Office politics

January 17, 2018


THE business environment is tough, and the old adage of ‘survival of the fittest’ still holds for people in the corporate world. They must endure many hardships to survive while trying to achieve the goals set by their organisation. The sailing is never smooth when one must interact with people with different temperaments, experiences, behaviour and motivations.

People have to carve their own path to move forward and progress within their organisations. First-time employees may not be aware of the intrigues building up against them even if they do their assigned tasks well. While gaining command over the job through skills improvement, dedication and hard work, incumbents also need to know their colleagues’ perceptions of them and the undercurrents going around.

That highly ambitious people manoeuvre to gain power or advantage in a group or organisation is a worldwide phenomenon. While office politics may not be synonymous with a company’s culture, it may nonetheless be a part of it as all aspects of an organisation fall within its culture. Such a culture may comprise of the company’s values, beliefs, short-term and long-term goals, products, services as well as other operational aspects.

After graduating in law, in 1972, I joined a state enterprise in Lahore as labour officer. Although I was not familiar with the office work, I had some experience handling court cases and liaising with the company’s external lawyer. An office superintendent, in his late 50s, and I would report to the administration manager. While I would spend almost half the day attending the courts and the remaining time doing office work, the office superintendent would visit the administration manager’s office several times during the day on various pretexts.

First-time employees may not be aware of company intrigues.

Having plenty of experience working in government, the office superintendent was fully capable of spoiling the image the administration manager had of his colleague. As I was easy prey, he played his role against me quite effectively, which I only realised at the end of my three months’ probationary period, when, with a broad grin, he gave me a letter from the administration manager stating that my probation had been extended for another three months due to unsatisfactory performance. He wanted me to sign it without even reading its contents.

This first exposure to office politics was so shocking that I did not even inform my parents about it, but continued to work with commitment for another five years. The valuable experience of maintaining harmonious industrial relations in a difficult and fluid environment enabled me to get a job at an American firm in Sindh.

There, the employees’ residential colony was about a kilometre’s distance from the plant. All the management and non-management employees were of high calibre and selected through a tough recruitment process. Most came from Karachi and other parts of Sindh and central Punjab.

The annual performance of all management staff would be discussed by a group of all the department/section heads, and after critical evaluation each individual would be assigned a final rating. They would also determine those who had high potential for growth within the company. These employees made up about 10 per cent of the total management staff and would be known to everyone.

Since all the plant’s employees lived in residential estates, the preferential treatment that the upper management gave to high potential employees in social gatherings and other events was quite obvious. Such politics had a demoralising and frustrating impact on the rest of the management staff.

In 1983, I joined a British multinational company and was soon transferred to its re­­cently commissioned plant in Sheikhupura. The company had two other plants in Punjab. Unlike the older factories, most of the senior managers in the new plant belonged to influential families from Lahore and, as such, were given the best of privileges in terms of salary and perks.

The company’s personnel department, however, was centralised and located in Karachi. Since the head of personnel had to maintain equity in compensation across the entire organisation, his exerting control over the facilities was not liked by the senior management of the new plant.

Although pampered, they would criticise him amongst each other, but hardly dare express their concerns when he visited the plant. I realised that their indulgence in such politics was merely to assert their superiority over their counterparts in the other factories.

It must be understood that in the corporate world, having command over one’s job and working hard may not be enough to succeed in one’s career — one must also be watchful of the people within the organisation who may cause one harm without doing so openly.

The writer is an industrial relations professional.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2018