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The Big Sister's Guide to the World of WorkThe Inside Rules Every Working Girl Must Know
By Marcelle Langan DiFalco Jocelyn Greenky Herz
FiresideCopyright © 2005 Marcelle DiFalco & Jocelyn Greenky Herz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Whole New World
How to avoid office alien-nation
Useful Terms: What We Mean When We Say ...
Culture What you'll find if you put the office petri dish under a microscope
Alien That would be you
Ego Ecosystem The fragile world in which you live Monday to Friday, nine to five
When you first started your job, the nice people in human resources, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, gave you a whole stack of glamorous paperwork associated with your fantastic new life: health insurance forms for when you get sick, worker's comp forms for when you get maimed, 401(k) forms for when you get decrepit, and the designation-of-death-beneficiaries form for when it all finally kills you.
In that hefty orientation packet there was an innocuous-looking, nondescript piece of paper that you had to sign swearing that you are not an alien. And sign you must, or you would never see the light of pay. But you lied. You are an alien.
You are a complete alien in a whole new world until you fully understand the culture of your office and figure out how to assimilate to your newenvironment. If you are truly to succeed at work, your mission, Ms. Alien, is to figure out how to stand out while you are fitting in.
Our mission is to tell you how to do just that.
Mastering the Microcosmic
In the petri dish of office life, it's all about culture. Of course, with the dawning of the New Economy, people, most notably MBAs and insecure, twenty-eight-year-old CEOs, use "office culture" as a code phrase meaning anything from "We're child-friendly" to "We're basically children - wanna see our ping-pong table and Coke machine?"
Yup, "corporate culture" is a big, fat, vague buzzterm that everyone and their HR department throw around all the time, but The Girls Who Call Us usually ignore its vital relevance to themselves. Attention, dear reader: all that corporate culture crap that might seem like nothing more than marketing hype to you should be the primary factor that determines how you behave in the office.
Corporate culture is not just what a company says about its environment. It's the Ego Ecosystem of your day-to-day reality. The truth is, when it comes to Officepoliticus, you gotta sweat some of the small stuff - we're talking microscopic. In those first few jobs, we each spent an embarrassing amount of time as National Enquirer-worthy two-headed aliens that no one would take quite seriously due to a series of incidental cultural insensitivities on our part.
For example, when J started a new job in a super-duper corporate setting, she showed up that first week toting a five-foot floor lamp through the lobby because she hates that nasty overhead lighting. Coworkers stared in Alfred Hitchcock horror as she passed: clearly, the lighting was good enough for them, but this broad, this new girl? "Nooooo, she's too gooood for fluorescent."
An innocent mistake, but one that didn't make J look too bright. Anytime you introduce an obvious change, no matter how minor, to a highly codified culture in which you are a newcomer, it will be seen as alien behavior. And ya might just find yourself being left in the dark about a lot of what's going on around you as a result.
It's so simple to inadvertently criticize what you find in a culture you are new to. One of The Girls Who Call Us, Barbara, a sales account executive for a handbag manufacturer, started a new job and immediately began making myriad suggestions to her fellow salespeople and other coworkers about how to improve the office environment and the business itself.
From her first day on the job, she wanted to change the way everything was done. Barbara began rapid-firing memos to execs about how the processes should be altered and improved, what software they should all buy to be more efficient, and on and on. She kept it up for a month, until she became conscious of the resentment that was building around her.
What she saw as being passionate, helpful, and enthusiastic, her colleagues saw as attacks on how they had managed the business before she arrived. Essentially, she was slamming them. Barbara never managed to heal those relationships, and she left the job within four months; none of her suggestions had been taken.
When you enter a new culture, if you see areas for improvement, you must be careful to introduce your ideas gradually, and when you do so, be sure that you are sensitive to the fact that what you have found at the new job is the result of someone's decisions and someone's work.
We never stopped to consider that. In fact, we were completely mystified when what we considered minor episodes seemed to be such big fat hairy deals to others. We just couldn't understand why things were the way they were instead of the way we were sure they should be. We didn't know the rules, and we were pissed that no one would just tell us. As we matured, though, it dawned on us that everybody at work was just too damn busy to explain what we should have been able to see for ourselves if we just would have opened our eyes: if you refuse to fit in, you should get out.
In this chapter, we'll help you put your office under the microscope so you can study its unique culture. Understanding the Ego Ecosystem will help you avoid stumbling into culture craters that you thought were little divots. Not only that, but you will also discover how to put yourself in the right place at the right time, scratching the right backs so you can shine like Sirius, the brightest star in our galaxy.
Let's Do the Time Warp ...
Time bends, sister. Each office culture has its own time zone and its own concept of "regular hours." Honey, there ain't no such thing as Standard Office Time.
Understanding the Time Culture in your organization is of the essence. One of The Girls Who Call Us, Sigourney, for example, was viewed as a foreign body when she said: "Isn't it a bummer to have an eight A.M. meeting?" She knew she'd blown it when her coworker, smiling at a nearby Uppity, replied: "Oh, I am always here by seven, and I never leave before ten. In fact, the rest of us are in the same boat." Sigourney didn't yet understand her company's time culture: although she frequently stayed late in the P.M., she never asked, and didn't realize that she was strolling in hours later in the A.M.
A given office might have any number of time zones, and you need to adjust yourself to each one you deal with. For example, the subculture reflected in your division or department might have a very different dynamic from the overall culture of your parent company.
When J was working in a start-up new-media division, the pace was insane, and everything and everyone was fast, fast, fast. But the parent company was established, plodding, highly bureaucratic, and procedure-happy. J quickly learned that when she worked with people outside her particular department, she was in a time warp and had to slow it down: she spoke slower, had to deliver detailed printed proposals instead of zipping out off-the-cuff emails, and had to have incredible patience - and not take it personally - while hearing nothing for days and days from the Most Uppity Uppers for answers that could easily have been issued in ten minutes.
Here are a few of the office culture timetables to check from time to time:
Pace yourself ... accordingly. What's the general pace of things? Is everyone rushing around looking ever so busy? Then you probably should not be practicing your Zen meditative walk through the hallways. Are people mellow in their speech patterns? Then don't let your tongue zoom at NASCAR MPHs.
The times they are a-changin'. Do you have all the time in the world to generate that proposal - but it had better be purr-fect? Or is sloppy better than seconds wasted? You can tell which option your culture finds more acceptable by which tends to receive more praise from Uppities. Btw, Uppities tend to measure efficiency against how long they think it should take to accomplish a task, not how long it actually took you to do it. Always ask your Uppity when she wants delivery. You just might need to turn that project around like Speedy Gonzalez. See, señorita?
Watch the daily tides & swim accordingly. Observe when people wash in and when they wash back out. In some cultures there are high expectations of overtime without pay, and the on-the-dot nine-to-fiver is perceived as an annoyingly anal alien. You don't need to directly mimic the timing patterns of your culture, but the closer you match your coworkers' schedules, the less alien you will seem.
Ponder the monthly phases of the paper moon. Know what the company policies are and how the process works. If expense reports must be filed monthly, don't turn in six months' worth at once, whining you didn't have the time to do them. M did this all the time, and in doing so she both brought into question her administrative abilities and irritated the nice accountants. Worse, though, was what happened to one of The Girls Who Call Us, Jean, a printing-equipment salesperson. Jean got stiffed to the tune of almost ten grand when she didn't follow the policy and file her expenses routinely. Because Jean was so hell-bent on selling and completely ignored the climate in her company, she wasn't tuned in to the signs that it was going under, and she let her expenses pile up for almost a year. She was unexpectedly laid off, the company went bankrupt, and she never saw a dime of the money she'd spent out of her own pocket. In a highly bureaucratic culture, internal paperwork is an essential part of your job responsibilities, and in all other cultures it's still important and you must stay on top of it, no matter what else you have going on.
Adjust seasonally. When's crunch time? Which department gets slammed, when, and how often - annually, monthly, weekly? Don't be running to accounting asking for a copy of your W2 from three years ago during the stay-all-night height of budget season. If you know when the worst times are for each person and division, you can put yourself in a great position to do favors by being Miss Sensitivity and offering to help out. Do a quick coffee run for the accounting team before you punch out for the night. Or do as J used to do when she knew particular departments were pulling late-nighters and drop off a sympathy six-pack or a bottle of tequila and a few shot glasses.
Check up on the annuals. Read the company handbook and ask coworkers how often people tend to get promoted. Is it every third Friday, or only in sync with the viewing of Halley's comet? If you know that people are promoted regularly, feel free to go in after six months on the job when you've exceeded expectations and ask for a bump. If promotions are next to never and you ask for one prematurely, you are doomed: stingy cultures call this "entitlement."
Watch the other guy's watch. Everyone has good and bad times of day - not to mention the month. Make it your business to learn coworkers' cycles and chart them on a mood forecaster spreadsheet, which will help you predict the most auspicious times for meetings, requests, and delivering bad news. "Lucas: won't answer questions till after 5 P.M." "Elias: crabby before lunch; cheerful after." "Tia: don't speak to her until she's drained her second cup of coffee." "Gary: has 3 P.M. deadline every day."
Show them a good time sensitivity. In every culture: Don't keep people waiting. Don't say you'll call back in two minutes if you know it will be twenty. If you need help, ask: "Is this a good time?" If you call a meeting, keep it as brief as possible by being prepared.
Look for the Uniformity Label
Oh, this one drives us nuts with The Girls Who Call Us. So many of them tell us, "Look, I have my style, and I'm not going to change it. I'm great at what I do! What does the way I dress have anything to do with my abilities? How dare they try to tell me how to dress!"
We agree! But tough doodly-doo for all of us. The way you dress in the office has a ton to do with your abilities - it can get them completely ignored!
Even if there is absolutely no written official dress code for your office, there is a dress code. The whole thing about office attire is a very sensitive issue because it pits individual style against the collective culture - dicey stuff. Dressing too distinctively can seem like an act of disloyalty against the culture.
When J was working in the Boston advertising agency, even though that company prided itself on its culture of creativity, virtually everyone wore superpreppy clothing. J, not one to be straitjacketed, clung to her New York City Sexy Mama look. On days when she wore something even remotely conservative (as in not skintight), a nice older gentleman, who was clearly trying to help her out with-out getting himself sued, observed that she "looked nice" and gently suggested that when she wore foundation makeup she "looked better."
When J finally got the hang of the conservative thing, she then landed a job at Rolling Stone. J spent months frumping around that terminally hip office culture in Ann Taylor red or blue suits, opaque stockings, and practical pumps, all of which she later realized pegged her for a big fat D-U-D. Finally a colleague tipped her off that the French twist had to go. J regrouped and regroovified her wardrobe to fall into step with her hipper-than-thou coworkers.
Think of it this way - when it's snowing out there, you don't take it as an affront to your personal sense of style or your intellectual capabilities that you need to pop on a pair of boots instead of slingbacks. Check out the clothing climate of your office:
Think of uniforms. They show belonging to a group. Same thing in the office. If you outdress coworkers by a league, they will perceive you as "too good for the rest of us." If you underdress by a mile, guess what? "Clueless D-U-D." Look around and check out the message that others are sending with their clothes - groovy/hip, status-conscious, classic, authoritative, trendy, powerful - and align your working wardrobe accordingly.
Dress Uppity. Check out what the respected execs are wearing and follow suit. Never conform in a way that makes you look bad, though. If all the women have bowl haircuts and you think that cut will make you look like one of the Three Stooges, skip it. Pay close attention to when Uppity Uppers tell you they like an outfit, and wear it regularly, but no overkill.
Excerpted from The Big Sister's Guide to the World of Work by Marcelle Langan DiFalco Jocelyn Greenky Herz Copyright © 2005 by Marcelle DiFalco & Jocelyn Greenky Herz . Excerpted by permission.
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