Updated on 03.12.09

14 Tactics for Getting Ahead At Work – No Matter What Your Job Is

Trent Hamm

In every place I’ve worked, I’ve noticed a handful of patterns. Some people seem to fit in well, do their work, and usually get the perks – opportunities, raises, and promotions. Others are just kind of “there” – they do their work, but they never step up to the plate and rarely get the perks – and often wondering why the perks don’t come their way. Still others are disgruntled and bitter, rarely doing anything beyond the bare minimum, loafing every chance they get, and simply filling up space until a reason comes up for them to be turned over.

Obviously, from the perspective of personal finance success, you’re far better off being in the first group than in the other two. The people in that first group are the ones that get the raises, the promotions, and the opportunities. Why? Because they’re the ones that actually provide significant value for their employers. This phenomenon is true no matter what the job is, from a computer programming shop to a research lab or a fast food restaurant.

The most interesting part is that people actively choose which group they’re in through their actions. Some people come in the door and look for opportunities to get ahead. Others go in, watch the clock, do their work, and get their paycheck. Still others try to throw sand in the gears.

If you want to get ahead, here are fourteen tactics you can use, no matter where you work.

Go to work well-rested and presentable. Never show up to work looking like you just rolled out of bed. Take a shower, wear clean clothes, use deodorant, brush your teeth, and do your best to look presentable. Also, get a good night of sleep before work so that you can be as mentally and physically fresh as possible. Every interaction you have in the workplace will reflect either positively or negatively upon you, and you can very easily increase the positive-ness of those interactions by just taking a half an hour to make yourself presentable.

Minimize negative comments. Every work environment provides ample opportunities for negativity, whether it’s just workplace gossip or your manager is asking questions. While it might feel good to participate in the negativity of gossip, don’t (feel free to listen, but don’t jump in with the negativity). Even when supervisors are seeking comments on other workers, hold back on the negativity and look for what positives you can find. Negativity in the workplace drags everyone down and positivity lifts everyone, so stick with the positive.

Don’t “backstab” anyone. Along those same lines, you’ll have many opportunities to “sell out” others in the workplace. Avoid it at all costs. If you have an opportunity to discuss other workers or particular situations, you might perceive that piling on those workers or those situations will benefit you – rarely is that actually true. Instead, look for the positives you can outline about anyone or anything.

If you have downtime, find something useful to do. Many workplaces have times where there is simply downtime – you’re waiting on new customers, you’ve finished your current project, and so on. That downtime is key in separating the people who get ahead from the people who get left behind. Find things to do with that time that’s useful. Clean up your workspace. Clean up the store. Work on a low-priority project. Improve your skills. There are always things that can be done – don’t just sit or stand around to be told what to do.

Do every task you’re given as well as you can. When you’re given a minor, menial task, it’s often very tempting to do it with minimal effort just to get it done. You’re supposed to sweep the floor, so you do it mindlessly and do a mediocre job. You’re given something to type up, but you don’t bother to check it for typos. You’re given a mundane system administration task, so you overlook a basic step. Instead of falling into that trap, try to give your complete focus to the task at hand and do it as best you can.

Learn from (and emulate) the people who do their job well. In most workplaces, it’s easy to identify the top workers. They’re the ones that managers defer to and ask for advice. They’re the ones who always seem to come through with the things that need to be done. As a result, they have job stability, plenty of options, and likely a very solid salary. Learn from these people. Ask them plenty of questions about how they get things done. Watch what they do, particularly with their downtime. In some situations, it might even be appropriate to ask them to be your mentor.

Build positive relationships with everyone in the workplace. You do nothing but gain from building a positive relationship with everyone in your workplace, from the highest level of management that you can easily interact with to the person who empties the trash cans. Be friendly to everyone. Ask how their day is going. Find some common interests and talk about them. The more people you develop positive relationships with (both up and down the hierarchy), the better off you’ll be.

Ignore poisonous people. Every workplace seems to have a poisonous person or two. I know I’ve interacted with plenty of such people in my years – and in a few cases, they’ve really reduced the quality of the work environment and made me more negative. If you’re stuck with a poisonous person, just minimize all interaction with that person. When you do have to interact, stick with the facts and get back to your own tasks. That person might spew some poison about you, but most workplaces have pretty clearly identified the poisonous people and take what they say with a grain of salt, so don’t let their responses or backstabbing bother you. Get your work done and move on with life.

Never use your sick leave as “extra vacation.” In one environment where I worked, this problem was endemic. As soon as a person had enough sick leave built up to take even a single day off, that person called in “sick” like clockwork – with one exception. Want to guess who the one person was that received a raise and then, later, a promotion was? It’s fine to use your sick leave when you’re actually ill, but consistent and reliable presence in the workplace is a huge benefit for your long-term career goals.

Improve yourself in your spare time. The simplest way to do this is to work on getting in better shape. Get some exercise and eat a healthy diet. Doing this will improve both your energy and your appearance, things that are purely beneficial in any work environment. If you have a job that requires some specific skills, find ways to improve those in your spare time as well. Keep up to date on your specific area of knowledge. Learn what you would need to know to take the next step in your career.

Step up to challenges when they present themselves. When a challenging situation comes up, don’t shy away from it. Step up to the plate and give it your best shot. If you think it might be over your head, ask for help when you need it. If you show yourself able to handle challenging tasks, you’ll become a more valuable employee, and a more valuable employee gets more perks.

Be a leader when it’s needed. When difficult situations occur, every workplace benefits from having someone they can rely on as a leader. Be the person that speaks for the workers during a meeting. Be the person who helps people out when they’re going through a crisis. Eventually, you’ll find that people simply come to you by default – and that includes management.

Own up to your own mistakes. If you mess up (and you inevitably will), admit to the mistake and do what you can to rectify it. Don’t try to hide it. Don’t try to pass the blame to others. Everyone makes mistakes. The winners are the people who own up to those mistakes and then go the extra mile to fix the created problem.

Stand up for yourself when you want a raise or promotion. If you want a raise or a promotion, be clear about it. Ask your supervisor directly for what you want – and be able to make a good case for it. If you get a “no,” ask what you need to do to put yourself in position for it and do just that. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one will.

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  1. Nick says:

    Nice article Trent. I also think it is useful to develop personal, but objective, measuring sticks against your work.

    That way you aren’t always looking outside yourself for confirmation of “good work”.

    One question I always try to ask myself is, “Would I be happy showing this project/paper/report to my parents?”

    Typically, if I slack off, the answer to that question is no.

  2. I like the tips, Trent.

    Although I have to wonder if many of these are simply “the way people are”. For example, in a business ethics class I took in business school, we learned that many ethics researchers believe that your moral compass is developed during adolescence.

    Let’s say one person thinks it’s ethical to call in sick to work even when they are not sick. They will probably continue to do so. If another person, however, doesn’t think it is ethical, then they will probably never do it.

    I know many people that call in sick when they aren’t and they still seem to get ahead…

  3. Johanna says:

    I like this list overall. But I’m not sure that “step up to challenges when they present themselves” is universally a good idea. In my line of work, there are certain challenges that just will not turn out well no matter how hard or how skilfully they’re approached. That doesn’t mean that effort and skill don’t matter – it means that if the task is done well, the result will be middling, but if it’s done poorly, the result will be really bad. And “Look, I averted disaster!” doesn’t sound nearly as good at a performance review as “Look at my great result!”

    If I were to volunteer to take these tasks on whenever they came up (and they come up often), I’d be left with no time for tasks that would really allow me to shine, and I’d quickly acquire a reputation as a doormat who can be dumped on whenever there’s a task that nobody else wants to do. I don’t see that as a way of getting ahead. Instead, I do my share of the challenges, and let other people do theirs.

  4. Megan says:

    One thing I would add to the tip about improving yourself in your spare time is to have interest outside of work. My boss is a superhuman at his job, and during his downtime he enjoys whitewater kayaking, distance biking, building things (like a water barrell) and playing with his kids.

    Contrast that with my co-worker (also an extremely good employee) who when asked about her hobbies actually said that she was “pretty one-dimensional and boring.”

    Guess who people want to interact with more? Guess who just got a promotion?

    Having a life outside of the office improves your life within it.

  5. rookie manager says:

    “Minimize negative comments. […] Even when supervisors are seeking comments on other workers, hold back on the negativity and look for what positives you can find. Negativity in the workplace drags everyone down and positivity lifts everyone, so stick with the positive.”

    As a rookie manager, it can get very frustrating when nobody comes to me with the negative stuff – things fester for months. Of course it is important how you bring it up, and how often. Plus you should also tell management when someone has done well/helped you out – I love to hear about strengths.

    And I do need to bring up negative things to senior management (and with the person themselves). I still haven’t figured out a good way.

  6. ChrisD says:

    Re calling in sick (when you’re not), on the whole I agree that this is wrong, but if I had as little holiday as you in the US, I might start to think that sick days can count as supplementary holidays. Also is it really healthy to only have 10 days off a year?!
    Re owning up to messing up. This is so important. Once I left some gels out to dry and someone ruined them, but told me immediately. Sure I was a bit annoyed at the time, but at least I knew what happened. Looking back I’m so grateful they didn’t just leave me to wonder who would have done such a thing and not say anything. And likewise when I tipped over someone else’s experiment, I was mortified, but after telling them immediately, they got it fixed it up and running again in 5 minutes with only a slight reduction in the results.

  7. leslie says:

    I think I’ll send this to all my coworkers!

  8. Andrew says:

    And # 15…Don’t read this at work when you should be working :)

  9. Battra92 says:

    @ChrisD: Where I work we get 11 Holidays, 10 vacation days and then 5 sick days. After you work here for 5 years it goes up to 3 weeks. They also give you the option of “buying” time off which lets you purchase up to a week of vacation but basically it’s just the cost of your salary taken out in 26 easy payments instead of one difficult one.

    I would love the French workweek (although it hasn’t helped their long stagnant bout of unemployment) because personally being away from home for 10 hours a day (including the commute) is something that I really hate.

    Also, if you want to get ahead, I would say learn ways to make the company look good. If you can solve a problem and get good PR for the company, expect to get some recognition when normally you get little.

  10. Carmen says:

    I consider these things to be basic common sense, but after working and going to school in which I work on various projects, I’m no longer shocked at how many people lack (or ignore) these basic rules. If someone didn’t follow these rules before, I hope they really take your advice to heart and really see and appreciate how these tips make the workplace not only better for themselves, but for those around them.

  11. Gabriel says:

    I interned this past summer with a major corporation. I found that the quality people liked best in me is that, when they asked me to do something, I said “I can do that” and did it. When you’re just starting out, you CANNOT be picky with what you’re assigned, whether it’s making coffee or making copies. Just say yes. Even if you don’t know how to do it, say, “I haven’t done that before, but I’ll learn it now!”

  12. IRG says:

    Trent writes:
    “Some people seem to fit in well, do their work, and usually get the perks – opportunities, raises, and promotions. Others are just kind of “there” – they do their work, but they never step up to the plate and rarely get the perks – and often wondering why the perks don’t come their way.”

    Actually, Trent, in some companies, it does NOT work that way at all. For example, some people “fit in” (whatever that means, see below) and are part of the favored management clique/group (yes, that still applies to adults in offices. Some places are really built on high-school-like behavior.) and do well, even if they do NOT perform their work well or as required. They can and do get away with doing less than /as well as others, but still get credit for it because they are “liked.”

    On the other hand, some folks are not part of management’s favorites, don’t “fit in” (again, what does that mean?) do the work (a lot of times even better than those in the favorites group) and get nowhere. No perks, no praise, etc.

    A lot of people step up, volunteer to do more and as others have pointed out, often end up losing big time. (You could write columns just on this aspect.) Many of the best and brightest in fact are “set up” to fail this way by incompetent management, who need someone to blame when their own “stuff” doesn’t work. (I’ve seen exceptional employees marked for life in a company when, to please their bosses, they went against their own best interests and beliefs, to do what the company wanted and then got royally dumped/screwed when a cockamamie idea failed, as they knew it would –but they shut up, lest they be considered negative, and did the work.)

    Would that work was indeed about performance and the actual work.

    The idea that the workplace is fair and based solely on performance is a joke. Reviews, despite all kinds of quantitative aspects, are generally subjective. Highly subjective.

    And the workplace is full of backstabbers, most notably at the management level. Where you have little to no recourse. We’ve all seen the best performers get knifed in the back while non-performers often get ahead.

    Sorry to have such a negative view, but I and friends have worked in lots of very different industries in various jobs. We’ve been lucky to see a handful of places where strong management focused on performance alone. These people worked honestly and ethically to develop and reward and keep their staffs. They are, sadly, the exception to the rule.

    You bring up the issue of negativity. I’m fascinated when people use that term in business because it is so subjective and has different meanings to different people. Usually staff vs management.

    In many firms, when the staff brings up ideas and suggestions that many managers don’t like, the staff member(s) is labeled negative in many, if not all, environments. When staffers dare to differ in expressed opinions with managers in many places, the staff is, again, labeled negative with all sorts of overt and not so obvious punishment.

    I’ve worked in companies where staffers, for example, focused on making the customers happy and satisfied, suggested things to help customers. Imagine their surprise when they found out that they were NEGATIVE because their ideas did not jibe with what “management” felt was best for the company. (Customers be damned. It’s all about “the company.”) They were deemed negative because they did not take the company line when trying to help customers. Or when questioning behavior and strategies that they considered problematic.

    This happens at all levels (from customer service to sales and marketing) and it’s a major factor in employee dissatisfaction.

    Your article is well-meaning, but seriously naive about today’s corporate world, where managers pit people and divisions against each other and “play” their staffs whatever way they need (illegal, unethical, etc.) to get what they want.

    Once upon a time, doing your job well was indeed the way to get ahead.

    Finally, what exactly do you mean by fitting in?
    If you “fit in” to an environment where management lies to employees, abuses them, rips off their work, takes advantage of customers, or ignores them, etc. is that a GOOD THING?

    Fitting in in many companies is about hanging out with people, daily drinking, playing certain sports or games, socializing, etc. A lot is about non-work stuff. Some people are excellent workers but they don’t choose to excessively share their off-work time and/or the same interests as their peers or bosses. When they don’t, they are subtly (and not so subtly) deemed non-team players (they hate the office parties? Must be a misfit.) and misfits. I’ve seen managers force people to drink after work…or else.

    And we all know the folks in an office who really “fit in” and who do NOTHING. But they have jobs while others who are not “like” the boss, get tossed. No, Trent, it’s not about the work.

    You shouldn’t have to fit in to the workplace other than doing your job and NOT interferring with the work of others (which many employees do in zillions of ways, deliberately and otherwise, and are never penalized. There are lots of saboteurs in offices, who think they are sabotaging a co-worker or management to get ahead, but actually put the company at risk. They are rarely punished.).

    And as for owning up to mistakes? Most work environments are all about covering up. At all levels, especially management, where staffers are often blamed for what are management’s errors.

    Trent writes:
    Be the person that speaks for the workers during a meeting.

    Agreed. But be prepared for the consequences, which are usually you being labeled uncooperative, negative and a troublemaker.

    Work is only as good as the quality of the managers and the quality of the leadership.

    Take a look at the work world today,Trent. It’s a sad, sick place with inappropriate, if not outright illegal, behavior.

    It’s filled with thieves, greedy bastards and illegal and unethical activities.

    Yes, there are good peoples and companies, but they are few and far between. (and a shout out to these fabulous people, who often don’t do well beyond a certain point, because many companies do not reward these fab folks).

    Succeeding today is not generally based, alas, on the golden rule.

    Articles like this, which are well meaning and sincere from your experience and perspective, simply do not reflect the real world that many people face every day.

    Try being honest and ethical in most workforces today. It’s like asking to be fired.

    (And did we mention the way in this tough market some companies, to cut expenses, no longer “fire” but dismiss employees “for cause” , which is often manufactured, just so their unemployment taxes do not go up? Yea, companies screw people twice–firing them even with sterling work records–which ensures those people can’t get unemployment insurance. Have you seen those articles?)

    The really important thing today is to try to find a workplace/company that upholds real values, the ones that matter to you.

    Barring that, find a way where you don’t actively have to screw anyone (customers, co-workers) to get ahead.

    Good people, under severe pressure to maintain their own livelihood, will often do very, very bad things. Especially in fearful times like these.

  13. Craig says:

    Working hard and being friendly always help. Expanding your skill base also will help.

  14. J says:

    Of course in the era of PTO (Paid Time Off), sick and vacation time are melded together in an arrangement that’s very beneficial for the employer, but sucks for the employee, since no one can plan a sick day.

    I’m glad that my employer has a “sick day” policy that says “if you are sick — stay home”. Managers are tasked to look for people abusing the policy, but by and large, most people are (gasp) adults about it. Having policies with a set number of sick-days is just self-defeating, and encourages people to come in while sick, making other people sick in the process.

    Personally, I’ve had years where I took one sick day and other ones where I took seven. You can’t really plan when something is going to take you out, or how long it’s going to take to get well.

  15. sir jorge says:

    The part about not going to work like you just rolled out of bed, won’t work with independent counter culture businesses.

    Case in point: record stores, skate shops, snowboard shops and especially tech work.

    I’ve noticed from being a Tech III Manager for 5 years now, that people that show up “presentable” and show up dressed nice not only do not get the job, they do not fit in with the culture of tech work and counter culture (in my case action sports) lifestyles. They are the laughing stocks of the interview process.

  16. Ray Sanchez says:

    I like how you said “Don’t backstab” anyone. This can really come back to haunt you in the workplace, so it was a great add to the list. Thanks for the good read! :)

  17. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    IRG, it sounds to me like you work in an office culture that you truly despise. If that’s the case, it’s probably time to move on.

  18. Battra92 says:

    Sir Jorge, I’m working as an IT guy and I go a day or two without shaving, I wear clothes which fit the dress code but aren’t exactly the designer styles of other departments and some of my cube decorations scream geek. Typical tech guy, huh? Well at some companies, yeah. Unfortunately I stick out a lot since I’m the kid of the office.

    Oh well! :)

  19. George says:

    Half of the managers that I’ve worked for have a tendency to assign more work to those who do their work well. Those who aren’t doing their work well are effectively rewarded for doing poor work.

    On the other hand, I’ve been in the same position for 15 years and have had 8 managers. Of those 8 managers, one passed the chore to a successor and only one left with a promotion… the others were effectively demoted or, in one case, fired.

    Why do I stay in this position? Because the pay is substantial, there’s a conventional pension plan, and after 15 years, I now get 4 weeks of vacation per year.

    Sick leave – Since we’ve not switched to a PTO system, one should keep a bank of sick leave approriate to one’s age/liabilities (e.g. as I approach age 50, I like to maintain 3 weeks as a reserve). On the other hand, the only benefit to keeping more than that reserve is that I can, in theory, have an earlier retirement… not much of an incentive to leave it unused since if you never used it you’d only be able to retire early by 1 year after 26 years of service!

  20. Debbie M says:


    Having loads of sick leave comes in handy if you suffer a horrible injury or find you need surgery or some other long-term leave. If you have enough, it can take the place of short-term disability insurance. At my workplace, you can also donate it, which feels good.

  21. SP says:

    Don’t just do your job well. This isn’t school anymore, and you won’t get rewards for just doing excellent work (though, that is the base of it). Make sure you promote yourself and that your boss knows you are doing your job well. Try to do it without being an annoying brownnose too. :)

  22. Michael says:

    I get 10 sick days a year. If we don’t use them, we lose them. We get 5 vaca days, whatever you don’t use, rolls over, but can;t exceed 10 days total for the year.

    I ‘lost’ 18 sick days before this year, which spanned most of 2 years. 18 days!! that’s a MONTH of work! There’s no bonus for coming to work and letting those days go. I systematically add at least a sick day per month, by scheduling a doctor’s appointment or whatever in the middle of the day. It’s paid sick time.

    I’m lucky I’m healthy, and can work thru illness without getting others sick, but the writing was on the wall when 18 days were lost, and i maxed out vaca days. Aside from the appts, it’s a free day. I don’t feel the least bit guilty. I wish I had started it earlier! I’m pretty good at my job too. I schedule Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursdays, so as not to seem greedy w/ Mon/Fri takeoffs.

    I’m friendly with everyone in my office, but I am outside the cliques, and ultimately the realm of promotions. They’re just not there. The writing is on the wall there too, so to speak. Go where you’re valued for your work, and friendliness doesn’t mean you have to gossip.

  23. Tony says:


    Are you a Howard Stern fan? Just wondering, because Howard was on a rant this morning about how whatever your job is, you should do it well. Whether it’s a dish washer, waiter, janitor, radio host, etc.

    Not accusing you of ripping him off or anything, I was just wondering if maybe you listened and that was the inspiration for this article.

  24. Scotty says:

    IRG, you definately have an interesting view of the workplace. On many points, I don’t disagree. I think you’ve hit a lot of the subtleties about the workplace social environment. I do very much agree that being the person who always speaks up and always brings issues up can often be labeled negatively. Not necessarily as a ‘trouble’maker, but definately a bit of a thorn in everyone’s sides. I’ve worked with several over the years, and I think the key is subtlety. you can definately be the person to bring things up, but choose a time and a place. Being the person to speak up during the meetings isn’t always a good thing.

    The workplace isn’t necessarily very different than any other social environment. After all, you’re spending at least half of your waking day there. Like anything else, you have to do a little bit to fit in and socialize. Like in school, you can be an honor student, but if you have no friends and talk to no-one, it’s virtually impossible to gain a positive image.

    I don’t think the workplace is quite as negative as you might paint it, but I do think you make some good points.

  25. Cory says:

    I’d add: Beware of the boss who follows the “manage by conflict” method of dealing with their staff.

    While I have been lucky to avoid it, my best friend had a boss like that. She would intentionally spread misinformation and distrust among the staff. The idea was to get everybody competing against each other.

    Fortunately for him, most of the staff had worked together long enough to figure out what was going on within a couple weeks. The “boss” was soon replaced by someone who believed that working as a team accomplished more than trying to get everyone to sabotage each other.

  26. greg says:

    another important point is not to waste the time of your colleagues: come to work on time, don’t be late for meetings, respect deadlines and don’t let people wait too long for a reply.

    This would seem to be essential courtesy (like not spitting on the floor), but many people have a problem with this.

  27. guinness416 says:

    In most places I’ve worked there’s less slack for these things for entry level and young staff but once it’s established you do your job well coming in late, or in jeans, or phoning in sick matters a whole lot less. Everyone knows you meet your deadlines, keep clients happy, etc.

    I have always taken and do take the old “mental health days” without apology (albeit not on a regular basis) and am well aware my colleagues and staff do the same. It’s never affected my career. On the other hand we’re also not told we have 5 or 10 or whatever number of sick days and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to work somewhere as bureaucratic as that suggests. Like J above we’re treated as adults – if you need to go to the dentist or to meet a tradesperson at your house so be it, and if you’re sick you’re sick. We’ve had people need, for example, three week to recover from a bout with pneumonia. It’s all made up for with late nights and weekend hours needed to meet deadlines.

  28. Joanna says:

    @IRG: Sounds like you may fall into the 3rd group Trent was talking about. Some of the things you said have a grain of truth as the workplace is not full of Pollyannas, but you choose your attitude and how you respond to negative things that happen. Even if someone actually *is* trying to backstab you, you will escalate the situation by treating them as though they are. Don’t pay attention to things that don’t merit your attention. Chosing to write off bad treatment by others as a personal issue on their part while, of course, maintaining your distance when it seems prudent to do so is the best way to deal with such a workplace.

    Trent: I think your advice is quite solid and certainly gives me a kick in the pants. :-)

  29. Sergio says:

    I agree with IRG, in a lot of companies there are groups of people that only get ahead at work by making other people look bad. Specially in the ones that have been on the market for years, this kind of people make it to management positions. This situation is very difficult to the fresh people willing to succeed along with the company. New people try to comply with the goals and values of the place, make things the best they can.

    But medium level or medium – high management people dont like to hear suggestions. When you try to improve some particular process (well founded of course) you usually get a “we dont do things like that here”, or only a “we’ll consider” followed by a troublemaker badge.

    Unfortunately things right now aren´t easy (well its not like they have been ever), but there’s a lot of rivals and competition in the laboral world and a very little ofer in job opportunities.

    That old and sad manager puts all his efforts in letting you know there are a lot of people out there willing to do the things I do for less money (I get a very very very little paycheck at the end of the month). Maybe he’s right, specially right now, but that’s not the best way to encourage workers. (Imagine this, one of the corporate values is the “respect to the individual”. General meetings usually end like this: “Everyone knows what they’re capable of, If you dont like it we dont care” (plus an stupid cynical smile on the face). The new CEO is a very nice person, but the managers that arrive before them are horrible horrible persons.

    Sorry about my writting skills, English is not my home language.

    Best regards from Mexico! (I really enjoy reading your blog).

    Trent, you’re right about changing environment/company, but for the recently college graduated people(with little money and big debts) there is no real room to move,

  30. Michele says:

    Some people don’t want to get ahead. They want to do their work, collect their pay, and go home. Seriously.

  31. Jim says:

    I’m glad I don’t work where IRG does. But that does make a good point. Bad management or a bad work environment can trump all of Trents good suggestions. So I think the #1 item of advice before all the others is to make sure you work somewhere that values good work.

    Use of sick days will really depend on the company policy. Too many work policies nowadays punish healthy people and too few workplaces give adaquate time off. I don’t see anything wrong with occasional use of sick day for days off. As guiness416 said, treat it as “mental health days”. Just don’t abuse the situation.


  32. Joey says:

    IRG made many good points, including this one:

    “Fitting in in many companies is about hanging out with people, daily drinking, playing certain sports or games, socializing, etc. A lot is about non-work stuff. Some people are excellent workers but they don’t choose to excessively share their off-work time and/or the same interests as their peers or bosses. When they don’t, they are subtly (and not so subtly) deemed non-team players (they hate the office parties? Must be a misfit.) and misfits. I’ve seen managers force people to drink after work…or else.”

    The entry, as usual, is prescriptive, but ultimately unrealistic.

  33. Nice advice, but the sad thing these days you can do everything right and still get laid off . . .

    I guess you need to take this advice to the next gig . . .

  34. Sara says:

    Great! Do you have any tips on how to ask for a raise? What ot say, what not ot say, if you should ask for a certain number or if you should ask and let the boss decide how much should you get.
    I’m planing on asking for one BUT it is not like I’m quitting if I do not get a raise – and the boss knows that. I love my work!
    So, some tips would be nice!

  35. ladyaquarian says:

    IRG, I wonder if you work for State Govt like I do! I transferred to the same position, different state office so that I would work where I live (no more commute which saves a good deal of $ each month). Hindsight is 20/20.

    A certain few do the majority of the work and are given the projects/work because they are known to be hard workers and will get the job done right (I like being in this group of few). Others do personal things such as balancing their checkbooks, checking their personal email, shopping online, making personal calls, etc.

    One example which still baffles me is this – we were having interviews for a position and the “lady” that sits directly behind me was carrying on a very inappropriate conversation with a male co-worker using profanity. With the gentleman waiting right at my desk for his interview, I was a tad embarrassed. I discreetly walked to her cubicle, quietly reminded her that we had a visitor and her response was a screamed, “I don’t give a f***!”

    People like that will never change unless they are forced to…I can complain and be snubbed (which is fine…I don’t want to “socialize” with that person) but management needs to step up to the plate.

    How said that I’m looking forward to a couple of retirements and some “changing of the guard” that is rumored to be occuring soon…hopefully there will be some positive change!

  36. Mia says:

    Another benefit of being in group 1, when layoffs are being considered, the people in group 1 are usually the last on the list.
    I do have a comment about 3 of the tactics listed:

    Don’t “backstab” anyone.
    Minimize negative comments.
    Ignore poisonous people.

    You really have to be careful about this, while I don’t encourage back stabbing or unnecessary negativity – there are occasions where the truth hurts. And sugar coating the reality won’t improve things. In fact, never looking at the bad or the wrong, only allows it to continue and will keep your company, your department, your team from moving to the next level. There is a tactful way of bringing up areas of improvement without throwing someone under the bus. If you must name names, then be sure to focus on the behavior or actions that need improving and not attack the person.

  37. cookie says:

    IRG, thank you so much for your insightful post. As my manager once actually told me, “you have to adapt to your environment.” My workplace uses nepotism and personal recommendations as its main hiring strategies. The average worker in my company is a woman over age 45 with three or more children, has no post-secondary education, is morbidly obese and/or a heavy smoker, spends hours a week gossiping during work hours, and demands above-average annual raises without putting in the extra time or upgrading her skills. According to Trent, these kinds of workers should not be successful. Yet I am the one who has been told I need to improve, even though I hold several post-secondary credentials, work more productively and have proposed and implemented more ideas than my co-workers. Unfortunately, our performance reviews are partly based on how much of a team player our managers think we are. My manager said that I need to kiss more ***.

  38. Anonymous says:

    Why would I want a promotion, so I can work more hours and have more stress? I think it’s clear you want to be a good worker and do a good job, but if you are good, the demands will only increase. What if you’re happy with your pay and your hours, how do you maintain without running ever harder on that hamster wheel?

  39. kitty says:

    I think these are good tips. Certainly different things may work differently in different companies, but for the most part I agree. I would like to add that where applicable, one needs to keep one’s skills current, try to always have critical skills yet learn new technologies as well. I would second the advice above of being nice to everybody. You never know – some time from now this person may be your manager. Be nice to a cashier in a cafeteria too: the guy who stays in line behind you may just get the bad impression about you if you are rude. Same guy may become your manager one day.

    Regarding sick days. My employer (IBM) doesn’t limit sick days – if you are sick you can stay home – as long as your work is done. Nobody even keeps track of sick days. I think if you are sick for a long period of time e.g. a month, the manager needs to do some paperwork – if he bothers. I am not sure, though. But… at the end of the year you are still evaluated on your accomplishments and you are graded on a curve relative to everyone else. Not just in your immediate group, across groups as well, all the way up to the 5th management level. Notice, it’s accomplishments, not how you spent your time. So you can be sick for a long time, but in the time that remains, you still need to accomplish at least as much as everyone who isn’t sick. And still meet the deadlines. You can also work from home if you wish assuming you are there for critical meetings (although in recent years more and more meetings are teleconferences).

    I noticed an interesting thing. When people have 10 days or so, they tend to take them. During the 25 years I’ve been with IBM, even before the current evaluation/ranking system was introduced, even in the 80s when we still had full employment policy, I haven’t seen a single person take a sick day when they weren’t really sick. If anything, people coming to work when sick has always been more of a problem. Now we can work from home, so this is less of a problem, although occasionally someone shows up sneezing.

    One I talked with someone and mentioned our policy of unlimited number of sick days. He said – “oh but this is terrible. It means that you only take sick days when you are really sick”. I said “well, yes, this is the idea”.

    I think these companies that limit number of days should think about it. As to putting all days – vacation, sick, etc. – together, I think it’s terrible. All it means is that some people will be coming to work sick, infect others and productivity will drop. Some other people will just take more days. Doesn’t make sense to me, at least not in places where the type of job allows evaluation based on accomplishments.

    DDFD: #29: “Nice advice, but the sad thing these days you can do everything right and still get laid off . . .”
    Unfortunately this is very true. Good evaluations may reduce your risk somewhat, but not eliminate it. Especially in large corporations where the decisions are often made 4 levels above your immediate manager. It’s very demoralizing too even for those who stay, especially when you see very good people laid off. You are asking yourself “why him and not me?”, and if the choice seems random or just luck (e.g. being on a critical project at the right time), it’s really scary.

  40. littlepitcher says:

    The entire idea of “corporate culture” almost certainly originated with a bigot attempting to exclude working-class, women, minorities, etc.

    No article of this sort ever addresses the subject of the misfit and how to work around this problem. As a disfigured individual who has been through the last-hired first-fired revolving door more than a few times, it would be wonderful to hear some creative ideas for how to make the concept of “fit” sufficiently irrelevant to management to eradicate or minimize job insecurity.

  41. Johanna says:

    Maybe there wouldn’t be a problem with people using sick days as vacation days if American employers weren’t so stingy with vacation time to begin with. If I only got 5 vacation days a year, you can bet that I’d be doing everything I could to game the system for extra time off too.

    Where I work, we get 15 vacation days a year, and anyone who’s been here longer than five years gets 20. We also get 10 sick days, and nobody ever takes them all.

  42. guinness416 says:

    That’s a good point Johanna. My family in Dublin all get anything from 20-35 vacation days a year, and rarely if ever phone in sick. Do some people really get five vacation days a year? That’s absolutely shocking.

  43. Anne says:

    Re: IRG’s comments. I think you are right in many ways. I spent many years working for the government and saw so much of this type of behavior. There were many individuals in management who were ethical and competent and even excellent. And there were many who were not. There was one characteristic which most people who got ahead had in common: sucking up. It might be pretending to agree with the big shots even you don’t or willingness to act on any idea suggested by the boss – regardless of how ludicrous.

    Another thing I saw a lot of in government was the “promote ’em out” style of conflict management. When you had a non-performing or difficult employee it was easier to help them find another position or support them in a promotion to another department than it was to implement proper discipline.

    I thought these types of behaviors (and many others you described) were limited to government (silly me). I found out very differently when I was recruited to work for a GIGANTIC private sector company. Early in my employment, I requested an observation of top performers in their specialized areas so that I could learn to be more effective. I consistently saw these much-lauded top performers skate around the rules, break the law, etc.

    I eventually concluded that the company was filled with liars, cheaters, and thieves. I could no longer work for them. Even though I did not have another job, I gave my notice. I stepped out on blind faith that things would work out because I was doing the right thing. And they did work out. I worked for several different employers before I landed where I am now, a place where I’m valued and can grow.

    The workplace environment described by IRG is real and is awful. It is possible to work for a person or organization who values you as an individual and is in line with your personal ethics and beliefs. You just have to go for it.

  44. You know, this really hit it home for me, those rules are EXACTLY right for my work environment (which I understand isn’t always true for all work environments). I work in a consulting firm, where it’s fairly easy to switch projects… so long as managers (who talk to each other!) want you on their team.

    Perhaps because of that dynamic, which is unique I know, I have really seen Trent’s advice pay off. People who work hard, do good work, and have appropriate social skills are in demand so they have a choice of projects if they are not happy in one. They get ahead with promotions an opportunities and see the company as a place with good career advancement.

    The other people, the ones who just barely do their work but aren’t really even there mentally, live to gossip negatively, or talk inappropriately (real-life conversations I’ve heard discussed loudly in common areas: their boob jobs – “I looked like one of those National Geographic women with boobs hanging to their waists”! – or their first menstural period -no quote there it was just too gross – and childhood penis stories – I know, really??) they tend to find their jobs suck and life never really gets better as they get shuffled from bad project and bad manager to another. My company doesn’t fire, they just let people… linger… hoping the slackers will just quit and go somewhere else. Not terribly mature, but lots of managers hate to fire people and if they can take the passive route they will.

    One coworker when we were both entry-level was very nice but just… not so good at anything, and after struggling mightily to find any work at all (it got so bad that I used to give her random made-up work to help her out) she came to me for advice just before her yearly review. I knew that this would be one of the few exceptions to the “no-fire” rule, and the review would be the first official wtite-up building a case against her, so I took her to a conference room and told her, absolutely as kindly as I could, that the review wasn’t going to be good… we made a strategy that she would say she wasn’t very happy with the work and wanted to switch to our corporate infrastructure (working for HR). It worked perfectly – they were so relieved not to have to be “mean” to a nice person but not still have to have her on the team, that they gave her a glowing annual review that helped her get into the corporate office. Since that’s far away, I have no idea what happened to her since we fell out of touch pretty quickly, but it seemed like a good transition.

    Anyway, I agree with Trent… I also agree with IRG that work can easily devolve into a locker room (which I’ve also seen, and Trent himself talked about his experience at a research lab where his enthusiasm pissed off his slacker coworkers enough that they sabotaged him into getting fired). I have optimism that someone smart enough to see the writing on the wall can find a way to transistion to a less toxic atmosphere somehow, somewhere. Recession notwithstanding.

  45. Marcia says:

    wow, great post and great comments too.

    I’ve worked at and heard of places that IRG is talking about. Toxic workplaces. If you can’t get ahead, you have to move on. The place I work now is wonderful…but I followed my old bosses here. It’s full of hardworking people and very few egos.

    On the sick time…at my last company, they let you take as much as you needed. I thought this was great…when you are sick, you stay home. A female coworker constantly complained that she’d rather get 5 extra days lumped with vacation…but then again, she comes in sick ALL THE TIME. Because the whole place will shut down without her. No thanks. Keep your germs at home.

    Here I only get five days…I’m not sure how I feel about that. In the last 10 years, I’d say my sick days have ranged from 2 to 7, with an average of about 3 or 3.5. (The 7 was the year I had a baby, was working FT, nursing, pumping, not sleeping…). At least I’m allowed to use half of them if my kid is sick.

  46. Sharon says:

    Littlepitcher, you are probably covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even if you do not have disabilities, you are almost certainly being perceived as disabled. You might want to talk to a disability lawyer about your employment experiences and see if anything happened that is actionable.

  47. BonzoGal says:

    At the company for which I currently work, “fitting in” means that you’re good at what you do and you’re enthusiastic about what the company does. That’s it. We have a hugely diverse population here, and it doesn’t matter what your gender, skin color, religion, education level, etc. are- it just matters that you’re competent and willing to pitch in. The folks who end up either not getting hired or who get “pushed out” are the ones who display an “I don’t give a crap” attitude.

    Guess I’m lucky- this is a great place to work, and people are recognized for doing their best, no matter what job level they’re in or what their perceived “difference” might be.

  48. SoCalGal says:

    Wow…this is certainly an enlightening thread!

    IRG, although I think you make some good and valid points, my experience is that not every company is as negative an environment as you paint. There are good and bad aspects of every job and every company. My philosophy is that if the work environment becomes so toxic that it begins to poison my personal life, I must leave and save myself!! Fortunately, this has happened to me only once, and leaving was the best thing I ever did for myself and my career.

    Scotty, I so much agree with you that work is truly a social place. You have to take the time to get to know people enough to take the right approach with each, in order to get what you need to do your job effectively. If you don’t take the time to develop business relationships or at times, friendships with your co-workers, you will ultimately run into a brick wall. I can say that personally, I am much more inclined to drop everything and provide ASAP data to someone who has approached me in a friendly and professional manner. And, later, they will usually do the same for me.

    Trent, thanks as always for providing another thought-provoking article.

  49. disavow says:

    Excellent article! I’ve already shared it with both my mentor and mentee.

  50. TStrump says:

    Great tips!
    I’m wondering if these tips work in all areas … I worked in the public sector for a while, and let’s just say, people didn’t like to take responsibility or own up to their mistakes.

  51. Tracy says:

    George said: “Half of the managers that I’ve worked for have a tendency to assign more work to those who do their work well. Those who aren’t doing their work well are effectively rewarded for doing poor work.”

    ^^^^^THIS. It happens ALL the time. It’s such a double edged sword, because until/if you get promoted (which is not always possible or guaranteed), that peer who’s doing 70% of the work that you are is getting paid exactly the same.

  52. urmel says:

    Trent – I like your list; these things are in line with my idea of what it should be like and what I hope will work out in my present workplace. My experience with my past job at a big corporation was more in line with what IRG wrote in comment #10, though. An increasingly toxic work environment and unethical behaviour – unfortunately not a rare exception.

  53. Attagirl says:

    Regarding the comment that some managers assign more work to those who do their work well, and those who don’t are effectively rewarded for poor work. Yes, that’s certainly true that some coworkers do less work. However, it isn’t my goal in life to make sure that I do an equal amount of work compared to everyone else. To the contrary, I see that other person doing a poor job and think how ashamed I would be if that were me. I’d rather have pride in my work.

  54. mythago says:

    Not only “don’t backstab,” but “actively help others”. If you mentor people who are bright, willing to work hard and show promise, they’ll be your strongest advocates and watch your back.

  55. Lynn M says:

    Wow! That’s quite a list. All good points though! Most likely the person willing to do all these things to “get ahead” will be able to do most of these tips without concentrating on doing them or checking them off on a checklist. Many of these habits come naturally to those who are valuable, contributing employees. If these tips don’t fit your behavior and you are wise enough to take the good advice, you’ll certainly notice a difference in how you succeed on the job.

  56. ping says:

    The no. 1 tactic is not true. I have a colleague who comes to work like he doesnt care, sometimes stinking and often sloppy, always late and leaves early, but he is the favorite of the bosses because he plays golf with them. He is totally incompetent and the company will save lots of money without him. But he gets all the perks and the bosses loves him. He is dumb and for almost two years working with us still can’t figure out to use excel sheet. Its ridiculous.

  57. Gert says:

    IRG, I couldn’t agree with you more. Been there done that and the very sad fact was the company I hired into started out as ethical and upstanding and due to the economy, took advantage of the situation and turned into exactly what you described as reality.

    Complete with being fired with cause completely manufactured. I fought it and won my UI with little effort as the company had developed a reputation and it was quite obvious the HR manager lied because I cited exactly what they accused me of after telling me to do that.

    Trust no one, keep to yourself, do your job.

    That’s the only way to survive if you don’t want to sell your soul.

  58. Marie says:

    In one of the places I worked, people would take a “mental health” day, and use up a personal or a sick day in so doing. It was a great thing. They came back refreshed and more focused. We worked with special needs children. Sometimes the stress would get to you, and so taking a “mental health” day was not only good for staff; it was good for our clients, too.

    After all, the mind can get sick, too. Keep it well. :-)

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