No-One Wants to Hear About Your Sponsored Trip to Nepal – Pointless All-Staffer Emails and Office Politics
They say that your friends are the family you choose. By the same token, this makes your colleagues the friends you can’t choose, ergo making them your family and rendering the whole saying pointless. However, your relationship with your colleagues isn’t too far away from being part of a massive, dysfunctional family, and is an often-forgotten challenge for the recently-employed. You make new friends at university based around the general understanding that you will get trolleyed with them for three years or so, but the people you work with are your direct competition for your career development, will largely be sober in your presence and will not go home for two-month holidays three times a year. Office politics can be an absolute minefield, so from my personal experience in working in both a small and a large office, here are some thoughts and recommendations.
To get ahead in the world of work, obviously the first priority should be the standard of work you achieve – do everything well, and it’ll be noticed. If someone is doing equally as well as you, however, office life does boil down to a popularity contest. This makes a lopsided sort of sense, as charismatic and likeable people are likely to do better in client-meetings, schmoozing with the top-level execs etc. So, whether you like it or not, you are going to have to make friends with people. Thankfully, most offices these days have lots of people in their twenties to early thirties to discuss Game of Thrones and/or football with, as well as a not-quite-grown-up-yet attitude to drinking. In my first job, I actually ended up putting on a lot of alcohol-weight as my sales-driven colleagues drank at least 4 pints every Wednesday-Friday. Seeing as I had done an abysmal job at recruiting people into new roles thus far I thought getting cosy with the other agents would earn me their respect. It didn’t, but I had a great time getting plastered with them, so I’ll still chalk it up as a professional win.
It also allowed me to get more of a feel for the office as a whole, as did my social life in my second company. Conversations when socialising tend to be around three things – life outside of work, personal gossip and professional gossip. Personal gossip (i.e. shagging) obviously spreads like wildfire as, realistically, no-one actually wants to get up at 8.30am and make Excel spreadsheets so when people drunkenly hook up it becomes the talk of the town. Personally, I never played the dating game while working as I had heard some “don’t sh*t where you eat” horror stories about people having to leave their jobs while I was working in recruitment, but that didn’t stop some of the members of my office from doing the horizontal monster mash to varying degrees of awkwardness (and, admittedly, some occasional long-term successes). All I’d say is, “Be Careful.” One of my friends had her manager hit on her and it put her in an extremely awkward situation and under a lot of stress – there are plenty of places other than the office to find some hip friction with an unsuspecting beau, but if you are just that keen on Bertha from facilities or Bert from accounting, then go for it… but tread lightly. The last thing you want is a meeting with HR explaining why you’re being called a scumbag, especially in a smaller company.
Professional gossip, by contrast, is far more deadly in a subtle way. The life of a graduate employee is reasonably simple – be likeable, work hard, do your graft and never put milk in first. You’re not expected to know all there is to know about the wider strategy of the company and you’re certainly not expected to comment on it, nor does anyone want you to. Going for drinks with colleagues who are a couple of levels above you is when you first start hearing the whispers of failed pitches, unhappy clients and potential headcount reduction. It’s so easy, hearing this kind of information, to feel like this is something you’re supposed to know from the off and that will affect the way that you work, but actually to get up to a middle management position all you need is a basic understanding of company strategy, not an in-depth analysis of growth for the last decade. If anything, these types of conversations will often be had by those standing around you outside a pub without actually including you – from my experience, anyone with around 4-5 years’ experience will use information like this as a professional brag. “Well I was actually at the Duke’s Head the other day with the Director of the fashion team and they said that their quarterly profit/loss margin is actually the worst it’s been in years – the Director said that he, like, desperately needed someone of my quality on his team though so that’s something to consider.” Piss off. You’re only as important as the amount of money you make the company, as that is what you’re there for – importance is earned, not learned. Don’t participate in bravado – as a graduate, getting involved in this kind of conversation with the wrong person listening will only serve to make them suspicious of you. Smile, nod and laugh – you’ll know about wider company issues when you need to.
The whole real point of this, and I think a very prescient point in business and life in general, boils down to one statement: “Don’t be a dick.” No-one cares about how good you think you are and in fact might resent you if you brag about it – you’re only valued by your ability and likeability. Don’t steal people’s lunches either, unless you are actually the spawn of Lucifer himself. By the same token, if someone does steal your lunch, don’t make passive-aggressive notes, just label your food and if it’s stolen again, suck it up and just give in to the urges and get the Chicken and Bacon sandwich on artisan bread from Pret (and if you’ve never tried it, go and buy it immediately). Or, if you have a serial food-stealer, spit in your kale pot (or whatever rubbish it is you bring in) and know that someone’s eating your spit. Don’t send an all-staffer asking for money for something that isn’t properly worthwhile either (I saw a few for funding sabbaticals) – with all the goodwill in the world, they’re sent straight to the trash folder unless you’re known to those you send it to. Finally, if you’ve lost your Sports Direct mug, whoever stole it will not give it back – nowhere makes mugs that satisfying in their size and if you have one, guard it with your life.
I left my recruitment job partially because I was crap at it, but largely because I thought the MD was a preening, self-righteous, pompous knob head. It doesn’t matter how high up the ladder you are or how high a regard you hold yourself in – don’t be a dick.