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Avoiding Office Politics Pitfalls

By David Pekema

Office politics can be a fickle mistress. One ill-timed Priest-Rabbi-Baptist Minister joke can erase months of good behavior, hard work, and brown-nosing. Having fun at the office can be fine as long as you maintain a level of professionalism. There’s a fine line

, and I’m having a more difficult time than most keeping on the right side of it.

By in large, my first year in the labor pool went by without major incident. Unfortunately, I occasionally let my superhuman wit get the better of me. Apparently, it’s inappropriate to place dirty socks on a coworker’s keyboard. And sending out a company-wide e-mail rejoicing in the termination of “Bad Breath Bobby from terminal 3” is generally frowned upon. Go figure. These “lapses in judgment” prompted me to make the following New Year’s resolution – “do a better job of thinking before I speak, or act, at work.” I’m proud to report that I’ve yet to have a relapse.

The important thing is to know what it takes to succeed in the meat grinder that is office politics; it’s just a matter of following these ten simple rules.

1. Maintain a good attitude.

We all have our problems—crazy roommates, car leaking oil, chronic constipation—but that doesn’t mean you need to burden your coworkers with them. If your colleagues think your outside life is a mess, why would they expect you to have your working life together? Use these Other Ways to Manage Your Stress rather than blabbing to the office congregation. Try to keep a healthy sense of humor, but don’t let it ever go too far. Funny, engaging workers get ahead while the office clown gets left behind.

2. Never say negative things about those in charge.

It’s no secret—we’re all smarter than our bosses are, or at least we think we are (Note 1). While this may be true, it’s never a good idea to say so. Unfortunately, even conversations you believe to be confidential often turn into fodder for your more conniving colleagues. The same rule applies to e-mail, memos, blogs, and podcasts.

Additional subjects to avoid: binge drinking, sexual conquests, the carbuncle on Jones’ neck, binge-drinking-induced vomiting, Smith’s incompetence, getting hung over from binge drinking, binge drinking to get over said hangover, etc.

Not sure how to address your superiors without looking like an insubordinate little upstart? Click here to learn how to talk to your boss.

3. Still the new guy? Suck it up.

The first few months at any new job are the toughest. Granted, you’re not getting your ass glued to your frat brother's like you did during spring rush, but you still have to survive a trial-by-fire initiation period. You will receive the worst assignments, work the longest hours, and answer to the most obnoxious supervisors.

There are two strategies you can take during this time—the “future barista approach” and the “future vice president approach.” The former involves talking back, griping, and dragging your feet; the latter is based on hard work, dedication, and sucking it up. As soon as you’ve proven what you’re made of, the workload will taper, and your standing in the office will improve.

Here are twenty great tips for your first days at a new job.

4. Take the high ground.

It’s never a good idea to get into a spitting match with that viper of a coworker. It doesn’t matter what they did, or what they said about your mama. It’s always the second person to throw a punch that gets caught. By calmly diffusing the situation, you’ll come off as the more mature (read: better suited for upper management) worker. Fortunately, if that doesn’t work, there’s always the George Costanza strategy—“Well, I had sex with your wife.”

Click here for more tips on Cooling Office Tensions.

5. Maintain your place in the food chain.

When the head honcho is barking orders, you need to listen closely. When Clyde “I’ve-got-two-weeks-more-experience-than-you” Johnson is trying to flex his power muscles, tune him out. Bowing down to somebody with an inferiority complex makes you look weak, and it gives them an inflated sense of importance—a perception that can quickly become reality.

It’s important to know when to push back if people are trying to get you to do their work for them. In the beginning, it’s probably best to do anything that anybody asks, but as the year goes by, try to figure out who values your time and who’s just being lazy.

6. Make your presence felt.

Just because you’re allotted ten PTO days your first year does not mean you need to use all of them. Your boss is paying you to work like a dog, not to get arrested in a Vegas nightclub. And don’t think the competition with your business-major peers ended at graduation. Nothing would please your rivals more than to have you disappear for a week—ample time for the chief to forget your name—so they can leapfrog you on the office ladder.

This applies to overtime as well. Sacrificing one Saturday to put in some extra time might help your boss forget the months of shoddy effort, lame excuses, and general jackassery. Stepping up on that tough project greatly increases the likelihood that a superior will ask for your help when the next big one comes up. Along the same lines, only weasel out of work with a very good, and legitimate, excuse.

7. Take responsibility.

Your boss doesn’t want to hear excuses; he wants to hear how to fix the problem. Pissants are a dime a dozen. Take-charge leaders, who stand up to adversity, are extremely rare, and handsomely compensated.

Even when assigned something outside your usual purview, you should roll with it…in the beginning. After a year or so, once your role with the company is better defined, it is all right to start picking and choosing your projects. Sometimes your preference won’t matter, but showing focus and being opinionated is a sign of strength and intelligence.

8. Buddy up with human resources, IT, and the secretary.

Want that expense check extra fast? How about a spiffy flat panel monitor? Don’t ask the boss—go to the source. It’s the sweet ladies in HR and the guys in jeans fixing computers who can give you the invaluable hook-ups that make work life that much easier. And simply complimenting the receptionist’s new haircut simplifies your life tenfold. She can make or break whether you get the job in the first place.

By no means do you need to become their best friends; just be pleasant and polite so you won't become the victim of some sort of quiet insurgency planned out in the mail room. Beware though, no one is likely to be a bigger gossip than the receptionist, so while buttering her up be careful not to say anything that could haunt you later.

9. Beware the office Christmas party.

The office Christmas party is the perfect storm for office politics mishaps. There’s free liquor, dancing, microphones, and the office sluts (of both genders) looking super-freaking-hot. Despite the relaxed feel of the evening, everyone is keeping a close eye on one another, and a single indiscretion can garner a lasting reputation.

Before last year’s office Christmas party, it wouldn’t have surprised any of my coworkers if I ended the evening with the moniker “Stomach Pump Pekema.” Fortunately, I went into the night with a clear head, and impressed everyone with my maturity.For more tips, check out our survival guide on Attending Work Events.

More valuable Christmas Party Tips.

10. Make allies; find a mentor.

It doesn’t take much to build good will with your coworkers. Ask them how their days are going. Bring in bagels once a month. Give them a hand finishing a big project. Large or small, boss or receptionist, simple acts of kindness make the office political game that much easier. It’s also a good idea to find one or two people to allow into the inner circle. Having someone who will get your back when the road gets rough or just to vent to is an abject necessity in the working world. But don’t just trust anybody, make sure the people you associate with are the go-getters, not the slackasses, and absolutely make sure that you know as much about them as they do about you.

For the ambitious, it’s imperative to have a mentor or mentors in the upper echelon. Periodically ask respected high-ups for advice on a project or your path. They’re more likely to notice you come promotion time and potentially come to your defense if a power struggle emerges. Just remember: nobody likes a spy, so make sure everything you do looks above-board.



Last summer we had an office party and there was alcohol and I made the mistake of wearing really high heels that I kept tripping over and appearing drunk. Beware the uncomfortable shoes. I really had only had one glass of wine!

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