Workplace Basics

In this tutorial, learn some tips and strategies for succeeding in your job, whatever it might be. 

    Completing I-9 and W-4 Forms

    Learn how to complete your I-9 forms and W-4 forms for new employment.


    Workplace Safety

    Use these tips to improve safety in the workplace.


    Getting Acquainted with the Computer Workstation

    Get to know your computer workstation and organize it for maximum productivity.


    Organizing Your Desk

    Use these desk organization tips to keep productivity up and workflow smooth.


    Understanding Your Pay, Benefits, and Paycheck

    Learn how to read your paycheck and understand your work benefits.


    Taking Leave

    Learn all about researching your employer’s policies on taking time away from work.



    Test your knowledge of workplace basics by taking our quiz.


    1. Completing I-9 and W-4 Forms

    By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

    • Identify Form I-9
    • Identify Form W-4
    • Identify your state’s withholding form
    • Identify what important documents you should bring to your first day of work


    Be prepared for your first day of work

    “Will I be able to manage my workload?” “Will I get along with my supervisor?” “What will my workstation be like?” These are probably just a few of the questions you’ve had when anticipating starting a new job.

    While you may not be able to anticipate what exactly will happen on your first day of work, you can expect to complete some paperwork.


    Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification)

    For every new employee hired to work in the United States, employers are responsible for completing Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification) and keeping it on file. Issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), this form verifies that employers have verified the employment eligibility and proper identification documents presented by each employee.

    i9 form

    For more information, go to Employment Eligibility Verification on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.


    Form W-4 and state withholding form

    W-4 form (employee’s withholding allowance certificate)

    If you work in the United States, you are required by federal law to pay federal income tax. Unless you are hired as an independent contractor, your employer will use the information you provide to fill out the W-4 form and withhold the correct amount of income tax from your pay. Issued by the Internal Revenue Service, Form W-4 includes three types of information your employer will use to determine your withholding:

    1. Whether to withhold at the single rate or at the lower married rate
    2. How many withholding allowances you claim (each allowance reduces the amount withheld)
    3. Whether you want an additional amount withheld

    Learn more at or review this sample W-4 form.

    W4 Form

    State withholding form

    You will also file a state income tax withholding form. Using the information you provide, your employer uses this form to determine the correct amount of state income tax to withhold from your pay. Types of information that are used to determine your withholding may include your marital status, age, and number of dependents.

    To learn more about your state withholding form, visit your state’s Department of Revenue website.

    Bring proper identification

    In order to complete this paperwork, many U.S. citizens wishing to work in the United States bring a state-issued driver’s license or identification card and a Social Security card. However, there are several forms of verification that can be used.

    Go to Part 8 of the USCIS Handbook for Employers (M-274) to see more forms of acceptable documentation.

    Sample I9 Acceptable Identification

    Be prepared to produce other personal information such as your maiden name if applicable, Social Security number, driver’s license number, current address and phone number, and the name and information of an emergency contact.

    2. Workplace Safety

    By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

    • Understand the basics of safety in the workplace

    Safety in the workplace

    In 1970, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act. This act requires employers to follow occupational safety and health standards, providing workplaces free from serious recognized hazards. This law helps protect workers by setting and enforcing workplace safety and health standards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides safety and health information, training, and assistance to employers and workers.

    In order to comply with OSHA, employers should provide safety training as a part of job orientation and follow an established safety policy. Ideally, employers should provide regular safety training to enforce their safety policies, making the greatest effort to prevent accidents and injuries in the workplace.


    Health and safety at your desk

    The simple act of sitting at a desk and working on a computer can put stress and strain on your body. Over time, this unnecessary strain can result in painful injuries. These injuries can sometimes lead to decreased productivity and lost workdays. To maintain your health and safety, consider the following:

    Body position

    • Head and neck should be upright, not bent forward or backward.
    • Head, neck, and trunk should face forward.
    • Trunk should be perpendicular to the floor.
    • Shoulders and upper arms should be relaxed and perpendicular to the floor, not outstretched or elevated.
    • Upper arms and elbow should be close to the body.
    • Forearms, wrists, and hands should be straight and parallel to the floor.
    • Thighs should be parallel to the floor and lower legs about perpendicular to the floor, not crossed.
    • Feet should rest flat on the floor.
    • Thighs shouldn’t be restricted by the height of the desk.
    • Legs and feet should have enough space so the you can get close enough to the desk and monitor.

    Health and safety at your desk


    • It should accommodate your size.
    • The seat should have cushioning and rounded edges.
    • Armrests should support both forearms but shouldn’t interfere with movement.


    • It should be directly in front of you so you don’t have to twist your head or neck.
    • It should be at or directly below eye level.
    • You should be able to read what’s displayed on the monitor without twisting or stretching.
    • No glare should be present, which can cause you to assume an awkward position.

    Keyboard and input device (mouse or trackball)

    • The input device should be located next to the keyboard so no reaching is necessary.
    • Wrists and hands should not rest on a sharp edge.


    Safety accessories for your desk

    There are many desk accessories that can increase comfort and safety at your desk.

    • Keyboard trays can be used to optimize keyboard and input device positioning. The tray should be large enough to accommodate both the keyboard and input device.
    • A wrist pad can be used to support wrists and forearms. It should be soft and rounded, yet firm enough to support the weight of your wrists.
    • A document holder can be used to position documents. Documents should be placed at or just below eye level and should be close enough to the monitor so there is little head motion when you look at the monitor and the document.
    • A footrest can be used to position your feet properly.
    • A backrest can provide support for your lower back.
    • The telephone should be placed within reach. It shouldn’t be propped between your ear and shoulder.

    To help alleviate strain on your body, stand up, stretch, or walk around at least once an hour.


    Basic safety tips

    While safety rules vary according to the organization and specific job, there are several basic things you can do to remain safe in the workplace. Many accidents are due to careless behavior that might have been easily prevented.

    • When going from place to place, avoid running, and be careful when going through doors. Moving in a controlled fashion decreases the chance of accidents. Never run, jump, or engage in horseplay.
    • Keep your work area clean. Unattended open drawers, wastebaskets, papers, litter, garbage, boxes, and other debris increase the chances of slips, trips, and falls.
    • Don’t touch or use any equipment you have not been trained on or given permission to use. If you are asked to use machinery, make sure you understand how to use it, the hazards of using it, and what protective clothing you need in order to use it safely. Be aware that loose-fitting gloves, long hair, clothing, and jewelry can get caught in machinery.
    • If you are asked to use a product that might be hazardous, make sure you know about the hazards and how to protect yourself. Even common cleaning products can contain chemicals that could be hazardous if used improperly.
    • Smoke in designated areas only. Thoroughly extinguish all tobacco products when finished.
    • Be aware of flammable materials that can catch on fire, including solvents such as oil, gas, and paint thinner.
    • Stay away from contact with bodily fluids, such as blood, saliva, and urine. If you are required to clean up bodily fluids, take universal precautions. If you have not been instructed on universal precautions, ask for training.
    • If your job requires you to lift things, lift with your legs (get instruction from your supervisor if needed). If something is too heavy, ask for help.
    • Be careful when lifting or stacking items above your head. If you must use a ladder, make sure it’s stable and equipped with nonslip treads. Never use a chair as a substitute for a ladder.
    • Know what to do during an emergency. Pay attention during emergency drills so you know the routes to take when leaving an assigned area to go to a safe place.
    • Observe all cautionary signs in the workplace.
    • If you believe that a job task is unsafe or that something in the environment is unsafe—or if you have any questions about safety—talk to your supervisor immediately.


    Getting injured on the job

    Do everything you can to ensure your health and safety both at home and in the workplace. Participate in and support your workplace’s safety program, and always follow safety rules and regulations.

    However, if you are injured:

    • Tell your supervisor immediately.
    • Follow the prescribed safety procedure.

    If a coworker is injured and fails to go to a supervisor, talk to your supervisor.

    If you fail to report an injury to your supervisor, it could make it difficult to make a worker’s compensation claim.

    3. Getting Acquainted with the Computer Workstation

    By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

    • Recognize the role of technical support staff
    • Become familiar with a typical office computer workstation
    • Identify equipment common to an office environment


    Technical support staff


    Most large office environments are equipped with on-site technical support staff. Technical support staff titles can vary, but make it a point to get to know your systems administrator. He or she can provide technical support when you need it most.

    A systems administrator can help you:

    • Set up your computer system
    • Establish your access to the network server
    • Respond to your questions about system operation
    • Address any software and hardware problems
    • Provide appropriate training

    Systems administrators have many other duties, including maintaining the network server and overseeing network security. In other words, they may not always be available to address your technical difficulties. Today’s office workers must be equipped to solve minor technical difficulties on their own. 

    Your workstation

    The systems administrator should sit down with you and introduce you to your new computer workstation. While you have this person’s attention, make sure you cover the following important topics:

    • Establish a user name and password so you can log in to the computer network.
      User names and passwords are required in multi-user computer systems such as an office environment. Your user name is used to identify you in the system and usually consists of a combination of your first and last name. Passwords grant you access to protected computers, programs, and files. Passwords should be made up of a secret combination of characters. Your password should be something no one can guess to ensure network security. 
    • Determine which printer you should use.
      A typical medium to large office has several printers. Ask which one you can use, and determine whether the systems administrator has set up your computer so you can use it. If necessary, ask for a brief demonstration.
    • Ask if there are any manuals or other training materials available.
      You may be expected to solve minor technical difficulties. Prove you are self-sufficient and ask if there are any technical documentation materials available for you to use. Larger companies may provide online training you can access anytime.


    Your workstation

    • Determine which email client you’ll be using. Ask if there is a webmail feature so you can access your email remotely.
      Your office may use an email client other than the one you’re used to, so have the systems administrator walk you through the basics and ask for documentation on how the system works.
    • Determine how to back up and archive your work.
      As a home computer user, you may be used to backing up your work using a portable/zip drive, CD/DVD drive, or web server. Your systems administrator should have an established standard procedure for backing up and archiving work. Be sure to ask how long work is stored on the network server, and determine how to recover your work in case of an emergency.
    • Ask questions regarding your computer’s operating system and software.
      While you should know how to solve minor technical problems, don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is especially true if you are being trained on a new system.
    • If necessary, ask about remote access software.
      Remote access software allows you to log on to a network from a remote location. This is especially useful if you travel a lot or are a telecommuting employee.


    Common office equipment

    Aside from your computer, there are several types of office equipment used in an office environment.

    • Multi-line telephone
      A multi-line telephone is similar to your home phone, but it can manage several phone lines. Basic features include answering a call on another line, holding and transferring calls, and using the intercom and speakerphone.
    • Voicemail
      Voicemail is similar to your home answering machine or voicemail system. It allows you to record an outgoing message that will play to incoming callers when you are unable to answer your phone. When you are ready, you can retrieve messages, save them, forward them to another voicemail box, or erase them.
    • Printer
      A printer allows you to print hard copies. Some offices have sophisticated printers that can print double-sided copies, collate, staple, use color, and print photo-quality images.
    • Fax machine
      A fax machine is a device that allows you to send and receive pictures and text over a telephone line. While email has replaced fax machines to a certain extent, it is still commonly used and is especially helpful when someone must send a signed document quickly.
    • Mail postage machine
      This machine will weigh and affix the proper postage to letters and other packages.

    Before you operate any office equipment:

    • Ask for a demonstration.
    • Try it.
    • Consult the operation manual.
    • Seek the help of a technician if you have technical problem.
    • If you are unfamiliar with your computer’s software or operating system, Barnes & Noble has a large selection of technical documentation. Before you buy, ask whether your employer will purchase it for you.
    • Book: Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson

    4. Organizing Your Desk


    By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

    • Recognize why it’s important to remain organized
    • Identify ways to become more organized in the workplace


    Why it’s important to organize your workspace

    There are several benefits to organizing your workspace.

    • Improved time management.
      Taking the time to get organized can save you time in the long run. Constantly working around clutter can seriously impede your productivity. Great time managers set up and organize their workspaces to cut down on the amount of time necessary for each task.
    • Quickly locate important items.
      Has your boss ever asked you for an important document that you were unable to locate? Organizing your workspace will spare you embarrassment and frustration.
    • Remember important tasks.
      The common phrase “out of sight, out of mind” is largely true. Visual cues can help you remember and prioritize important tasks. For example, a clean and orderly desk can help you deal with one task at a time.
    • Maintain a professional appearance.
      Your dress, demeanor, and workspace are a representation of you and your employer. Minimal clutter conveys professionalism.
    • Focus on workplace goals.
      An orderly workspace can help you fine-tune and accomplish your daily goals, thereby helping you achieve your long-term professional goals.


    Organizing your workspace

    Getting organized is the first step toward remaining organized. Whether you are starting a new job or desperately want to organize your current workspace, consider the following tips.

    • Examine how your workspace is used.
      List the job duties you perform here (depending on your job, some may be performed elsewhere), and number them in order of importance.
    • Group similar objects together.
      Put like items in piles on the floor where you can easily see them before determining their final location. Make another pile for anything that’s unrelated to your job duties.
    • Group and separate items associated with each job duty.
      Group together books, materials, and supplies associated with a certain task. This strategy may not work if you perform several similar duties.
    • Throw unnecessary items in the trash.
      As you’re grouping and separating items, ask yourself, “Do I need to keep this? If so, how often do I use this? If not, why?”

    Your job duties and professional goals should dictate how your workspace is organized.


    Putting it away

    Now that you’ve taken the time to sort through your stuff, you should figure out how to arrange it in a way that will help you perform your duties efficiently.

    • Avoid unnecessary movement by storing often-used items at close range or at eye level.
    • If appropriate, establish separate stations where you work on one specific job duty.
    • Post important reminders at eye level.
    • Limit your desktop to items you use daily.
    • Put books and manuals on a bookshelf. Keep those you use daily within reach.
    • Keep decorative items to a minimum. Check your employer’s policy before bringing personal or decorative objects to work.
    • Put items you only use a few times a year in a deep storage area. Make sure they’re properly labeled first.


    Organizational tools

    There are several office supplies that can help you organize your workspace.


    • Alphabetize your folders so you can locate files quickly.
    • Use hanging files to help keep your file drawer neat.
    • Use colored folders to give visual cues as to the contents of each folder.
    • Use file folder labels so you can recycle folders when necessary.


    • There are many different types of drawer organizers to help you organize the contents of your drawer.
    • Plastic bins, baskets, and boxes (available in a different sizes) can help you organize larger items.
    • Paper trays are useful for managing paper. Consider creating an inbox for items that need to be dealt with and an outbox for items that need to be filed.
    • Coffee cups are useful for holding pens and pencils.


    • Your trashcan is a valuable organizational tool, provided it’s used correctly. Throw away unnecessary items daily.
    • If you are unsure whether an item should be thrown away, create a recycling bin. Use a small box to store items you’re not sure you should throw away. Clearly label it so it won’t end up in the trash. Empty it regularly.


    • How to Organize Your Desk: A useful article from WikiHow
    • Book: Getting Organized at Work by Dawn B. Sova
    • Book: Good Things for Organizing by Martha Stewart

    5. Understanding Your Pay, Benefits, and Paycheck

    Understanding your pay, benefits, and paycheck


    With any job, it can be difficult to decipher everything on your paycheck and figure out what various benefits provide for you. You might be wondering why money is being taken out of your pay and what exactly it’s going toward. If some of this is hard for you to understand, that’s completely normal! We’ll go over all of this and more in this lesson.

    t’s important to note that this lesson is focused primarily on paychecks in the United States. Not all of this information may be applicable or true for you if you live in another country.

    Payment options

    Businesses usually offer a few payment methods for obtaining your paycheck. The first is simply receiving a physical paper check. Just like any other check, it can be cashed or deposited to your bank account if you have one.

    The other option that’s also used by many employers is direct deposit. This allows your employer to electronically transfer your paycheck directly to your bank account. In order to do this, you’ll need to provide your employer with a voided check from your bank account or your routing and account numbers.

    What’s on your pay stub?

    Every paycheck you receive should come with an accompanying pay stub. This is a record of how much you earned from a certain pay period, as well as the amount of money that was removed for deductions. It has quite a bit of information on it, so let’s take a look and see what it all means. Your pay stub may look different from the example below, but it should contain most of the same information.


    Earnings vs. net pay

    When you view your pay stub, you’ll find two notable figures: your earnings (or gross pay) and your net pay. Your earnings is the amount of money you make based on your pay rate. After a number of taxes and deductions are applied, you’re left with your net pay, or the money that’s available to you on your paycheck.

    Upon your initial payment, you might be surprised at the difference between your earnings and your net pay due to unforeseen deductions. It’s important to plan for this difference, especially when budgeting or doing any financial planning.


    As mentioned above, there are several deductions that may be applied to your earnings. Some of these vary depending on location and your employer, but there’s one deduction everyone must deal with: income tax.

    No matter where you live in the country, federal income tax will be deducted from your earnings. The amount of money that’s withheld will depend on several factors, including how much you earn and the number of allowances you claimed on your W-4. Depending on where you live, you may also have state income taxes deducted from your paycheck.

    In addition to income tax, there are Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes that are withheld to help fund Social Security and Medicare. For more information on FICA taxes, read this article from The Balance.


    If your workplace offers certain benefits, it may require deductions from your earnings as well. These include things like health insurance, disability, life insurance, and retirement. Below are explanations of these various benefits:

    • Health/dental/vision insurance: Health insurance helps to cover some of the high costs of health care. Most employers will pay for a portion of this and require you to pay a portion as well.
    • Retirement/pension plan: Retirement plans, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), allow you to save for your retirement. You often choose how much you’d like to contribute, which will then be deducted from your check before taxes are taken out.
    • Life insurance: In the event of death, life insurance will provide your beneficiary, usually a family member, with money. Your employer may pay a minimum amount of coverage for this, but you have the option of contributing more from your paycheck.
    • Disability insurance: If you experience illness or become disabled, this insurance will provide you with income you would have otherwise lost. Some employers provide minimum coverage, like worker’s compensation, but disability insurance varies from state to state.

    The information in this article can vary depending on your job, your income, and a number of other factors. If you have any questions about your paycheck or the contents of your pay stub, feel free to ask your employer for clarification.

    6. Taking Leave

    By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

    • Identify which decisions need to be made when you’re sick and scheduled to work
    • Identify which decisions need to be made when you’re using vacation or personal days

    Staying home from work


    There are many reasons you may need to stay home from work. For example, you may get sick, need to attend to personal errands that can’t be taken care of on the weekend, go to doctor’s appointments, or attend a function at your child’s school.

    Some employers allot their employees a certain amount of paid sick, vacation, and personal leave days per calendar year. They may also offer some paid holidays. However, with only a certain number of days off per year, it can be difficult to determine how, when, and under what circumstances these days should be used.

    Some employers simply allot leave days—employees can determine how and when they are used.

    Using sick days

    While at work on a Tuesday morning, you notice that you’re beginning to get a headache. You take some aspirin and hope it goes away. By lunch, your headache has gotten worse and you’re beginning to get body aches, accompanied by the beginnings of a sore throat. At the end of the day, you drag yourself home, take some more aspirin, and go to bed early. On Wednesday morning, you wake up showing the same symptoms, except now you’re congested as well. Do you call in sick?

    Sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether you should call in sick.

    Before you call in sick, consider the following:

    • Do you have sick benefits? If so, how much sick time do you have?
    • How sick are you?
    • Do you need to see a doctor in order to get better?
    • Do you have an illness that’s contagious, such as the flu or pink eye?
    • If you go to work, is there a chance that you may get even sicker and may have to miss more than one day of work?
    • If you went to work, would you be unproductive due to the illness?
    • Can you take over-the-counter or prescription medication that will make you feel better?
    • If you do not have sick benefits, can you afford to miss a day’s pay?
    • Are there any consequences that might result from taking a sick day?

    If you have decided to stay home sick, do the following before you call your supervisor:

    • Figure out whether you have any work that someone will have to do for you.
    • Review your employer’s procedure for calling in sick.

    When you speak to your supervisor:

    • Tell your supervisor you’re not feeling well and need to take the day off.
    • Inform your supervisor of any responsibilities that will need to get accomplished by another coworker.

    General guidelines for using sick time

    • Use it only when necessary.
      It can be tempting to use your sick days when you’re feeling slightly run down or work-weary. Resist the temptation to call in sick under these circumstances. You never know when you’ll get an illness that causes you to be out of work for several days. In many organizations, it’s considered unprofessional to use all of the sick days allotted to you.
    • Know how much sick time you have.
      Think twice before you decide to use a sick day. Again, you never know when you may need them.
    • Know the procedure for calling in sick.
      If you will be out of work due to illness, make sure to follow your employer’s sick policy and procedure. There is no excuse for not calling your supervisor when you’re sick. In an emergency, make sure a family member contacts your employer.
    • Some employers prefer you to call in sick, while others don’t.
      Some employers will send you home the minute you show up at work with a cold, while others don’t expect you to ever use sick days that are allotted to you. Most employers’ policies fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Always use good judgment when using sick days.

    Using vacation and personal days

    Your young child brings home a note from school stating that students are putting on a special presentation to which parents are invited. You notice that the presentation is scheduled during your work hours, but you’d really like to attend. Plus, there are several errands you haven’t been able to take care of recently. Should you take a personal or vacation day?

    Sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether you should use a personal or vacation day.

    Before you take a personal or vacation day, consider the following:

    • Do you have any personal or vacation benefits? If so, how much do you have?
    • Why do you need to use a personal or vacation day?
    • Do you have a trip scheduled?
    • Are you simply tired or burned out?
    • Do you have things to do that can’t be accomplished after work or on the weekend?
    • Is it a religious holiday?
    • If you do not have personal or vacation benefits, can you afford to miss a day’s pay?
    • Are there any consequences that might result from taking a personal or vacation day?

    If you decide to take a personal or vacation day:

    • Figure out the best time to take leave so no one will have to do your work for you.
    • Follow your employer’s procedure for scheduling vacation and personal days.
    • If possible, ask your supervisor at least two weeks in advance.
    • Inform the supervisor of any responsibilities that will need to get accomplished by another coworker.

    Taking extended leave


    There are circumstances that may cause you to have to take an extended leave from work. The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was enacted by Congress to help employees balance work and family responsibilities by taking reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons.

    According to the U.S. Department of Labor, FMLA “provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. It also requires that group health benefits be maintained during the leave. It also seeks to accommodate the legitimate interests of employers, and promotes equal employment opportunity for men and women.”

    Valid reasons for taking leave under FMLA include:

    • The birth of a son or daughter to the employee and in order to care for such son or daughter
    • Placement of a son or daughter with the employee for adoption or foster care
    • Family leave in order to care for a spouse, son, daughter, or parent of the employee if such spouse, son, daughter, or parent has a serious health condition.
    • A serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform job duties.
    • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): Provides information on employee eligibility, including valid reasons for leave, employee and employer notification responsibilities, and employee rights and benefits.
    • The Employee’s Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act: A free, downloadable ebook published by the U.S. Department of Labor that provides user-friendly explanations of how the act works and how to request FMLA leave from an employer.
    • Book: The FMLA Handbook: A Union Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act by Robert M. Schwartz


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