I Just Work Here

How to dodge office politics

Some suggestions for avoiding business as usual in a new workplace. Plus: Whose side is HR on?

  • Pin It
 

How do you navigate the office politics in a new workplace? (Getty Images / September 25, 2011)

Let's talk briefly about a term that's sweeping the nation: "class warfare."

Aside from sounding like a potentially awesome video game, class warfare is, according to the Internet, a "conflict between social or economic classes, especially between the capitalist and proletariat classes." I don't really know what all those words mean, but I do know that this term is dumb and not very helpful at the moment.

While millions of Americans are out of work and millions more cling to jobs, our political discourse is:

"You want to raise taxes on the rich, that's class warfare."

"Oh, yeah. Well, you've been waging class warfare on the middle-class for years."

"Nuh-uh."

"Yeah huh."

"Pfffft."

"Double pffft!!"

Stop it. Please.

Whatever your ideology or opinion on the best way to fix the economy, divisive buzzwords are not the way to go. As someone who routinely hears the plight of people worried about work, I assure you the last thing Americans want is heated rhetoric and imagery that suggests torch-wielding peasants are about to invade the Hamptons.

Thank you. On to your questions.

Q: What's the best way for a newbie to avoid office politics and still fit in with the rest of the crowd?

— Dave in Chicago, via Facebook

You may want to sit down, because I'm about to go Greek mythology on this question.

In Homer's tragically long poem "The Odyssey," the heroic Odysseus and his ship-bound roommates must pass "the sirens," bird-women who live on an island and hypnotize sailors with their voices, causing their ships to crash on the rocky shores.

Gossips, cynics and backstabbers are the sirens of the workplace. They're seductive, particularly to newcomers, and they're awfully hard to avoid.

Odysseus made it past the sirens by having his crewmen tie him to the mast and fill their ears with wax. That approach doesn't seem applicable to the workplace, so I consulted some career experts.

Bud Bilanich, a career success coach in Denver who calls himself "The Common-Sense Guy," said office cynics will invariably look to recruit a new person.

"They're seductive, they're often likable and every workplace is full of them," he said. "They're the people that didn't get the promotion or the people who are always quick to complain about things. But if you get in with them, what you find is you start to become cynical as well, and that's not a good tag to have associated with your name."

Anthony Fasano, founder of Powerful Purpose Associates in New Jersey, suggests that new employees capitalize on their newness by "playing dumb" for the first few months. If someone puts a co-worker down, rather than playing along, the newbie can just say, "I don't really know that person that well."

Playing dumb can buy a new employee time to figure out who the players are in a workplace and, hopefully, learn who to avoid and who to follow.

Bilanich said: "If you're new, try to identify who's positive, who are the people who other people seem to respect and admire. Those are the people you want to be around. If you get to be known as someone who doesn't say bad things about people, people come to trust you. It's always the better path."

Another tack is to take charge of the situation in a positive way. If you're new and people are sniping and gossiping, you can make it clear — without being snooty or a jerk — that office politics are a drag and you don't see the sense wasting your time with such matters.

Jessica Simko, founder of the Ohio-based company Career Brand Authority, said: "You can say something like, 'I just came from a company that did a lot of that, so let's find a better way to do this. Let's find a way to make this a culture that doesn't have all this back-stabbing and gossiping.' Fitting in, if that's your mindset, you're not going to get very far. A leader doesn't try to fit in. A leader tries to be respected. You don't just fall in to whatever everybody else is doing."

In other words, channel your inner Odysseus and lead your people past the sirens. (But try not to fill anyone's ears with wax. Human resources might not approve.)

Q: Do you believe HR departments are there for the benefit of the workers or the employers?

— Anonymous, via e-mail

A: I've had to deal with human resources only once in my life (apparently some people didn't like my "no-pants Wednesday" concept), so I had to consult some HR gurus.

Dave Ulrich, professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, told me that human resources professionals have transitioned over the past few decades from being primarily advocates for workers to being integral parts of corporate management teams.

That change can be good and bad for employees — bad in the sense that HR people have to make decisions in strategic ways that will help maintain a company's bottom line, good in that HR people know a happy workforce is a productive workforce and they now have management's ear.

"What makes a company successful is finding a way to work with employees," Ulrich said. "The good human resources people can put a foot in either camp. They can straddle both worlds. When they go into a management committee they say, 'Here's what the employees need so they can deliver in a meaningful way.' And when they talk to the employees they say, 'Here's what management can do in a way that's going to work for the company.'"

Ulrich estimates about 20 percent of U.S. companies have HR departments that work effectively like this, another 20 percent do a lousy job and the remaining 60 percent are still trying to get the system right.

Robert Miller, director of human resources for the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District, said the term used most often now is "strategic human resources."

"We wear many hats now, and it's not just for the employee," Miller said. "It's also for the employer. We sometimes look at employees as what we call human capital. How can we best utilize this capital for the benefit of the organization? It sounds cold on some level, but when you look at it in terms of the viability of the organization, it's about keeping people employed."

Miller and Ulrich agreed that a good human resources department is one that employees feel comfortable coming to with problems.

"We're problem solvers," Miller said. "You walk in my door and have a situation, I want to hear about it and I want to find a solution. It's not that we're distancing ourselves from employees."

I understand what Miller is saying, but I also understand that it can be hard for employees to feel they can trust a department so intertwined with management. In deciding whether to bring a problem to HR or not, speak with others who have done so. At least get a sense whether your HR department is one of the good ones.

To that end, Ulrich said the department's reputation will likely be well known. He compared good human resources to the heating, lighting and electricity systems in a house. When they work well, nobody notices. But when something's broken, chaos ensues.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
  • Pin It