The modern office is a perplexing playground, its culture an intricate web of social ties, etiquette and shaky morals. Over the years, I have worked in small offices where gossip traveled fast and colleagues shared close quarters and even closer relationships. Luckily, following a few simple rules has helped me create boundaries and avoid unnecessary work drama whatever my position in the office.
Look out for yourself
It's tempting to consult with colleagues on work problems. They've seen your boss make financially irresponsible decisions, like catering an intern's birthday dinner when payroll hasn't cleared for weeks. But criticizing your boss openly will only hurt you. I once worked at a struggling food delivery start-up. There were no definitive job titles or clear expectations of our roles. We were underpaid, overworked and constantly criticized by the company's CEO, often in front of the entire office. We all complained about our boss's flagrant deficiencies, and one day, I decided I had had enough. With my co-worker's encouragement, I sent an all office email condemning his incompetence and demanding change. After I hit send, my employees gasped, then whooped, then collectively applauded me. However, when the CEO, infuriated, demanded I see him in his office, no one supported my heroic efforts. I was a lone Spartacus and not surprisingly, was consequently and immediately fired. I see now it was not fair to rely on my co-workers to defend my actions, nor should they have, given the situation. Make sure you can stand behind your own decisions and do not expect a colleague to put their job on the line for you.
Resist offering advice on personal problems
Sure, it's great to feel like your boss respects you enough to seek counsel on her dating dilemmas, but you never know how she will react to your suggestion that she break up with a cheating boyfriend or try Prozac to battle her anxiety. Once you put your boss on the defensive with an "off the record" comment, you've jeopardized your working relationship. I once let it slip that I found it tacky when women sent pictures of desired engagement rings to their boyfriends only to have my supervisor coldly reply that she kept a wedding dream book, diamond cuts and all, in a shared cloud account with her significant other. Woops. Nor do you want to be the office go-to for relationship advice. That's what friends, (and the internet) are for. If a conversation becomes too intimate, change the subject, or commiserate on a work-related problem.
Don't succumb to the blame game
Co-workers that gossip or berate colleagues create a toxic environment for everyone. While it might be tempting to agree with your boss's remark on a co-worker's inability to multi-task or the new administrator's inappropriate attire, resist the urge to throw a punch. Even if you covet that job or feel that a colleague is inadequate at his job, telling your boss so makes you appear petty and untrustworthy. If your comments ever get back to the co-worker, you've created an enemy in an office where the musical chairs blame game will inevitably land on you. Instead, divert your boss's attention to ways to improve the situation. Tell him you will work with said employee on splitting projects and that you will speak to the admin about dress code. While your boss may have initially been looking for an ally, he will be impressed at your ability to search for solutions and remember your team player attitude when it's time for your review or that next promotion.
Mark your territory
Distinguish between social spaces and serious workplaces. While you may not have napping pods or a foosball room like those highfalutin Google employees, you can carve out a corner of the office for breaks, chitchat and sharing weekend Instagram photos. Don't hold happy hours at the office, and make sure you let loose and celebrate special events in appropriate venues, not in your conference room. If you do go out with supervisees, treat your colleagues to the first round of drinks, but politely slip out once the second round is ordered. My first week at a new job, I invited a supervisee out for beers. Our friendly chat evolved into an evening of her downing shots at the bar and sidling up to every eligible bachelor in the room while I tried desperately to close our tab. That one early outing was all it took to tarnish our professional relationship. She greeted me with a "hey girl" whenever we saw each other and proceeded to describe her match.com dates in lascivious detail during project meetings. I had become her friend before I had the chance to become her supervisor, and inadvertently established an intimate alliance before defining those crucial office boundaries.
A few months into my new job, I excused myself from after work happy hours and concentrated on enforcing new policies in the office. While I incurred some eye rolling when I corrected employees' spelling and missed the camaraderie and gossip of the workplace, I could now perform the job I was hired to do without worrying I was hurting someone's feelings. When my supervisees performed well, showed up on time and took ownership of their projects, my boss saw that I was competently managing the office. While I still occasionally feel the urge to join in on scathing criticism of an incapable co-worker, I resist, and with the help of mindful breathing tactics or sometimes, a lorazepam, I take the high road and maintain those work boundaries we must all try so hard to preserve.
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