Ombuds' Corner: How much does a smile cost?

Smiling comes easily when we are among friends. Similarly, one could expect that it should not be so hard to smile – or in some way, acknowledge – our colleagues in the workplace. Unfortunately, the reality is sometimes very different and interactions – or the lack of them – between colleagues can sometimes be perceived as impolite or even rude behaviour.


“Good manners” are what we learn from infancy: guidelines of how to interact with each other, initially with parents, then at school, and finally at work. Like many other organisations and companies, CERN has its own guidelines or Code of Conduct, which “describes the basic standards of behaviour that we must all set ourselves and are entitled to expect from our colleagues in the workplace.”

Many of the “basic standards” in the Code of Conduct would appear to be self-evident: ensure that we credit others for their contribution; maintain a professional environment characterised by good working relations and an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect; abstain from and actively discourage all forms of harassment as well as verbal, non-verbal, written or physical abuse…

All these standards pre-suppose an underlying acknowledgement of the intrinsic value of all individuals and their right to be treated with respect, regardless of their position or status in the Organization.

As straightforward and obvious as this may sound on paper, it seems that there are still occasions in practice where we fall short of this basic right by failing to acknowledge certain colleagues, particularly those who are in service or support roles, ignoring them when they are carrying out routine or repair tasks for us and often just walking past them in the corridors without even a simple nod of recognition… or a smile.

Of course, smiling has a cultural context, and we may not all use this form of expression, nor react to it, in the same way. What we do all share, however, is a common appreciation of being acknowledged and respected for who we are and what we do, together with a responsibility to recognise the impact of our own behaviour on others.

Acknowledging others and maintaining friendly and respectful relationships at work has led over the years to the kind of professional collaboration of which we are proud, where every contribution counts and everyone has a true sense of belonging to the Organization.

Given the many challenges that we have to face at work every day, remembering to acknowledge others might turn out to be yet an additional one. However, even if at the beginning it comes at some (emotional) cost, it may turn out to be a very valuable investment. How much does a smile cost? Try it out…

Life be not so short but that there is always time for courtesy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson


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by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill