Someone close to me—let’s call him Matthew—has been dealing with an inordinate amount of drama at work. I’m talking catty colleagues, supervisors playing favorites, bullying, total lack of personal boundaries, and worse. Every time Matthew describes the latest incident with his awful-sounding team, I cringe. And that’s saying something, given that I’ve worked in women’s magazines and PR for years. Those industries are filled with good, smart men and women, but—as relatively small fields in which everyone eventually seems to know one another—they also have their share of water cooler gossip and garden-variety bitchiness.
In the interest of being able to give Matthew—and anyone who’s ever dealt with major work drama—some solid strategies for getting through it without getting fired, being tempted to quit, or just having a meltdown, I asked career experts with years of experience under their belts for suggestions. These guys are no strangers to these kinds of situations, and here’s what they told me about how to keep your cool, as well as your class, when it seems like everyone else in your office is acting like they’re in high school.
Stay Out of the Mix.
If you set a precedent with the people you work with that you’re not going to fan the flames of their gossip or bitch-fest about your boss, they’ll (hopefully) eventually get the hint and stop bringing those topics up around you. “Make it clear to your colleagues that you’re not interested in gossiping or getting in the middle of drama,” says Lisa Skeete Tatum, founder and CEO of Landit, a technology platform that aims to increase the success and engagement of women in the workforce. “Don’t comment or add fuel to the fire or rumors. Avoid associating with troublemakers, too.”
Treat Everyone with Respect.
No matter how you feel about one of your coworkers or managers personally, abide by a universal rule of respect whenever you’re around anyone you work with. It might feel phony, inauthentic, or just plain obvious that you don’t really like that person, but as long as you’re courteous and mature, you’re on safe ground. And be equally careful about spending too much time cozying up to certain people. Work friends are totally fine—just don’t behave like you’re an exclusive club that no one else is allowed membership to. And try to stick to topics outside of workplace politics. “As hard as it may be to believe, there can be cliques in the workplace that are often a major source of conflict at work,” says Skeete Tatum. “If you treat everyone equally and respectfully, you can avoid the ‘them versus us’ drama.”
Put Your Reputation First.
While it can be tempting in the moment to cave into inappropriate banter over happy hour or to take snide remarks from a coworker personally, remember that ultimately, your employment and career take precedence over whatever’s happening in the moment. “If you find yourself in an office environment where people are subtly disparaging of your style or sense of humor, you have to restrain yourself and ensure you stay calm and professional—without completely boxing yourself out of healthy networking,” says career expert and office politics guru Michael Owhoko, author of Career Frustration in the Workplace. “At all times, you must protect yourself against anything that could put your integrity to question, and also try not to be vulnerable to things that can hurt your reputation.” Remember: Once your rep is damaged, that’s hard to fix. Prevention is a lot easier!
I know, it sounds kinda “Law and Order” goofy, but it’s true: If you’re the victim of coworker talking shit on your boss, making any kind of serious accusations, or even some kind of sexual harassment, it pays to have those interactions on record. “If a situation escalates, you want to have specific examples of what actually happened,” says Skeete Tatum. It’s not paranoid to take a screen shot of a text or save an email that could prove that you weren’t at fault during whatever went down. Worst (or, actually, best) case scenario is that you never have to use it and delete it once you leave the company.
Keep Your Eye on the Prize.
At the end of the day, remember why you’re at work in the first place: To make money, get a job done, and hopefully be intellectually stimulated and creatively rewarded along the way. It can be tough not to be distracted by politics (it happens in every workplace, to some extent) but if you try to keep your perspective, it’ll be a lot easier. “Define your purpose and stay focused,” says Owhoko. “Why are you there? Carry yourself with dignity, stay as engaged as possible with your tasks, and you’ll have less time for the bullshit.” Bonus: Your boss will see you as the mature one taking the high road, you’ll get more done, and be likelier to end up with a promotion. It’s a win-win.