Recently I have a friend who came to me for advice. She is a foreigner who graduated in Singapore with a Masters degree, and went on to find a job in a multi-national company (MNC) in Singapore. Her direct supervisor, also a foreigner but from a different country, joined the workplace later than her and tried all ways and means to kick her out of the department. Being fresh out into the society with little experience, she was angry and could not understand what was going on.
This post is meant for people who are going to, or who just stepped into society. This article will focus specifically on surviving in a toxic workplace. This post also does not aim to create xenophobia towards the many foreign workers everywhere, but to highlight the fact that whether we like it or not, such things happen. What follows next should be a series of action to understand what is going on and how to protect ourselves. This applies to workplaces everywhere, but especially in the office setting, regardless of whether there are foreigners in your companies or not. Afterall, locals can very well do the same thing.
Consolidation Of Power
Among the foreigners, people from a few particular countries are especially known to form a clique comprising of their own people at work. As a result, they have a very bad reputation. By getting rid of others and hiring only their own people, they consolidate their power within the company. That is why certain recruitment interviews are wired in such a way that any applicants other than their own people are doomed to fail. That is also why for the existing staff, everything they did is wrong and are wholly incompetent in the eyes of the supervisor. Their intention is simple: to get rid of you or make things so unbearable that you resign. Only when there is a vacancy can there be justification to hire new people.
If they happen not to be in a supervisory position, they will first seek out others either in a supervisory position or in similar levels. Afterall unity is strength, and especially if you know someone in a higher position who looks at you favourably, you will get a good advantage.
Protecting Your Work
Whether these groups of people manage to network successfully or not, chances are they will try to score points in front of their bosses, even if they do almost nothing. Work which are under the radar are often left unattended because the bosses will not know. However, when it comes to presentation or claiming credit indirectly via email, you will be sure to see them jumping out and talk as if they put in the most effort. Quietly working behind the scenes usually do not give you the recognition, visibility does.
Bosses are busy people, and while a good boss should know the team well, we do not expect every supervisor to be a decent or capable boss. Many of them do not know what is going on themselves. So when you are doing your work, make sure to claim the credit for it. Update your supervisor frequently on the things that you do via email, whether by cc or just simply creating a new email listing out all the project updates under you. If you collaborate with someone, make sure you are credited properly and not let the other party undermine what you have done. This is also to remind your boss frequently on what you have done.
Sometimes it is the supervisor who steal your work. In this case, there are different methods to deal with it. Directly or indirectly, you may exchange terms and conditions with your boss. I do the work for you, but you have to fight for my promotion and bonus. Or I help you out with many of the tasks, but you give me flexibility at work and shield me from all other nonsense, whatever they are. This can be a win-win situation, although I would not place too much faith on someone who would outright steal your work if you did not say anything.
Should the supervisor just wants to take the credit wholesale without giving back anything, then there are steps that you can do. Keep your big boss in the email loop where possible and applicable to update what you have done. This is possible for organisations with a flatter structure, but would definitely be blocked in an organisation where hierarchy is important. Watermark your PDF documents or PowerPoint slides when sending to your supervisor for clearance, and refusing to take it out when your supervisor asks you to. This will require guts on your side to fight on with the supervisor. Should the above 2 suggestions are not feasible, then calm down and wait for an opportune time. It is not that rare to meet your supervisor’s supervisor, which is your big boss, in the office. In the pantry, while walking to the office after lunch or even walking out after a work day, you may see your big boss. Initiate a harmless conversation and work the conversation towards the project that you did, letting him or her know that you are the one working behind the scenes. This requires a certain amount of EQ though.
Do note that the more your boss is dependent on you at work, the more bargaining power you have in other areas. Do not be so fixated on promotion and bonuses. There are other things which are just as valuable too, such as peace from other colleagues who like to play politics, flexibility to work from home, access to your boss’ workplace network etc. It differs for everyone, so judge accordingly.
Keeping Documentary Proof
If your colleague or supervisor keeps sabotaging you, then it is good to keep documentary proof of what is going on. Afterall, if you complain to the HR or to the top boss, without any black and white, it will be your words against his. Who should the top boss believe? Even in your daily work, it is good to keep a paper trail, because you never know which harmless project may turn out to be a landmine. Even something as simple as passing an asset such as a laptop from one department to the other would require documentary proof, as over time people will forget and conveniently deny such a thing ever happened.
Keep email records on discussions, instructions and decisions on the different matters. Some are sly and do not want to leave a paper record, choosing to communicate verbally. In that case, take note of what was said verbally, then follow up with an email listing down the points of your discussion earlier. Your emails should be written in a clear manner such that when one looks at the email chain, one could understand what is going on.
Should you intend to complain to the HR or top boss one day, prepare all the paper evidence beforehand and arrange them in a chronological order, or any order which makes sense. Do not just go in empty handed. Prepare a summary of what happen with all the details at the side, ready to be taken out if the time requires you to do so. But take note that while you should prepare evidences, walking in to complain a colleague and especially supervisor should be a decision of the last resort.
Do Not Trash Talk Your Boss
It is tempting to bitch and grumble about your boss in front of your colleagues. But office relationships between people may be hidden. You never know who is on good terms with your boss privately. For example, I have a group of colleagues I am on good terms with. We would meet for dinner, for beer, for festive gatherings etc. But none of the people in the office know about our friendships after work. At work, everyone behave normally, not revealing to anyone what we did after work. It can be the same for people in your office too. Keep your bitching to a few trusted friends outside work. In front of your colleagues, bear with it.
Increase Your Own Competency
Your competency should be your topmost priority, without which all the other points above will only be seen as pure office politics. In work, a capable person will not disturb his boss too much. Especially in the private sector where only results matter, your bosses do not want to know what trouble you have. They just want to see results. If you have low quality work and start becoming suspicious of people stealing your work, then you will most likely be seen as a joke and hammered down without mercy.
Your ability to perform will definitely be one of the points to get targeted if someone intends to get rid of you. If you are incompetent, then you are an easy target. Know your work well. Perform your tasks efficiently and effectively. Prove it beyond doubt that you are a capable worker. Though it is not a fail-safe counter-measure, at least even if you get squeezed out in the end, you bring with you a set of skills to the next place.
In every new unit I get transferred to, I always prioritise getting familiar with my work in the shortest possible time. Observe what others are doing, get hands-on on the job yourself as that is the fastest way to learn. Ask questions. Keep thinking and piece all the pieces together, because not everyone will handover their work or teach you properly. Hence, for every new place I get transferred to, I am always quite stressed for the first 2 months as I am pressured to get everything in order.
Subordinate And Supervisor Relationship
Just as we have headaches dealing with a bad superior, bosses are also often at a loss on what to do with bad subordinates. The superior naturally have the advantage, but the subordinate often can sabotage by burying landmines in the work submitted, which if not careful enough, could explode on the bosses. Be it openly or discreetly, a subordinate can make life difficult for the superior as easily as the superior make things intolerable for the subordinate. From throwing sick leaves to submitting low quality work, from being uncontactable in critical moments to being unfriendly, such things are a constant headache for a superior. This is something which all subordinates should know.
Sometimes, due to a cut in manpower, companies will allow natural attrition to slowly reduce the number of staff instead of opting for retrenchment. For example a particular unit now has 5 people, and their established strength (also known as ‘estab’) has been reduced to 4. This creates a situation where as long as any staff leave the unit, there will be no additional hiring. Now among the team, there is one particular useless worker who can only operate at 50% capacity. If the head of the unit sack the useless worker, he cannot replace anyone. But by keeping him, at least his 50% capacity still accounts for something. But the cost will be endless headache and frustrations dealing with the worker. Often times, a supervisor will have to pick up the slack of the useless worker.
This point is not to encourage you to make your workplace a battlefield, but to give you a point to note when negotiating for peace at work. Although you are at a lower position, it is not as if you have zero cards on your hands. Negotiation may not necessary be both parties sitting down and talk. It can be done through actions and managing each other’s expectations until both reach a comfortable level.
Network With Others
Do this naturally and not be so obvious that you are actively building some network out of some benefits. Sometimes by knowing people, you will have a lot of conveniences. Many times, people can easily help you with something which would be a great deal of trouble if you are to resolve it yourself. Or in their casual conversations to your bosses, especially if they are of the same level, they might talk about you, and if you generally leave a good impression, it will be a plus point for you. The more people you know, the easier it is for you to seek help when you need it and the less people would want to touch you. Of course, I always do not ask help from others unless I need to. Every help or assistance you receive from others is a favour you have to return back.
Side Advice: Clashing With Your Boss
Clashing with bosses is not that uncommon. In any clash or in any negotiation, the objective is naturally to obtain what you want. But to do that, you must drive an idea across: clashing with me will do you more harm than good. The best is to co-exist. As a subordinate, it is ideal but not practical to negotiate a deal entirely according to your wishes. The objective should be realistically set to a situation where you can accept at work, even if it causes you a bit of discomfort.
In negotiation, you either give what the other party wants or take away what is important for the other party. The carrot and the stick. You have to prove that stepping on you will incur more cost than benefits. Any logical person will not take an action if the benefits do not outweigh the cost. If you cannot do that yourself, do not start a clash with your boss. You will die.
Start Searching For The Next Job
If you have sufficiently determined that the issue does not lie with you, but with the company environment, then there is no point in trying to stay there in the long term. Start looking for a job. It may take a few weeks or a few months, or even a year or two. But start looking and get out of the toxic company whenever you can. Your supervisor may end up successfully chasing you away, but it does not matter. What matters most is you are in a better place.