Secretarial: To make tea or not to make tea: that is the question

Want to get on in the office? Don't trip up on the politics.
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IT'S YOUR first day in a new company and in an obvious attempt to pull your weight, you answer every ringing phone. Until, that is, some ill-natured woman snaps: "I wouldn't advise invading other people's space like that." So on your next assignment, you take heed - but it turns out to be the wrong decision yet again. "Are you deaf?" a colleague barks.

Similar feuds and unspoken quarrels may be caused by the issue of who makes tea and coffee, whether you can borrow other people's terminals, and how many personal items you are allowed to have on your workspace. This, claim business psychologists, is "Office Politics, Nineties Style" - and it is on the increase.

Dr Marilyn Davidson, senior lecturer in organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, explains: "Petty irritations have long been a source of warfare in the office environment. But modern pressures at work mean they are more likely to affect staff relations and prevent company objectives being reached."

After all, she says, British people are spending more time than ever in the office - far exceeding any other European country. And today's office designs mean people are forced to sit closer together.

"Job insecurity is at a peak and as it is more than your job's worth to vent anger in the boss's direction, you do so in the direction of colleagues and subordinates," says Davidson. "These people who might have been your friends may now be in direct competition with you. And because the feelings are deeply personal, the arguments also tend to be."

Susan Williams, an occupational psychologist, believes secretarial staff are hit the hardest. Traditionally, they're the ones given all the menial tasks on top of their normal duties, and are also most likely to be talked down to. In the late-Eighties, when secretaries and PAs became recognised as a valuable asset, this became outdated. In the Nineties - when "hierarchy" became a bad word - it became even more so. But downsizing and job insecurity has led to its return in many organisations.

Beverly Stone, author of Confronting Company Politics (MacMillan), says this is particularly likely to happen in industries such as banking and retail. "That's because they value competition which can encourage ruthlessness and stress. In a media or advertising-based company, however, things tend to be a lot more flexible and laid-back."

According to Neil Crawford, psychotherapist and consultant to organisations, it doesn't help that secretarial staff tend to be women. "Tea- and coffee- making - which forms a large part of the focus of today's office politics - is the last vestige of an old system of top dogs and little women. I've researched gender issues in the workplace and am convinced that there remains a very strong wish to keep women in a certain role."

Research shows that women tend to adopt a more team-orientated style at work and therefore tend to be more willing than men to pitch in to achieving humble duties, adds Dr Davidson - which also isn't necessarily in their favour. "You try to help by making the drinks when everyone else is pushed for time - but before you know it, it's become an expectation and you're being taken advantage of." The trick, she advises, is not to be remembered as "that lovely girl who made a nice cup of tea."

Because of their unfamiliarity with the unwritten rules of office politics, temps, believes Crawford, get the rawest deal of all. But Williams disagrees. "If you're not permanent staff, allowances are made - not least because you serve as no threat to the other staff. For this kind of secretary, it's rather like looking after other people's children. You don't have to get involved in the nitty-gritty of child-rearing because it's accepted that you're going to hand them back at the end of the day. In fact, research shows that people often choose to be temps for the very reason that they don't have to get involved in office politics."

According to Edinburgh- based psychologist, Ben Williams, irrespective of the length of time you expect to work for a company, it is wise to ask about the politics in your first week. "These rules are unlikely to exist in the form of firm policies, but they are usually very powerful. People will have the answers. Caught off guard, they will usually be truthful. Anyway, it's a time when you're expected to ask questions about the running of the office."

Even better, he advises, ask a group of colleagues since there is always the chance that a single person may see it as an opportunity to trip you up. "Don't be fooled into thinking that only those with legitimate power are the leaders. People at any level can gain a following and consequently, their behaviour, beliefs and values then get emulated. The way they can best achieve that is through newcomers."

The good news is that an increasing number of companies, such as Unilever, Heineken and Philips, are recognising the worst repercussions of office politics and are attempting to avoid it - usually by creating a "sociable" environment. The idea is to recruit the sort of people who will get on. Apart from stimulating creativity because it fosters team working rather than competition, it aims to encourage people to go beyond the limits of their job if they can find ways of helping their colleagues. In other words, you'll want to make the tea for them.

"Of course, you realise we don't sell beer," a marketing manager of Heineken was recently quoted as saying. "We sell emotional sociability."

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