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Part I: Nice to a fault

Dear Office-Politics,

I work at a small liberal company where nepotism runs rampant. Of the less than 75 employees, I can probably name about 25 people who are related to someone within the company, either directly or indirectly. That has never been a problem for me, as it never directly affected me… it was more or less an annoyance, if anything, due to the utter fact that the positions given were never properly and fairly earned.

Though I’m a self-described introvert, I am very nice and friendly, at times, it even pains me being the initiator. But I live by the golden rule of “treat others as you’d like to be treated.” I’ve always gotten along with every one, but never belonged to a clique. I don’t like attention drawn to myself, but I do socialize, participate and attempt to get to know my coworkers, so that it’s not entirely impersonal. I used to feel like I should at least make friends at my work, as I am here 9 hours of my waking day. As so, I did, or I thought I did, with several others.

Recently a VIP’s sibling (Veronica) has been hired on. I always try to make “newbies” feel welcome – as I hate anyone feeling singled out or left out. Veronica is hard to get to know. (Hindsight, I never thought much but now I see her as cynical, spoiled, and arrogant.) I tried to get to know Veronica and even attempted to also invite Veronica and several other coworkers to social events I either knew of, or was hosting. Initially all was fine and dandy, and I felt we were all getting to know each other and were friendly, to the point, that I felt good about my “friends from work.”

Lately, however, I noticed that Veronica started becoming better friends with one of the gals (June). That’s when it started. I’ve always known there to be “exempt treatment” for relatives. Veronica would come and go as she pleased (though there are official hours of operation), taking naps on company time, calling the President or VP by silly pet-names, charging expenses to the company, etc. I overlooked this, as there was not much I could do, seeing it for what it is. I was still nice and cordial regardless of all this.

However, since the worshiping of June began, I find myself being on the ridiculing end of all the high-school drama (we’re in our 20s-30s). Mean words are now directed towards me, insensitive comments thrown my way, snide remarks, etc., all from Veronica. It started out small. Veronica would audibly, verbally invite June and others to a party or to go out on the weekends, but not directly invite me, even though I was sitting right there with everyone in the same room. Lunch plans would be made, and somehow I was conveniently left out. Coffee runs would be made, and somehow no one seemed to remember my morning ritual of coffee. This would happen quite frequently, to the point that it started to take it’s toll on me. My feelings are hurt because I wonder how, I, the person that went out of my way to try to make her feel welcome and included, would be treated this way. I’ve never been anything but nice and friendly. One time, Veronica flat out disrespected me in front of a coworker, and the other gal did nothing. She simply turned her back and went in the other direction.

The girls in this group, now a clique, have suddenly now excluded me in all their social events. I have not figured out why this is so, and maybe I will never know.If and when I wear something cute to the office, Veronica would say in a catty tone that I looked nice, but if someone else wore something cute, she’d make a huge racket of it all. Don’t get me wrong…I do not dress to impress other women…I dress to feel good for myself. I don’t need approval from others how I dress, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be called derogatory names either, therefore my wardrobe is in good taste. Veronica, however, always wears shockingly non-corporate attire: mid-thigh skirts, tube tops, halter tops, cleavage-bearing attire, etc.

This behavior has escalated to negative statements about me and my “non-existing” self-esteem, my “smelly and disgusting” lunch (I’m vegetarian), my “nasty” food, my “exercising” too much, etc. I thought that maybe because I do not smoke and have high morals and ethics, that I’m now seen as too much of a goody-two-shoes.

My question is, how do I go about this? I shamefully admit that I’ve cried over this torment as it hurts my feelings so much and that it has made me feel less of a human being. As I stated, I’ve never been anything but friendly and nice to all these people in the social group.

I’ve taken it upon myself to consciously steer clear of them. But I cannot help but feel phony and disrespecting myself when I am nice to these people. I dread Mondays as I have to be near them all and being on the sudden outcast. I dread Friday as, again, I’m on the receiving end of not being invited to the events. It has eaten away at me and I find myself stressing over this….. as I see it, it is just a workplace. I am here to work and to do a good job at my work, and I do. But it also is 9 hours of my waking life each weekday, and it makes it hard. Finally, no, I cannot bring up this behavior, for risk of being unfairly relieved of my much-coveted position.

Thanks for any advice,

Nice to Everyone

OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY TIMOTHY JOHNSON
timothy johnson

Dear Nice to Everyone

You are in a difficult situation on many fronts. As with many of the letters I’ve answered for office politics thus far, there are multiple issues at play.

First, you admitted right off that the company culture is nepotistic. This is something that most likely will never change unless someone buys out the company and replaces all of the members of the “family and friends” plan with competent and professional employees. Hence, the first decision you’re going to have to face is whether you will learn to work within this type of environment or start a rebellion against it. Hint: I don’t recommend starting a rebellion of this sort unless your name is Don Quixote; organizational cultures are generally very difficult to change. Your “pained introvert” may need to learn some effective self-marketing skills to thrive in this nepotistic environment.

Second, it’s probably important that we deal with your need to be “nice.” Based on your description of being an introvert and the level of effort you put forth, you may be trying to be too nice, and that’s what allows people like Veronica and June to take advantage of you. Many professionals, including yourself, fall into the trap of thinking that “nice” is a dichotomy (either you’re nice or you’re not) rather than a continuum.

It is possible to be courteous, cordial, and professional without feeling the need to buddy up and include people in social events. Living in the Midwest, I’ve been raised to be “nice” – it is a core value here. A friend of mine is a former pastor and the reason he gave up the ministry was that he described it as “being a mild-mannered person standing up in front of a bunch of mild-mannered people teaching them to be more mild-mannered.” He added that everywhere Jesus went, a riot generally broke out, and it was that realization that “nice” and “effective” are sometimes mutually exclusive that prompted him to change professions.

In our effort to be “nice to a fault” we often will bury the truthful comments that need to be said and difficult things that need to be done so we don’t hurt other people’s feelings, but these buried feelings resurface in less pleasant behaviors such as sarcasm and passive aggression. Again, I must emphasize that “nice” is a continuum… a sliding scale, if you will. Just because you’ve no longer taken the job as office cruise director does not mean you have to walk around with a scowl on your face and snap people’s heads off at the slightest provocation. June and Veronica know that being nice is a core part of your values and they are using it against you because you are letting them. You are, in essence, giving them permission and power to treat you poorly because they know it gets to you.

Finally, you asked how to deal with this and cope with it. In my book, GUST – The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics, I share with my readers the importance of assessing the outcome of your office political battle when taking action. This will be a key question to ask yourself, because the answer will affect your strategy. Do you merely want to survive the culture and the abuse, or do you want it to stop?

You had mentioned that you cannot bring up this behavior for fear of being relieved of your “much coveted position” (although who would covet such verbal and emotional abuse is beyond me). If this is the case, then you may want to pursue the survival route. You’ll have to learn a couple of skills.

The first is detachment. It is, after all, just a job. Veronica and June are merely speed bumps on the career path. Learning how to keep the comments and the exclusions from being personal and being internalized will be important.

The second is deflection. When they make comments about your diet, have a couple of quick one-liners ready such as “Well, I tried the Vending Machine Diet and that didn’t work” or “Sorry, I missed the memo that the four new food groups were grease, fat, sodium, and cholesterol.

I’ll leave the outfit/wardrobe comments to you. Being male, I’m not stupid enough to tread on that thin ice. Remember to keep your comments from being an attack on them; rather, just let them know that their mean-spiritedness is going to bounce off of you rather than sink into you. I promise that they will lose steam if they think they are no longer affecting you. However, as has been pointed out to me many times by my female colleagues, women cliques can be dangerous. It’s going to be up to you to determine what you can get away with and what you cannot. And if you succeed in deflecting their nastiness in these areas, they may find other ways to attack and sabotage. You may find yourself continually on your guard against them.

If you are going to attempt to make them stop dead in their tracks, begin documenting every comment and every slight that they make. Note the specific people, what is said, what is done, the time and date, and the circumstances surrounding it. After a month of tracking this, contact somebody who is an expert in HR law. Some of the comments you’ve described border on unethical and possibly illegal. Any HR professional knows that if you have documented proof of what is going on and you have shared it with them, then the liability shifts to them. You might even consider taking in a voice recorder when you share the information with them and follow up the meeting with an email detailing the information you shared as well as any action items or decisions made. Be sure that you let the HR manager know that you have contacted outside assistance prior to this meeting. Yes, this puts your “much coveted” position at risk. However, if you are relieved of your duties after this whistle blowing, contact a reputable employment attorney immediately. Again, the key here is documentation.

I hope this helps. Thank you for writing to Office-Politics.

Best of luck,

Timothy Johnson, Author

Timothy Johnson is the author of the newly released Gust: The “Tale” Wind of Office Politics (Lexicon, 2007) as well as Race Through The Forest – A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006). As Chief Accomplishment Officer for his company, Carpe Factum, Inc. (Latin for “Seize The Accomplishment”), he also is a dynamic speaker, providing keynotes and workshops on the accomplishment-oriented topics of project management, creativity, process improvement, systems thinking, and (of course) office politics. His consulting clients have crossed multiple industries and have included Wells Fargo, Harley-Davidson, ING, Teva NeuroScience, and Principal Financial Group. In addition to writing, consulting, speaking, and coaching, he is also an adjunct instructor for Drake University’s MBA program in Des Moines Iowa, teaching classes in Project Management, Creativity for Business, and Managing Office Politics.

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  1. 2 Answers to “Part I: Nice to a fault”

  2. Feedback from Nice to Everyone

    I did find the advice very brutally helpful. THANKS for that! I appreciate it.

    By Letter-writer: Nice to Everyone on Jul 26, 2007

  3. When I read this part of the post, I was really hit hard by it.

    “In our effort to be ‘nice to a fault’ we often will bury the truthful comments that need to be said and difficult things that need to be done so we don’t hurt other people’s feelings, but these buried feelings resurface in less pleasant behaviors such as sarcasm and passive aggression. Again, I must emphasize that ‘nice’ is a continuum — a sliding scale, if you will. Just because you’ve no longer taken the job as office cruise director does not mean you have to walk around with a scowl on your face and snap people’s heads off at the slightest provocation. June and Veronica know that being nice is a core part of your values and they are using it against you because you are letting them. You are, in essence, giving them permission and power to treat you poorly because they know it gets to you.” Timothy Johnson

    I am one of those people who is always nice to a fault as well. I have also felt taken advantage of because when people know that you are nice, they will take advantage of that quality and use it against you. I have been in workplace situations where I didn’t feel comfortable with a couple of coworkers but I tend to keep my mouth shut or I will say something, hoping to get my point across in a pleasant way but it just doesn’t seem to work. I’m also introverted and I feel like this works against me alot of times. So after I try to make my point in a nice way in hopes that the coworker will back off, I tend to start using sarcasm because it seems like being nice does not work. I hate sarcasm but I feel like I am on the losing end alot of times and I get angry to the point where sarcasm surfaces. I’m not proud of it and I have worked on changing that tendancy by simply just keeping my mouth shut and ignoring people who annoy me.

    By Also nice to a fault on Jul 28, 2008

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