16 Common Habits That Can Ruin Your Reputation at Work, According to CEOs

woman at her desk

Getty Images

Deanna deBara
Deanna deBara

If you want to thrive—in your job, your career, and at your company—having a good professional reputation is an absolute must. But there are certain behaviors and habits that can tarnish your reputation, and act as a roadblock on your path to professional success.

For example, “if coworkers believe you are more prone to interpersonal conflicts and feel they can’t work with you, or your habits begin to affect the quality of your work, you limit your future career opportunities and risk losing your position within the company in favor of someone who would positively impact the company culture.”

In order to address any habits or behaviors that may be harming your reputation, you need to be aware of them. “The first step to solving these habits is realizing you have them,” says Tiffany Couch, CEO and founder of Acuity Forensics, a forensic accounting and fraud investigation firm that helps unravel complex financial crimes. 

Let’s take a look at 16 habits that, according to CEOs, could ruin your reputation at work—and threaten your job and career growth in the process:

1. Complaining.

If you’re trying to build a positive professional reputation, one of the worst things you can do? Complain.

“If there’s one thing that plummets your reputation quickly, it’s complaining,” says Couch. 

While it’s important to speak up about any serious issues at work (for example, a toxic boss or a colleague consistently taking credit for your work), consistent complaining about trivial topics can not only tarnish your reputation, but lead to serious issues at work.

“A negative attitude within the workplace, including complaining about colleagues or the volume or type of work you undertake, can lead to a toxic and uncomfortable work environment, and affect company morale,” says Matt Caiola, Co-CEO of PR firm 5PWR.

It might sound harsh, but the truth is, no one wants to hear your complaints. So, if you want to build a positive reputation, instead of complaining about the problem, focus on finding the solution.

“We all have more work than we can do, we’ve all been working late, and no, the project may not be ‘part of your job’ but I don’t care,” says Couch. “Be solution-oriented, roll up your sleeves, and contribute meaningfully to the workplace.”

2. Lack of punctuality.

Most people—even extremely responsible ones—will have the occasional tardy on their record. But when that tardiness becomes habitual, it can start to impact your reputation.

“The occasional terrible commute or an alarm that didn’t go off is a legitimate reason for being late,” says Couch. “What’s not OK is consistently rolling in 15 to 30 minutes after everyone else has started a productive day.”

Consistently being late to work (or to obligations within the work day, like conference calls or meetings) can make it seem like you don’t care about your job or other people’s time—neither of which is going to do your reputation any favors.

If you want to build a positive reputation at work, “be on time,” says Couch. “It’s that simple.”

3. Ducking out early.

Showing up late for work isn’t good for your professional reputation—and neither is skipping out early.

“The end of the day is no different than the start,” says Couch. 

Unless you’ve gotten prior approval to leave early (for example, for a doctor’s appointment), make sure you’re at work and available until the end of the work day. “Chances are, your boss is paying you for an eight-hour day and expects you to be present,” says Couch.

4. Not owning up.

Everyone makes mistakes—but it’s how you deal with those mistakes that will ultimately determine how they impact your reputation at work.

“We’re all doing the best we can, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to make mistakes at some point or another,” says Couch. “Just don’t play the blame game. Worse, don’t try to hide the mistake, thinking your boss won’t find out.”

Instead, when you make a mistake, own up to it—and let your boss and/or colleagues know the steps you’re going to take to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again.

“The best way to handle this situation is to be direct and apologetic, and to bring a solution that will help prevent it from happening again,” says Couch.

5. Not asking questions.

Some people think that not asking questions makes them look more competent at work. But not asking questions when you’re unclear about something, whether that’s what’s being asked of you for a project, how to use a piece of equipment, or what you’re expected to prepare for an upcoming meeting, can actually make you seem incompetent—which isn’t exactly a quality you want to build your reputation on.

If you’re unsure or unclear about something, ask questions. Not only will it give you the clarity you need to move forward, but it will also show your boss and coworkers that you’re engaged and invested in doing a good job.

“That old saying, ‘There’s no such thing as a stupid question’ is true,” says Couch. “Seek clarity to avoid wasted time and disappointing results.”

6. Not accepting assistance.

You might think that you’re the right (or only!) person for a specific job. But trying to do everything yourself—and refusing other people’s help—can make you seem narcissistic, self-involved, and non-collaborative.

If you need help with something, ask for it—and if someone offers to help, accept it.

“Hoarding work or refusing to let go of something sends the message that you’re not a team player,” says Couch. “What’s important is that the work gets done, and if people are offering to assist, it’s probably because you look like you need it.”

7. Conducting personal business at work.

While you’re at work, you’re being paid to…well, work. And regularly doing things other than work while you’re on the clock (like excessive texting or surfing the internet) can be detrimental to your reputation—and can get you into hot water at work.

“While the occasional personal appointment or call is perfectly fine, trawling through Instagram or shopping on Amazon is akin to stealing,” says Couch.

Save your personal tasks for your own time—and while you’re at work, focus on work-related tasks.

8. Lack of enthusiasm.

“Everyone has days where they feel less than motivated,” says Couch. “But if you are consistently sullen and withdrawn, it will show in your work product and in how others perceive you.”

Dragging yourself to work every day—and showing up with a complete lack of enthusiasm—isn’t going to help you build a positive reputation at work. Instead, “as hard as it might be sometimes, try proactively looking for something you can get excited about,” says Couch. “Your boss will appreciate your eagerness to take on new things.”

9. Badmouthing the company, a coworker or your boss.

Tempted to say something bad about your boss, your colleague, or your company at large? Just don’t.

Badmouthing people and/or your organization will make you seem negative and untrustworthy. Instead, focus on the good about your job and the people you work with—and that includes coworkers that you might not be entirely fond of. “Not badmouthing coworkers doesn’t mean you have to like everyone, but you do need to get along with them,” says Couch.

10. Lack of follow-through.

Follow-through is one of the foundations of a good professional reputation; it means that people can trust you to do what you say you’re going to do.

On the flip side, “failing to meet deadlines implies a deficiency in the essential soft skills required to be a valuable employee,” says Harrison Tang, co-founder and CEO of people search engine Spokeo. “This shortcoming can have a detrimental impact on your professional reputation, potentially labeling you as inept.”

If you want to build a reputation as a trustworthy, reliable employee and colleague, make sure to follow-through—and do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it.

“If you promise to meet a deadline, keep it,” says Couch. “If for some reason you need an extension, let people know in advance rather than after the fact.”

11. Having a potty mouth.

Most people will judge you based on how you speak. And while letting the occasional “bad word” slip through in a conversation with a colleague likely won’t do too much damage, if you’re constantly swearing and speaking inappropriately, it’s going to negatively impact your reputation.

“If your stories and observations are sprinkled with four-letter words, it sends the message that you are not only an unprofessional communicator, but that you aren’t self-aware enough to know that kind of language may be offensive to your colleagues,” says Couch. 

Make sure that you keep swearing or potentially offensive words to a bare minimum (or, ideally, not at all!)—and find better, more appropriate ways to get your point across. “Get out the dictionary and find new ways to express yourself,” says Couch.

12. Lack of focus.

Are you the kind of person who's constantly doing 10 things at once—like checking your email while you scroll social media and listen in on a conference call? While you might think you’re benign strategic and getting more done in less time, in reality, it’s probably hurting your reputation.

“Most of us are accustomed to multi-tasking,” says Couch. “But if you’re checking your phone or working on something else during a meeting, it’s not only rude, it shows your colleagues you don’t care.”

Not only is focusing on multiple things at once often perceived as rude, but when you’re not focused, chances are, things are going to fall through the cracks—and your work performance is going to suffer.

“If you appear unfocused and uncommitted to work, you tend to create a pattern of missing important details—or even entirely missing deadlines,” says Caiola.

Make sure to bring a high level of attention to your work; this will help you build a reputation as someone that’s engaged, focused, and can get the job done.

13. Misusing company resources.

You might not think that using your company printer to print invitations for your birthday party or sharing login information for a company-sponsored course is a big deal. But misusing company resources in this way can be detrimental to your reputation—even going as far as colleagues thinking you’re a thief.

“Misusing the resources provided by your organization can result in reputational harm,” says Tang. “Additionally, it may also lead to consequences such as disciplinary actions or strained relationships with colleagues and superiors, which can further affect your career prospects.”

Make sure that, when you’re given access to company resources, you use them strictly for company purposes.

14. Poor communication skills.

Being able to effectively communicate is a key part of building a positive professional reputation. And not being able to communicate effectively can be just as damaging.

“Poor communication skills, including failure to provide clear instructions or failing to keep your team updated on your progress, can affect the efficiency and effectiveness of your team’s overall work product,” says Caiola.

Be mindful of how you communicate with your colleagues—and if you struggle with communication skills, seek out support and resources to help you get up to speed. (For example, if you struggle to speak in public, consider joining a group like Toastmasters to brush up on your public speaking skills.)

15. Tuning out during virtual meetings.

If you work in a remote or hybrid environment, virtual meetings and video calls are likely a part of your daily workflow. And one of the quickest ways to tank your reputation when working remotely is “being distracted in virtual meetings or not giving someone your full attention during a video call,” says Caiola.

You wouldn’t tune out or do other things if you were sitting in the same room with a person. So why would you do so in a virtual meeting?

When you’re on a video call, make sure to pay attention and engage with the person and/or people on the call. 16. 

16. Being rude to co-workers and colleagues.

The last habit that’s pretty much guaranteed to ruin your reputation at work—not to mention your relationships with the people you work with? Being rude.

Instead of treating your coworkers with disrespect, if you want to build a positive reputation, “be courteous,” says Caiola. “Make those around you feel seen, heard, and comfortable.”


Tiffany Couch contributed to the original version of this article.