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Ethics of Office Politics

Updated on January 7, 2015

There are times when one’s supervisor will state that certain things must be done to satisfy the supervisor’s powers that be – like staying within a budget, or not sharing information with another department. These ‘edicts’ help one’s supervisor navigate his/her own politics. If you will forgive the word play, it is politic to take these orders seriously. In these situations, it is not a question of ethics, it’s a question of survival – you will not have a job long if you develop a reputation for not following orders.

However, what happens if your supervisor is doing something unethical – and/or asking you to do the same? This is a true moral dilemma, and unfortunately one which occurs all too often. Most people will comply out of fear of losing their jobs. Only a person with a strong moral spine will dare fight the situation. That person could go over his/her supervisor’s head and report the person. This, to be frank, is corporate suicide. And it’s usually unnecessary – you would be surprised at how much the Powers That Be know what is going on.

A different approach might be to explain to the supervisor that you find it difficult to do this because you feel it is a wrong move. Some managers will relent and find another way to handle the situation. Others will insist it’s alright to do the act since they sanction it. Survival says do it; if you don’t you will likely lose your job and not get a recommendation. Sometimes they will even offer a good recommendation to keep you silent. No matter what you decide to do, document the conversation and date it as soon as you have the opportunity. And keep that documentation at home, not in your office. Anything in the office is open to others looking for it – the documentation is not even safe in a locked drawer. This is not to be done as ‘ammunition’ or ‘insurance’; its purpose is simply for your own defense in case the situation escalates. This is also a good practice if there is a lot of dicey things occurring around you. When there is an internal review of office problems, this is acceptable evidence.

If you leave your position – by choice or not – do not discuss why with anyone, especially prospective employers. Come up with a better reason for leaving, such as wanting room for professional development.

But office politics goes way beyond these supervisor-related situations, into situations between co-workers, and this creates a seriously toxic environment . The sole purpose of this type of office politics is to undermine others in an effort to aggrandize oneself.

Employees gossip among themselves, painting their co-workers as rude, mean, dirty, unfaithful, untrustworthy – just about any kind of insult that can be applied to a person’s character. This is to engender the feeling that the gossiper is the only one the listener can trust.

Employees run to the manager complaining about co-workers, like little children whining that baby sister hit them. This is an effort to demean the co-worker, obviously, and is usually considered bothersome to managers.

Some employees steal another’s work or ideas and present it as their own. This is done by people who don’t believe they have any worth of their own.

However you look at it, office politics put work on an emotional and personal level. An individual is trying to manipulate others in an effort to make the individual look better. This is an individual who doesn’t think hard work is the avenue to promotion or job security. This person is threatened by anyone who appears to be better at doing the job or by anyone who appears to have ambitions for the person’s job. This is an individual who expends more energy trying to ‘beat the system’ than doing the work assigned.

Sadly, it’s easy to get caught up in office politics without realizing it, just from chatting with a co-worker and tending to trust the person as a mentor, which is often the image s/he projects. And once embroiled in it, it is usually impossible to disentangle yourself and come out unscathed. Even if you are someone who just wants to do your job, you will get scars.

This is why office politics are wholly unethical – they do not increase productivity; they stifle honest workers; they are an effort to cheat one’s way through business. The fact that the majority of workers in America feel justified in acting like this is reprehensible. But it’s not surprising, when you consider that corporate heads and politicians around the world set the example.

© 2015 Bonnie-Jean Rohner

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