You start a new job. You’re getting to know your co-workers, sizing them up, learning everyone’s roles and positions at the company. You’re figuring out who you jive with, who you may butt heads with, who the office clown is… But then it happens: A co-worker makes a comment to you, outside the presence of other employees, about one of your co-workers.
“Joe is such a slacker sometimes.”
“All Sarah does is talk about her wedding!”
“What do you think about the CEO?”
They’re waiting to see how you respond. Do you know how to handle yourself in this type of situation? You should probably have a plan, because chances are, it’s something you’ll encounter at some point—or, more likely, often—during your career. According to a recent study, 80% of people surveyed said they experience office politics, and gossip is the most common form.
And the real kicker? Most respondents said that participating in office politics is necessary to advance your career.
Quite the double-edged sword!
You want your colleagues to like you, so you don’t want to leave them hanging when they initiate the gossip, but you also don’t want to get involved in the drama that will likely ensue if you disparage a fellow employee. And gossip isn’t the only form of office politics to worry about—there’s the colleague who takes credit for everyone else’s work, the one who sabotages everyone else to get ahead, and the fake who uses incessant flattery to manipulate their colleagues.
This is a lot to deal with, but there’s no need to fret.
There are ways to get involved with office politics in a way that won’t tarnish your professional reputation and can even benefit your career.
First off, make sure to always keep your radar on so that you detect the presence of negative office politics that may affect you early on and handle the situation before it’s too late. Is there a colleague who always disagrees with you or openly demeans you? Are you being left off of important correspondence or out of meetings? Watch out for the red flags—awareness is everything.
Also, make sure to vocalize your ideas and your progress on projects to your team regularly, including your supervisor. This will limit a co-worker’s ability to take credit for your hard work, without having to directly confront the individual who may be trying to do so. This level of transparency with your work will also help you build a reputation as a dedicated and honest employee. It’s not about being so chatty and over the top about your ideas as much as it’s just about some simple communication.
When dealing with an office gossip, always exercise tact. Even if you do think Joe is a lazy slob, that Sarah needs to shut up about her wedding, and the CEO is a jerk, you never want to just blurt that out. Try changing the topic to something business-related. If your co-worker persists with the gossip, try to stay as diplomatic as possible, or attempt to politely end the conversation. One best practice here is to think about how you’re going to handle it in advance—what will you say?
My recommendation? Saying “I’m so sorry you feel that way.” And then silence. When you respond empathetically, but without engaging, you’ve officially made yourself boring to gossip to. And that is ideal.
If you’re dealing with more obvious, aggressive office politics, like an individual who is sabotaging you for their own benefit, you might need to take a more direct approach. Document your exchanges with this individual, and speak to them first (always). Prepare to approach the person in a non-personal, curious manner, saying something like: “Hey, can we talk for a moment? I noticed you did X, and I just wanted to see where you were coming from. For me, it appeared almost as if you were Y, but I know that’s not your character. Is this just a misinterpretation on my end?” By giving the person the benefit of the doubt, and bringing it to their attention, you’ve stood your ground without attacking their character. Avoid personal attacks at all costs, and if the circumstances continue to escalate, reaching out to a manager or member of HR might be necessary.
On the flip side, make sure to proactively participate in positive office politics. Ask a superior to counsel or mentor you so that you have a trusted ally if an issue arises. Do something nice for your co-workers, like volunteer to stay late or offer to work on an occasional weekend day where you know they could use the extra help. Take on a task you don’t necessarily have to so that your colleagues know you’re a team player.
Getting sucked into the negative office politics is a slippery slope that can have a major impact on your career, both short and long term. And remember: disengaging from all office politics is not the answer. As Buddha says: “Rule your mind, or it will rule you.” Those who excel in the workforce understand that they must effectively participate in the good, the bad and the ugly… And that means learning how to master office politics—when to empathize and remain neutral, when to stand up for yourself, and when to leverage the joys of positive politics.
You’ve got this.
This first appeared in Forbes.