Recent Graduates: Avoid Political Minefields in Your New Job

by Emily Guy Birken · 6 comments

Congratulations! After years of hard work in college, plus months of searching, researching, planning, and schmoozing, you’ve finally landed your first “career” job.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you can relax. The first year in a new job can still be a minefield — especially for new graduates. The culture of your new job can be full of the kind of politics you never saw when your classes and your social life were mostly separate.

Before you put your foot in your mouth during your first days, weeks, and months on the job, here are two things you should keep in mind about the political atmosphere of your workplace:

1. Young new hires are generally seen as green and untested.

During my first year of teaching, I was invited to a meeting to discuss a new program that affected my department. I had a few reservations about how things were going, and I made a couple of suggestions for making the program run more smoothly.

This was a big mistake.

Despite the fact that I was 27 and had several years of experience working with kids behind me, I was seen as a young, naïve, and most of all, inexperienced teacher. The administrator who was running this program (and the meeting) resented my suggestions, since she assumed I couldn’t possibly have the experience to make critiques.

Without meaning to (or even realizing it at the time), I made that administrator extremely unhappy with me, and it had repercussions throughout my first two years of teaching — until that administrator transferred to another school.

Even if you have great ideas and a lot of enthusiasm about improving your work place, it’s important to tread softly. Keep in mind how the “old guard” at work sees you and your attitude. There’s no reason why you can’t make suggestions, but always remember that you might need to be careful of the feelings of people who have been there longer.

If you’re not sure of the political climate, discretion is definitely the better part of valor. I would’ve had a much easier first year of teaching if I had simply taken notes at that first program meeting.

2. It’s a small world — so don’t talk about people behind their backs.

No matter what industry you work in, you’ll find that there are connections between individuals everywhere you look. But that might not be obvious when you first start.

For example, I heard some senior teachers discussing a job candidate in somewhat negative terms during my student teaching program. The following year, I found that I was working with that same candidate at another school. (Though it took me a little time to connect Ms. X from the not-great job interview with Ms. X who taught down the hall from me.) When I realized those two teachers were one-and-the-same, I was really glad I’d never mentioned the opinion I’d heard.

Similarly, you never know who’s worked with whom, or who considers whom a close personal friend. Gossip is a given in pretty much any place of employment, but you don’t need to take part. What you think of as a little harmless gossip could possibly land you trouble or earn you an enemy at work.

The Bottom Line

Working eight to ten hours a day, five days a week, with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose to hang out with, makes for some difficult-to-interpret power dynamics. But as long as you remember that you’re in the process of proving yourself (because getting hired was certainly not the end of it!), you’ll be in a good position to stand out for your excellent work — and not because of an office faux pas.

Have you ever made an office faux pas that you regretted?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Peter P. says:

    My broker just got his Masters in Psychology, I hope there is some injection of funding in mental health counselors.

  • Emily Guy Birken says:

    @Paul, I used the examples from my own career. Though I have worked in many different environments, I found the politics of public schools to be particularly difficult to navigate, although I also know friends in other work environments who experienced similar problems. I suspect that the sense of seniority in public schools has something to do with my experience–the feeling is that you “earn” the right to teach certain classes and have certain prime classrooms.

  • Paul says:

    I find it interesting that the examples mentioned in this article are teaching jobs. Isn’t it a shame that a young, but experienced teacher has to refrain from making suggestions to improve a school just because he may hurt the feelings of an older teacher? Perhaps this problem is more common in public schools, and that’s another reason to consider homeschooling or private school. On a side note, my wife is a former teacher and we homeschool.

  • Marbella says:

    Be prepared for the fact that many see you as a competitor for a better job, advancement within the company etc.

  • Connie Solidad says:

    I agree with Lance. It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with your surroundings especially in new jobs and the atmosphere involved. You never know who’s watching you to make a mistake and report you for their own inner office political game.

  • Lance@MoneyLife&More says:

    I always try to observe for a while before taking any action in new situations, unless it is urgent of course. You must familiarize yourself with your new surroundings.

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