaking a big job.



1.      Replace anything that you use up. If you take the last cup of coffee, make a new pot. When the condiment dispensers get below half-filled, top them off.

2.      Take the last piece. The last donut sometimes lingers for days. It's okay to use a knife to cut off single portions as long as you keep your hands clear of the shared food. If one lonely bite remains on a previously full platter, transfer it to a single dish or napkin and wash off the serving dish.

3.      Avoid strong odors. Your colleagues may not share your passion for robust cheeses or fish. Mild aromas are safer in the workplace. If you accidentally burn something in the microwave, wiping it down with vinegar and lemon will get rid of most smells. Clear all leftover foods out of the refrigerator at least once a week to avoid spoilage.



1.      Put off non-urgent business: Let your co-workers enjoy their lunch. Unless it's an emergency, wait until they're back at their desks to talk about ordering supplies or rescheduling a meeting. Use this time to connect more personally if you see your colleague is open to it. Ask about their weekend, kids, pets, plans for vacation, etc.

2.      Keep your conversation G-rated. Everyone should feel comfortable in the employee lounge. Avoid topics that could be controversial or offensive. There may be individuals at work who share your political views or irreverent sense of humor, but save your analysis and jokes for happy hour with them alone.

3.      Talk softly. When one person raises his or her voice, everyone tends to talk louder to compensate. Make it more pleasant to chat by using your indoor voice. The people who work next to the break room will be especially grateful.

4.      Use your cell phone discreetly. Similar guidelines apply for cell phone conversation. Avoid any subjects that your co-workers would be uncomfortable hearing. If you get a bad connection, step outside or call back rather than shouting over people.

Other Courtesies:


1.      Know the TV policy. If your employer puts a television set in the lounge, follow any guidelines in place. You may need to keep it on a news station or take turns with the remote. Adjust the volume to keep from interfering with conversation or nearby workstations.

2.      Leave other people's food alone. Food disappearing from the refrigerator is another common office complaint. Always label your food. Many people bring in similar food so use a marker or cut up sticky address labels with your first and last name only to label yours.


3.      Grooming belongs in the rest room. It's good to floss after meals but do it in the rest room. The same goes for combing your hair or applying cosmetics.

4.      Ask your supervisor to establish policies if needed. If difficulties remain in spite of everyone's individual efforts, you may need to ask your supervisor or human resources department to establish policies for chronic challenges.

By following simple courtesies, everyone can enjoy the office break room!