I currently work as a freelance copywriter and digital media strategist. I work with a staffing agency where I am placed at a new office every three to six months. Because of this, I am constantly changing offices, working for new clients, making new coworkers, and meeting new work friends. But similarly to things like the Kardashians, dating apps, and being social in general, I have a love/hate relationship with various aspects of constantly bouncing around — especially, the “making work friends” bit.
On the one hand, I’ve expanded my network, made countless professional connections, and perfected my interpersonal skills. I have slowly become
not completely terrified OK with small talk, and I’ve made some solid and honest friendships in a city that previously held zero connections. However, on the other hand, I’ve been tangled in vapid office gossip, I’ve experienced the sharp pain of a twisted knife in the back, and have been thrown under the bus in emails. I’ve realized that, unfortunately, a Mean Girl never truly graduates. While I would say more than half of the people I have met in corporate America have been admirable, professional, or at the very least, tolerable, there are those who could pass for Regina George — but in a damn good blazer. Over the last few years, I have met versions of her, avoided versions of her, worked under versions of her, and confronted versions of her. Similar to the way Janis Ian wanted to warn, “a little slice like you,” I am here to lend advice on how to spot, interact, and work productively with the version of Regina George you are bound to meet in the professional world.
Tip #1: Adopt “first date” boundaries for the first day (and even the next several months).
I am an open book. In fact, I’m more like a billboard. I’ll even admit I am honest and kind to a fault. Gullible and overextending on my worst day. These qualities can make me (and have made me) an easy target for office Mean Girls. A silly story told over happy hour becomes relayed in office meetings I’m not in. Thoughts expressed in confidence, about a work-related matter, are repeated to various coworkers not meant to hear. Before long, you, too, will be accessorizing your pantsuit with a branded fake smile and paranoia. You’ll begin to think you can’t be yourself at work. Truthfully, you can be yourself. But, as I learned the hard way, you just have to set boundaries. I affectionately refer to them as “first-date/first-day” boundaries.
Now, depending on your comfort level, this could mean getting drunk on your first day and never calling your boss again, or only texting him or her when you want a paycheck. But, for all intents and purposes, let’s assume you like to show up to a first date hopeful and acting like yourself (i.e., tabling topics like your past political and religious views, what you and your therapist talked about at your last session, etc. ) Cool? Cool.
Following “first-date/first-day” boundaries means treating the first couple of months like a first date. A “test” I’ve noticed many supervisors giving a new employee on the first day (or throughout the first week) is asking, “What’s your story…I mean outside of work.” A considerable amount of employers and supervisors use this tactic as a way to get to know you beyond the person they met in the interview — they want to size you up, and perhaps draw out precious bits of information to satisfy their own nosiness.
This is where the “first-date/first-day” boundaries come in. Consider that, similar to the person asking, you, too, are gauging who exactly they are. If they aren’t divulging intimate details about themselves, why should you? Table details about yourself, your personal life, and even your professional past until you’ve observed the corporate office culture, and who is and isn’t sourcing the gossip pipeline. Like a new relationship, you have plenty of time to warm up to each other, so take things slow. But, as is the case of a real first date, too much information can be a dealbreaker and nearly impossible to recover from.
The question I would ask myself is, “Would I say this on a first date? Then why the hell am I saying it to my boss and/or coworkers?” No matter how awkward or cold the interaction may feel, you always have the right to answer anything with, “I like to keep parts of my personal life to myself.” At my most recent job, a fellow copywriter gave that answer on more than one occasion, and I think she’s had the least amount of unpleasant work experiences in the office. Coincidence? I think not. (And neither does she.)
Tip #2: Attend out-of-office happy hours and lunches in moderation.
This area deserves the most delicate application of #judgment.
I would never recommend avoiding out-of-office happy hours and lunches altogether. In the past, when being overly cautious and frankly, anti-social, this kind of behavior negatively impacted team bonding. It made it nearly impossible to build any type of rapport with peers and supervisors — rapport that would have been beneficial during brainstorms or when asked for feedback on something.
On the flipside, when I accepted every liquor-fueled invitation to after-work happy hours, it opened the floodgates for word vomit and a faux sense of intimacy. After my own trial and error, I would advise saying “yes” to every couple of offers and adhering to a firm timestamp of when you want to exit the engagement. (I say there is no need to stay longer than 60 to 90 minutes at any happy hour or after-work function.) Depending on your behavior after a cocktail or beer, keep your drink count to a one-glass maximum. And remember, the setting of your interaction may change, but people’s motives stay the same. Until you know you’re in the company of those who aren’t looking to divulge information about you, stick to the aforementioned “first-date/first-day” rule.
*In fact, as I’m writing this on a Monday morning, I am being interrupted by a giddy colleague offering to regale the break room with stories of last Friday’s happy-hour gossip. For better or worse, someone is always looking to make their lives more interesting by talking about yours.*
Tip #3: Become out-of-office friends after your time at the company.
The best piece of advice I’ve received on working relationships was from a supervisor that is now one of my best friends. She told me, “Wait until you no longer work at the company before becoming out-of-work friends with someone.” While it’s what she and I did with our friendship, I haven’t done it at every job. Sure, most of the time when I was out-of-office friends with someone while still working at a company, we were both mature enough to switch gears and leave our friendship at the door. We didn’t want supervisors or executives to think we were distractions to one another, and we made a point to be more professional and productive. But, as I mentioned, a Mean Girl never graduates, and there have been instances where a spat from the weekend lasted well into status meetings.
Of course, if you are not in the freelancing field, it would be a little unrealistic to assume you will never be friends with your peers until your tenure is over. My best advice would be to wait a few months.
Tip #4: Get everything in writing.
If you do find yourself dealing with a wounded work friend, or a bona fide office Mean Girl, there is a chance (and abundant opportunity) for corporate sabotage. I normally would not get so tElEnOvAla about a 9-to-5 job, but I have seen it happen to other young women. Fortunately, I adopted this rule early on. I’ve had to pull written correspondence out when someone wanted to bend the truth or swear that I was or wasn’t given a task to complete. Any request made verbally should be confirmed via email. Also, when any request is completed, shoot an email. Getting things in writing has been an invaluable piece of advice.
Tip #5: Confront a Mean Girl with overall professionalism.
Ah, the dreaded decision: do I continue to deal with unpleasant supervisors and colleagues, or do I say something to address the problem. In my opinion, it’s always better to say something. But, before you ask someone to “hold your cufflinks,” I advise saying something with tact, professionalism, and grace. Also, it’s helpful to have a strategy. Rather than leading with something incendiary along the lines of, “Why don’t you like me,” or “What’s your problem,” pinpoint a particular project or isolated incident to reference that illustrates the problem. Explain that your greatest objective is to optimize the workspace and see collaborative projects succeed. Explain that you simply want to figure out the best possible way to make that a reality.
For example, instead of saying, “What is your problem with me,” try, “I don’t think we are seeing eye-to-eye on this account. My foremost objective is to provide the client, and this agency, with optimal service. I would appreciate any feedback from you to help see that goal through. In addition to my X (list out responsibilities and completed tasks), is there another area that could use improvement?” For me, this type of discussion will either a) allow someone an opportunity to say something productive to help the working relationship or b) highlight the fact that the person is being rude and/or passive aggressive.
No matter your verbiage, I cannot stress the importance of professionalism. Any signs of stubborn streaks, passive aggression, or petty back talk will surface during performance reviews (or worse — when you need a reference). Remember that inside and outside the workplace, it’s important to be the bigger person.
Jazmine Reed is embarrassed to admit her bank account is flooded with Taco Bell and premium Kardashian app purchases, but she’s working on it. Read more at JNReed.com.