Office politics are unavoidable. Where there are people, there will be conflict. Optimistic, inexperienced young people entering the workforce can be vulnerable to workplace tensions. Many working students simply want to prove themselves and work hard. That may not be enough to succeed at work. If students do not heed their workplace’s political landscape, they can unintentionally offend co-workers in their endeavor to impress their superiors, risking conflict and possibly their reference and/or paycheque.
Temporary summer employment presents a special case of office politics. Perhaps vying for employment the next summer, or after graduation, or in trying to show their work ethic to improve their reference, summer interns can irritate permanent staff by working at a different standard than expected.
I’ve heard several stories from friends and family about how, during summer employment, they were told by permanent staff members to work slower, or less efficiently, so as not to raise standards.
I recently learned my lesson in office politics during a summer job. I found a summer job with a real estate management agency as an office assistant. I signed a contract stipulating I would work downtown at their newly acquired property from May until August. The real estate company recently bought an old apartment building, and I was to help the existing resident manager revamp the building’s office.
An introductory meeting at the company’s head office provided welcoming words and a briefing about duties, when fellow summer student workers and I eagerly showed up for our first day. Head office was in an impressive marble and glass building. The meeting was held in a sunny corner conference room with friendly vice presidents to greet us, and several fruit plates. We (the summer students) were given individual portfolios containing information about the company, and contact information for the resident building managers we would be working with. According to my portfolio, my resident manager’s name was Valerie. The next week, on my first day of work, I arrived at Valerie’s building and buzzed her apartment from the directory. I wore a blazer, collared shirt, and dress pants. A grumpy woman, around fifty years old, emerged from a ground-floor apartment wearing cutoff sweats, a holey t-shirt, and a look of confusion. She opened the door halfway.
“Who are you?”
“Hi, I’m Helen. Are you Valerie, the building manager?”
“I was sent by Realty Management Inc.” She stared, unresponsive. “I’m working here for the summer.” Further confusion. “I’m a summer student, they hired me to help with the office until August.” Still no response. “Is that the building’s office?” I pointed to a closed, unmarked door off the lobby.
Valerie turned, seeming to see the office door for the first time. “Er – yes.” She let me in the front door and led me to the office, withdrawing a bulging, rusty set of keys. While she jangled the ring looking for the right key, I pondered the power of a fruit plate, and how official it could make a meeting seem.
Despite the legitimate impression last week’s meeting gave, the certainty of the HQ administrators, and the neatly organized folders, Valerie had no idea I was arriving, or even that I was assigned to work in her building for four months.
The office door swung open, revealing a dark, dank room with dust coating every surface. Ah. The disused, cluttered office accounted for the miscommunication. It seemed that Valerie hadn’t been using the office, and instead had been conducting business out of her ground floor apartment. The phone, desk, and computer lay dusty and unused.
“So, you will work here all summer?” Valerie asked, lowering herself into the desk chair, stirring up dust.
“Yes, until August. I’m here for anything you need in the office. Filing, organizing, helping with the computer.” I sat down opposite the desk in a metal chair similar to those kept in church basements. She simply stared at me from across the desk, creating an silence far too awkward for such a small, dark room. I smiled, trying to ease the tension. “So, anything I can help with, just let me know.”
She continued staring, unmoved. “I don’t need any help.”
I don’t remember how I responded, but I know I could not conceal my overt shock at her blunt insensitivity. Within five minutes on my first day, I was plunged into workplace politics – the real estate company wanted me to help modify Valerie’s office, but Valerie didn’t want to change her managerial style (or lack thereof), and she certainly did not want a new style taught to her by a random student. Valerie likely thought that with the new company buying her building, I could have been sent to work with, learn from, and eventually replace her.
It seemed I had signed away my summer to work with someone who didn’t want my assistance and who disliked me on principle, even if my intention was only to work hard and do a good job. The former building owner had allowed a “hands-off” managerial style, while the new company wanted an involved, hands-on manager. Judging by the dusty state of the apartment building’s office, Valerie was dedicated to the former “hands-off” managerial style. Many times, when I pried too far into office logistics, or tried to improve efficiency, she would shut me down. Due to our disparate motivations, throughout the summer, the awkwardness between us never fully dissipated, and there were several incidents where she purposefully prevented me from doing my job, likely to retain her own job security. However, I never pushed back hard enough to spark conflict when she isolated me from administrative business. As a senior employee, she was more trusted and valuable.
If a conflict arose between us, as a temporary employee I was more disposable.
Fortunately, with some extreme patience and unrelenting cheerfulness, Valerie eventually warmed up to me. We parted with a hug.
During summer employment, students have to adapt to workplace politics quickly in order to succeed – to do a good job and exit with their deserved compensation without stepping on too many toes during their brief time working. As passers-through, their obligation is not to point out the faults of their co-workers, even if they are less than friendly. The goal of a summer student employee should be to depart with experience, a solid, good quality reference, or even just a full paycheque for their work. Thanks to Valerie’s rudeness, I learned my lesson: professional enthusiasm is best applied in combination with political awareness – check office politics to secure your paycheque.