Learn Office Politics

Improving your political savvy can help you survive.

By Dirk Willard,Contributing Editor

It seemed like a good move at the time. I was being assigned to participate in a new reactor design project, one that might revolutionize the TiO2 business. The problem was it took me out of circulation for about 18 months. I should have been learning the ins and outs of the process but instead was dedicated to the development effort. When the company decided to downsize about the time I finished the design project, I became less valuable than others who sat on the sidelines. This outcome is hardly unique.

An engineer at one of the top five U.S. chemical companies was five years from retirement when he agreed to go to China for a year. When he got back he discovered he was out of a job.

Such are the risks of career moves. Sometimes you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. In your career you’ll find obstacles you can overcome, those you can go around and others that are insurmountable. The trick is to pigeonhole the challenge and take action.

Let’s start by considering a familiar situation for contractors: you’re new to a job. Think of it as a challenge. You must prove yourself — but be careful. In the beginning take steps to minimize becoming a target for those who might see you as a threat. Don’t reveal any personal details, just talk business; don’t be drawn out until you know who you can trust. After you’ve been there for a few days or weeks, you’ll sense who your friends and enemies are. Here’s one way to tell: who shares information and who keeps it from you? Once you figure that out you can put the right hats on the people. Handling your enemies is key to your success.

Keep a record of things you did and important memos.

When I first went to work for Anheuser-Busch I discovered the lab manager saw me as a threat. I made an offhand remark about the value of some of our tests and that was enough. She decided to put me in my place by criticizing a metal detector I had installed. Her complaint went all the way to headquarters in St. Louis. I was under a harsh light. How did I respond? I wrote a detailed report based on statistical data and gave her two copies — one for her and one for her boss. She never handed it in and never bothered me again. In fact, we became friends.

With a little practice, you’ll learn to turn around enemies and perhaps outlast them on the job. I’ve heard of old engineers relegated to the scrap heap who survived longer than handlers assigned to learn from them. Here’s their trick: remember the movie “Goodfellas,” where the mob boss, Paul Cicero, always gave instructions verbally? When something could come back to haunt you, use your lips not your pen. If you must write it down, be vague if you can.

Another way to improve your survival prospects is to get into the habit of making a written contract with people, ensuring of course they agree to the terms. You’ve heard the rest: make yourself indispensable, anticipate your customer’s needs and promote your achievements.

What if you’re not allowed to become indispensable?

I’ve been there. I was hired to clean up a dozen process details at a refinery. Towards the end, I ran out of things to do. When I pressed, trying to make myself indispensable, I was rebuffed. The refinery only needed me for that job. When you’re doomed to be downsized or sacked the only thing to do is document what you did.

One of the greatest dangers in engineering is failure to keep documentation. You’re supposed to leave calculations or design information behind when you leave a company — and you should. But you should keep a record of things you did and important memos regarding regulatory agencies, accidents, etc. About a week before I left a company after a plant renovation we lit off the cooling system in the computer room. We caught the fire at the smoldering stage but refrigerant filled the room before I could turn off the alarm, which had too short a delay, only 5 sec. The insurance company contacted me two months later; I was the odd man out because I no longer worked at the plant. What saved me from paying the recharge bill was an incident memo I saved. When the insurer called I happily faxed a copy for its records. When I worked at the site the plant manager often complained that I seemed to document everything — I wonder why.

Don’t forget that work environment quality is a two-way street. If your boss isn’t giving you the support you need, i.e., information, praise, etc., arrange a meeting. If things don’t improve, transfer or start looking for another job. Learn politics so you have options.

Dirk Willard is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. You can e-mail him at dwillard@putman.net.