Will that be a short, tall or all-over-your-lap latte?

With more job insecurity and less office space, politics in the workplace can turn ugly - and secretaries are the first to feel it.
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The Independent Culture
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 computer terminals, and how many personal items you are allowed to have at your workspace. This, claim business psychologists, is office politics, Nineties style - and it's on the increase.

Dr Marilyn Davidson, a senior lecturer in organisational psychology at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), explains: "Petty irritations have long been a source of warfare in the office environment. But modern pressures at work mean they are more likely than ever 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. In addition, today's office designs mean people are forced to sit closer than ever. Partitions are getting smaller and, in many cases, so are offices. And if you get picky and irritable around your partner because you've been spending too much time with them, imagine how much more frustrated you're likely to get when you spend almost all your waking hours with people you don't even necessarily like.

"In addition, job insecurity is at a peak and since 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. "To top it all, 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." The result is that while office politics used to focus on organisational matters, you are now more likely to bicker over whose turn it is to wash the cups.

The occupational psychologist Susan Williams believes secretarial staff are hit the worst. Traditionally, they're the ones given all the menial tasks on top of their normal duties, and are also the ones most likely to be talked down to in the office. Job insecurity means that other members of staff want to assert some of the power they feel they might be losing over others - and who better than the secretary or receptionist?'

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, a 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."

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."

Temps, believes Crawford, get the rawest deal of all. "Rules over whether you can surround your desk with personal photos or whether it's up to you to get the doughnuts in are almost always unwritten, and it takes time to learn them. For temps, no sooner have they got the gist of it that they're sent on to pastures new."

According to the Edinburgh-based psychologist Ben Williams, irrespective of the length of time you expect to work for a company, it's wise to ask about the politics during your first week. "These rules are unlikely to exist in the form of firm policies but they are usually very powerful. Therefore, people will have the answers. `What's the deal about coffee and tea making?' you could say, or `Will Bill mind me borrowing his desk for a minute?' Caught off guard, people will usually be truthful. In any case, it's a time when you're expected to ask questions about day-to-day procedures."

But beware of your own misjudgements at the same time, cautions the chartered occupational psychologist Bridget Hogg. "Stereotypes such as older people being conservative and men being authoritarian and aggressive often stick in people's minds but they are not always true. Do a little people watching to discover who pulls the strings."

If you do get reprimanded - even if it's just with the odd "tut" - be sure to respond there and then, she adds. "Just ask calmly, `Oh, do you tend to approach situations like that in a way I haven't been told about yet?' It will prevent any anger building up - either in the other person or yourself - and will reveal your willingness to fit in at the same time as being assertive."

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 purposefully 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."