Love the job, but can't stand the work culture? Oh dear, says Hester Lacey, you'd better get used to it if you want to get on
Last week, Tom Parker Bowles, son of Camilla and a shining star in the PR firmament, was caught taking cocaine. His disgrace precipitated an avalanche of other PR persons falling over each other to explain that they take cocaine too and that, in fact, virtually everyone in the industry does. Apparently snorting is almost as natural as breathing in public relations - an "essential part of working life" and a "symbol of glamorous living", according to one in-depth expose.

Which is all very well. But suppose you've always wanted to work in PR, you have all the right qualifications, you can do the job perfectly but you're the kind of person who'd rather have a nice hot cup of cocoa and a Kit-Kat to see you through those difficult moments? You might find it hard to get on, because you don't fit in with the prevailing work culture. This is defined by a set of unwritten rules that govern how you behave at work and how you present yourself, quite over and above the nuts-and- bolts of qualifications and experience. A shared culture of some kind exists in most professions and industries and bucking the trend is not easy.

Laura, 31, works in PR but is keen to move on; she is polishing her CV and hoping to shift into marketing or personnel. "I've just had enough," she says. "It's not so much the drugs, though that does happen - I know that probably three-quarters of the people I work with have the odd dabble when things get stressful. It's more the horrendous falseness of it all and the nastiness behind the scenes." She loathes having to plaster a grin on her face and bubble with feigned enthusiasm. "I am prepared to work very hard and do the job the best I can but I'm not prepared to kiss everyone and call them `darling'," she says. "And if something isn't a good idea or the client wants to do something that won't work, I'll say so. But it's a very yes-yes culture, totally superficial, and I just want to get out because I don't fit in."

Not fitting in is something Susan, 32, can also identify with. She is a secondary school teacher. "I get on reasonably well with my work colleagues, but they're all so bloody serious," she says. "All everyone ever talks about is exams and assessments and tests and how this form or that form are doing. The other day, on a Friday, I suggested we all went to the local pub at lunchtime and anyone would think I'd suggested a mass orgy or something." Susan can be found in the pub most evenings. "I won't curtail my social life just because I have a `responsible' job," she says. "My workmates ask me if I'm not worried about bumping into some of the older pupils because my local is near the school, but why should I be? They are old enough not to imagine I live like a nun, just because I teach them English during the day. The days of teacher as `pillar of the community' are over."

According to Sandi Mann, who has a doctorate in work psychology, understanding work culture is crucial. "Written rules, the ones that state that you work from nine to five and say what your duties are and what holiday leave you're entitled to, are easy," she says. "But the hidden culture of your office is more important - if you can't suss out the secret codes you won't fit in or be seen as part of the team." Dr Mann, who is the author of Psychology Goes to Work (Purple House pounds 9.99), says that each industry and even each different office is "like a different country". "Just as each country has its own culture with regional variations," she explains, "there are different nuances in different institutions, and you have to learn them and relearn each time you change jobs."

Simply doing your job and doing it well isn't enough, she says - everyone does that nowadays. You have to recognise the extras that knit everyone else together. "It can be something as simple as everyone going to the pub together on Friday evenings. Some people consider their work is separate from their social life, but when they withdraw from things like that Friday evening, they find everyone else is talking about things they don't know, sharing jokes they don't get, and they find they're not part of the camaraderie." So James Archer was only wanting to be part of the gang when he downed his Flaming Ferrari cocktails.

If you can't fit in with work culture, you'll be miserable, and the time to address this is before you even secure a post. So, says Dr Mann, from the first time you set foot in a potential place of work, become a culture sleuth. What's the environment like in the building? Is it modern and macho or more cosy and traditional? Are there unusual decorations such as sculptures or wacky quotes, or advertisements for unusual classes such as Japanese art or aromatherapy? Do people call each other by their first names? Do they perch on tables and chair arms while speaking to clients? Are people working with their office doors open, wearing designer clothes, fiddling with their executive toys?

Clues like these will help you to work out if this a job you will be happy in - although, says Dr Mann, the process of easing into work culture should you land the job will take some time in any case. And if any of your potential new workmates are snorting naughty powders this will be less easy to spot immediately. Though according to one PR person last week, "We couldn't be bothered going to the loos to do it. We were just scooping it up in our clenched fists." So whether this would make you even more eager for the post or ready to run a mile, it's worth keeping your eyes open.

DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO FIT IN?

Management culture

These days you have to grit your teeth, be touchy-feely and try to motivate your team gently and understandingly, even if you want to scream at them and whip them. You have to act as combined teacher, agony aunt and surrogate partner, however much you might hanker for the loneliness of true command.

Computer culture

You mustn't ever talk about anything not directly related to work. Even then, keep the conversation short. Dress eccentrically or slightly scruffily to differentiate yourself from the suits. Cultivate a strong belief that everybody else is a bit thick because they don't know their mouse from their motherboard and when their screen freezes all they can do is pathetically whimper for help.

PR culture

You must be a party animal, forever up and fizzy. Introverts need not apply: only the chatty and energetic. Eternal optimism is another must. In your rare less bubbly moments you can whinge among yourselves about how awful stars, clients and especially journalists are.

Finance culture

You must always be busy, busy, busy, work hard, play hard - you can't just go home after work, you have to hang around City wine bars drinking unlikely flaming cocktails and telling people how this afternoon you've single-handedly pushed the economy of Denmark into freefall. Helps if you have a flat in Docklands to go home to.

Teacher culture

A genuine belief in young people is a prerequisite. If you privately suspect that most of class 3B are a bunch of monstrous little blots on humanity, you must keep it to yourself. Be prepared to chew over at length how underpaid and undervalued you are (not that you're in it for the money). Also how the teacher's long holidays don't mean you work less hard than anyone else.

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