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Q&A: Office Politics Explained

Advice for dealing with gossip, favoritism and the office saboteur
Robert Half International

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Office politics exist in every workplace. Whether you work at a small design agency or a major financial corporation, internal power struggles invariably arise. But you don't need to be a master manipulator to get ahead; you simply must learn how to navigate murky waters. Following are three common political problems in the workplace and tips for deftly handling each situation.

Q: I would like to avoid the office rumor mill, but people always try roping me into gossipy conversations. How should I handle this?

A: Water cooler chatter can be both helpful and harmful. The trick is recognizing when to listen and when to cut and run.

On the positive side, the office grapevine can help you learn about your organization's political undercurrents and unwritten rules of the road. While you might take news of a possible merger with a grain of salt, it's wise to keep yourself in the information loop. There's nothing wrong with listening as long as you don't fan the rumor's flames or act on unsubstantiated information.

Walk away when the gossip involves non-business-related topics or mean-spirited mudslinging. If Pat from accounts payable wants to dish the dirt about a rival, you don't need to be a coconspirator.

Q: I'm a loyal employee and a hard worker, but my boss plays favorites and always gives the plum assignments to a particular co-worker. What can I do?

A: Just like real politicians, some managers practice partisanship. But don't automatically assume that you're a victim of favoritism. Before crying foul, make sure you communicate to your supervisor your interest in taking on additional responsibility. Your manager might simply be waiting for you to step up and show initiative.

If you've already clearly expressed your aspirations, ask your boss about the specific steps you need to take to land higher profile assignments. Keep the conversation positive by focusing on your desire to grow and improve, not your frustration. Regardless of why you've been overlooked, expressing a "sour grapes" mentality will only work against you.

Q: One of my colleagues seems like she's out to get me. Whenever possible, she does something to make me look bad. How should I respond?

A: Unfortunately, many professionals will encounter a toxic colleague like this one at some point in their careers. If someone's purposely undermining your efforts, you can respond in several ways.

One option is to pull the person aside and ask her about her troubling actions. Be matter-of-fact but non-accusatory. Focus on the facts and don't let your emotions get the best of you. Offering her an opportunity to explain her side of the story might help clear the air. If nothing else, being direct puts her on notice that you won't sit by as she besmirches your good name.

If you feel confronting your co-worker is futile, document her behavior, collecting concrete evidence supporting your claims and making note of how your performance was adversely affected. Then, bring the matter to your manager's attention in an objective, professional manner. Your goal is not to complain or vent but to apprise your manager of the situation, emphasizing how your co-worker's actions are impeding productivity. If maintaining high departmental morale and a comfortable work environment is important to your manager (which it should be), he or she will address the problem.

There is not always one clear solution to dealing with a sensitive, politically charged issue at work. The most appropriate tack to take will depend on your unique situation, as well as the communication styles and personalities of the other players involved. No matter what course of action you choose, you can rise above the fray if you remain professional, respectful and diplomatic.

Robert Half International is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 350 offices throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. For more information about our professional services, please visit

Last Updated: 23/09/2008 - 12:58 PM

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