Work is tough enough, so don't make it worse

April 9, 2004

The professional world offers many opportunities to shoot oneself in the foot. Valerie Atkinson highlights a few favourites

Can you recall being single? Did you ever try to entice someone who was completely unaware of your existence into a honey trap, only to fall into it yourself?

Unrequited desire creates a special type of fevered myopia, obscuring the actual value of the prize. The pitfalls of such hopeless projects are all too obvious, but only to the outsider, or in the stronger beam of hindsight. As one cynic remarked: "'Tis better to have loved and lost; much better."

There is a workplace version of this tendency that can lead into a similar trap - an occupational black hole. It is the compulsion that starts a debate (why can't administrative staff work from home regularly like academics?), or embarks on a mission (to get equal pay for work of equal value) that has a less than 50:50 chance of success, but from which it becomes increasingly difficult to withdraw - a bit like marriage.

Pitfalls to avoid in the workplace fall roughly into three categories: the professional, the personal and the plainly preposterous. Clearly, it is possible to encounter all three in one instance of spectacular misjudgment, if you are very unlucky or if you are inclined towards self-destruction.

This would involve something like propositioning one of your bosses during a performance review and then trying to sell them a secondhand vibrating footbath.

Professional black holes most often involve linking pay and promotion to workload. The best ploy in the drive for recognition is to hone the ability to say no, once limits have been reached. Without that determination, the possibility of a pay increase through promotion is well nigh impossible (nepotism and threatening resignation aside). So whingeing about how hard you work and how little you earn is a waste of time. Brace up. Refusing to take responsibility for a task beyond (or beneath) your pay scale or capacity is not a sign of incompetence. Rather, it is your duty, to prevent others from being similarly exploited. Tough love is better than no love.

Do not fall into the bear pit of martyrdom. No one will thank you, let alone help you climb out. Martyrdom is to career development as Cornish pasties are to dieting. Briefly enjoyable, in a self-indulgent me me me way, but ultimately counterproductive.

Personal pitfalls include sexual disasters with workmates (especially if they become public knowledge), unwise friendships - the sort that persuade you to play lunchtime hooky at the pub and then moon the vice-chancellor (which unmistakably overlaps with the preposterous) and the never-ending taking of the huff. The last will bounce you into any number of pits. Give the huff a miss. Otherwise it will sit on your shoulder like an ugly carbuncle. If someone tries to wind you up, the best strategy is not to notice. If you work with a bully, smile blandly and start a formal grievance procedure. That is why such codes of practice exist.

There are some struggles that must never be abandoned, the right to dignity and justice at work being paramount, especially for submerged groups who suffer institutionalised discrimination: women, ethnic minorities, contract workers and people with disabilities, to name but a few. These are battles best undertaken collectively. So seek out like-minded colleagues, join a union or throw a party.

But always have an achievable goal and a chary eye on the consequences.

Promotion may bring with it intolerable pressure. Joining a union might result in leading it after only one meeting. Throwing a party could cost a fortune. And attempted seduction may unexpectedly succeed. Remember: nothing matches the disappointment of getting what you want, only to find it wasn't worth having in the first place.

Valerie Atkinson is department administrator at York University.

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