One of the best ways to explain office politics is to take a look at the antics of politicians and professional athletes. Their indiscretions become headline news. Private sector problems are usually confined to the place of business. Unfortunately, the sexual misconduct of public figures is the only aspect of office politics that is ever openly on display. Here are some examples of poor workplace decisions:
In 1992 female staffers accused Senator Bob Packwood of assault, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse. He was forced to resign from Congress under the threat of expulsion.
There was the "Petticoat Affair" in 1831 that involved members of President Andrew Jackson’s cabinet. Allegedly, the husband of Washington D.C. resident Margaret O’Neil committed suicide due to an affair she was having with Secretary of War John Henry Eaton. She and Eaton married shortly after the husband’s demise. This caused quite a stir among some of the cabinet members and their wives. Eaton resigned.
Current Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick had an extramarital affair with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty. He refuses to resign and is under indictment with eight felony counts. The City Council recently voted in favor of impeachment.
In 1976 House Representative Wayne Hays hired Elizabeth Ray to serve as a secretary on his staff. Later it was discovered that her only job was to be his mistress. She admitted to not having any clerical skills. He resigned from Congress.
Current San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom admitted to having an affair with his campaign manager’s wife in 2005. At the time of the tryst she was working in the Mayor’s office as his aide for City Commission appointments.
During Bill Clinton’s Presidency, he had a sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The entire situation led to his impeachment. However, the congressional vote for removal fell short and he retained office.
Sports is not immune to the problem, either. In the early '70s, New York Yankee pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson swapped wives. Eventually, both couples got divorced. Peterson actually married Susanne Kekich. The relationship did not last long for Marilyn Peterson and Susanne’s ex.
While pitching for the New York Yankees in 1969, Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four. The book was a behind the scenes look at team scandals, sex lives, and management backroom dealings. The front office and his teammates were upset. He is still banned from Yankee Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium.
To be fair, some awkward office situations have been successful. Jeannie Buss is the Los Angeles Laker Executive Vice-President of Business Operations and the girlfriend of Laker Head Coach Phil Jackson. She is also the daughter of team owner Jerry Buss.
Office politics can affect success or failure in a job. Master it, and chances for security and advancement are excellent. Businesses are a community of fragile egos, and it takes time to understand co-workers. In a perfect world, people would be judged by their work. Sorry, it does not work that way. The ability to handle the politics and avoid office pitfalls insures continued employment. Poor office politics usually get people fired quicker than poor job performance. Test anyone that approaches and make sure his or her intentions are honorable. The keys are caution, patience, and time.
On a daily basis, co-workers consciously or unconsciously interrogate each other. These casual conversations can become the basis for gossip. Try to keep things close to the vest, and only tell people what you want them to know. Keep personal and business lives separate. Spreading gossip can be intentional or unintentional. The causes can be jealousy, misinterpretation, ignorance, miscommunication, deflection, or misdirection.
- Jealousy: someone just does not like you
- Misinterpretation: something said is taken out of context
- Ignorance: for no particular reason spreads gossip
- Miscommunication: misunderstanding of facts or an assumption without rechecking the original source
- Deflection: attempts to keep the heat off themselves by trying to refocus others on someone else
- Misdirection: purposely shades the facts to throw others off the track of truth
In office politics, gossip grows and takes on a life of its own. It’s similar to the game where people sit in a circle and whisper a story to the person next to them, until it returns to the first person that initiated the game. Many of the facts will differ from the original story. Or how about those fishing trip stories, where the three pound bass that got away is fifteen pounds by the time the story is told back home.
Exposure to office gossip is constant. Never repeat the statements of others, or offer an opinion during one of these informal chitchat sessions. Some people love to use others as pawns to spread rumor and innuendo.
If you ever discover that you are the subject of gossip, act dumb and never address it or change any behaviors towards others. Acting out of the ordinary will only lend credence that the rumors are true.
Let work performance be the sole criterion for judgment. Be a team player, stay focused and friendly. Attend company parties and participate in spontaneous celebrations such as parties. In either case, do not get drunk, and be careful to not say anything that could ever cause a problem. Be on guard, even with those who can be trusted. Overheard off-color party jokes can turn into gossip and an office political nightmare. Do not be paranoid, but use discretion. If accompanied by a spouse or friend to one of these functions, explain what not to say or do. Going to lunch or an occasional happy hour with co-workers is fine. But keep those defenses up. Be a compassionate listener. Fight the urge to offer an opinion on work or a fellow employee. Smile and use a lot of noncommittal phrases like, "No kidding", "I hear you", "Really", "You think so", " I don’t know enough about that", "What do you think is going to happen?” "We’ll see", "Can you believe it?” etc., etc. There are many things that can be done to stay above it all and stay out of the fray. Department meetings are the place for work-related opinions.
After a certain amount of time, a few actual friendships will develop. These bonding experiences will be special and probably last a lifetime. Cherish the reality and do not let it or others jeopardize personal goals. How can a true office friendship be recognized? Hopefully, after avoiding all the pitfalls, a sincere effort will be made by someone.
The percentages for successful office dating are not good. These unions usually end badly. Discretion is important if one is single and contemplating an inter-office relationship with a fellow single employee. It is a tricky situation, and can be the cause for charges of favoritism and discrimination. Do not let personal feelings for the other person conflict with conduct towards others in the work place. Do not become defensive or offensive just because of things said or done in the office toward the love interest in question. If the relationship does not work out, keep the breakup as discreet as the romance. One of the most uncomfortable occurrences is the breakup of office personnel. It can lead to problems. The following is a true story:
Two single people were openly dating each other at work. They broke up and he became disconnected personally and professionally. Many staffers took sides and department meetings were tense. Lots of he said/she said. Fortunately, she left for a position at another company. Unfortunately, he attempted to date her replacement, and in doing so, revealed in private that her predecessor made more money. She immediately wanted a meeting and informed management that he had shared the monetary information, and she tried to renegotiate her agreement. The incident was a mess, and the only good thing that came out of it was the fact that they, too, broke up.
However, there was another inter-office romance between two single people that resulted in a 15-year marriage and two children. So, nothing is impossible.
Romances Outside the Office
Extra-marital affairs outside the office should be kept away from work. Never involve co-workers by bringing a new love interest to a company function. Obviously, there are fellow employees who know the unsuspecting spouse and/or children. There is no reason to expose others to a potential domestic dispute, or put them in the middle of something that could wind up in divorce court. This sort of thing is always poor office politics.
Office romance between married people who are not married to each other is trouble, regular cloak and dagger stuff. There have been many stories of such liaisons ending up in spousal screaming matches in office lobbies. People take their eyes off office productivity, and such meandering causes political complications and loss of jobs.
Ten things that will help you survive office politics:
- Establish a good relationship with your supervisor.
- Finish assignments on time.
- Do not gossip.
- Be a team player.
- Make learning a priority.
- Stay out of cliques.
- Make friends and relationships outside work.
- Do not be a complainer.
- Use the company computer for company business only.
- Do not let the phone distract you from work. Some personal calls are necessary, but do not let the workday resemble that of a telephone operator. Focus your energies on work.
Employees should approach their jobs like office temps. Smile, contribute, and do not make unnecessary waves. Work with others. Learn to compromise, because results are the only things that count. Managers, make decisions. It is either "yes" or "no". A “maybe” should come to a conclusion in a timely fashion.
Non-managers, follow directions and get clarification to complete assignments. Above all, one should always leave one's supervisor in a defensible position. If something goes wrong, immediately let them know. It will allow time to analyze and find a solution. The supervisor can then appear to be proactive and not reactive. When it comes to office politics, treat others the way you would like to be treated.