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The Intersection of Politics in the Workplace and the Law

In today’s workplace, office politics are inevitable.  From whistleblowing to CEO misconduct, you should recognize, navigate, and mitigate the impacts of office politics on your career.

At Gardner Employment Law, we understand the intricacies and impacts of office politics. Read on to learn how to handle political situations at work.


What Are Politics in the Workplace and What Causes Them?

Politics in the workplace are the informal strategies and power dynamics among employees within an organization.  The company culture and norms  will influence these dynamics, as well as individual personalities and motivations of employees.  To become aware of how others use office politics, you should take note of the following:

    • Desire for Influence: Individuals may engage in office politics to sell their ideas, achieve specific objectives, or increase their power within the organization.
    • Competition: Scarcity of resources, such as promotions or recognition, can lead to competition among employees, fostering a political environment.
    • Differing interests: People or groups within the organization often have conflicting interests, prompting them to engage in political maneuvers to advance their own agendas over that of others.
    • Hierarchy: Organizations typically have a hierarchical structure, with limited positions available at higher levels. The “alpha dog” occupies the coveted top position most often. This scarcity of top positions and resources can intensify competition and fuel political behavior as individuals compete for advancement.
    • Complex Relationships:  When individuals seek to build support networks and navigate social hierarchies, interpersonal relationships and alliances can contribute to the emergence of office politics.
    • Company Culture: The prevailing culture and norms within an organization can either encourage or discourage political behavior, shaping the extent to which office politics manifest.

Watching for these situations, keeping your “radar” up, will help you to effectively maneuver through the political morass. By recognizing the underlying drivers of political behavior, you can step back, see what is occurring, and develop strategies to mitigate the negative impact of others’ behavior and leverage the situation for your own personal growth and success.


The Enron Scandal: A Lesson in Politics in the Workplace

The collapse of Enron Corporation stands as a stark reminder of the consequences of office politics gone awry, namely corporate fraud and unethical behavior. Once a symbol of success in the energy industry, Enron’s downfall shocked the financial world and triggered significant changes in corporate governance and accounting practices.

The Enron scandal involved fraudulent accounting practices and a culture of corruption that permeated the organization. Key elements of the scandal included:

  1. Off-balance-sheet financing: Enron employed complex financial structures, such as special purpose entities (SPEs), to conceal massive amounts of debt within its balance sheet, creating the illusion of financial health and stability.
  2. Shady deals and conflicts of interest: Executives, including CEO Jeffrey Skilling and CFO Andrew Fastow, engaged in questionable business dealings that enriched themselves at the expense of shareholders. Fastow, in particular, orchestrated intricate financial schemes to benefit himself and a select group of insiders.
  3. Lack of oversight and transparency: Enron’s board of directors was “asleep at the switch.”  They failed to recognize what was occurring and to exercise proper oversight. Shareholders and regulators were kept in the dark about the true state of Enron’s finances until it was too late.  Many employees lost their entire retirement savings accounts.

As revelations about Enron’s financial misdeeds came to light in late 2001, investor confidence plummeted, leading to a rapid decline in the company’s stock price. Ultimately, Enron filed for bankruptcy, resulting in massive losses for shareholders and employees who had invested their savings in the company.  One of the best books about the Enron debacle is “The Smartest Guys in the Room:  The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Eron.

The Enron scandal shows how unchecked office politics can lead to the downfall of a company. The office culture of favoritism, secrecy, and unethical behavior within Enron created a space where employees prioritized personal gain over corporate integrity.


What Are Strategies for Navigating Politics in the Workplace?

The ability to navigate office politics, especially at higher levels of management, can assure personal success and protection of your achievements.  Here are some strategies that can help:

  • Understand Personalities: Recognize common office archetypes, such as gossip hounds, credit thieves, flatterers, saboteurs, lobbyists, and advisors. Taking note their behaviors and paying attention to their comments can inform you on what could be happening behind the scenes.  But do not get involved.
  • Maintain Professionalism: Focus your conversations on business-related topics and avoid engaging in gossip or inappropriate discussions. Upholding professionalism fosters a positive work environment and minimizes conflict.  And it keeps you from being drawn into harmful situations.
  • Assert Ownership: Clearly communicate your ideas and contributions to ensure proper recognition of your achievements. Regular updates to supervisors help establish ownership of your work and prevent others from taking undue credit.  Accompany your verbal updates with documents and proof of your authorship.
  • Stay Vigilant: Be aware of potential sabotage or criticism from colleagues and timely address conflicts diplomatically. Documenting interactions and seeking support from others can mitigate adverse effects.
  • Advocate for Your Views: Challenge opposing viewpoints and ensure that your perspective is heard in discussions and decision-making processes. Constructive dialogue fosters diversity of thought and prevents the dominance of one narrative.
  • Build Relationships: Cultivate relationships with influential individuals, such as advisors or mentors, who can provide guidance and support in navigating office politics. Leveraging these connections enhances visibility and facilitates career advancement.  As we explained in the article, “Look for a Benefactor before Negotiating,” it is particularly helpful to have someone on your side who has clout and is not afraid to speak his or her mind.  Good benefactors are trustworthy, principled, and respected. And most of all, a good benefactor is willing to go out on a limb for you.

I have represented many clients over the years who have come to me, thinking that they had a legal problem – when it turned out that the crux of the matter was office politics.  I encourage my clients to take the high road and avoid negative reactions.  My degree and graduate hours in psychology give me the understanding to guide clients in these difficult situations.  However, learning to play the political game is necessary to succeed.  I advise my clients, “Learn the rules, then play them better than anyone else.”

Office politics vary greatly depending on a company’s culture and dynamics.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You must remain vigilant, adapt, and employ strategies to safeguard yourself from the negative consequences and to advance your career.

Contact an Expert

Office politics can bring a company down from the inside out. If you need assistance navigating the complexities of office politics and safeguarding yourself, we are glad to provide expert guidance and support.

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