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Surviving Office Politics: Keep A Paper Trail

When employers want to fire someone, they are advised to keep a paper trail to justify the firing and avoid legal trouble. They want to have documentation of behavior that justifies the firing: the employee was insubordinate, failed to meet expectations, was intoxicated on the job, etc.

As an employee, take a page from the boss's playbook and keep a paper trail of your own. It can help protect you from being a victim of office politics-and it can serve you well in getting raises. Let's face it, surviving and advancing at work isn't just about doing a good job. A lot of incompetents and bullies somehow manage to not only keep their jobs, but also get promoted. Many times they do that by stepping on people like you. You may find yourself in a situation where you have to defend yourself against one of them.

Begin now, before trouble starts.
Here's how an astute employee dealt with some rather toxic corporate politics. After the story, we'll share some pointers.

Maureen had eight exemplary years with her company. From the very beginning, she kept meticulous documentation of her performance. She had a file with glowing performance reviews, memos from other department praising her work, and several awards for outstanding performance.

Because of her stellar reputation, she had been entrusted with an important product revision. The successful completion of this project would mean a lot of money for the company.

Shortly after starting the project, she got a new boss named Kathy, who was hired from outside the company. Kathy hired Jim, a smooth-talking man with a long mean streak, and assigned him to help Maureen. Jim wanted Maureen's job, and set out sabotage her work.

As progress on this project stalled, Maureen asked for a formal meeting with Kathy, and documented her charges of Jim's sabotage. Unfortunately, Kathy found Jim charming, and didn't believe Maureen. Maureen prepared a memo to Kathy, summarizing the meeting, and kept a copy for herself.

Then, Kathy gave Maureen a very poor performance evaluation. She blamed Maureen for the escalating tension with Jim, nitpicked, and lambasted her because the project was behind schedule. Maureen saw Kathy was setting her up to be fired.

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Given what was at stake, Maureen requested a meeting with the CEO. He scheduled a meeting with her and Jim, but was obviously unsure of who to believe. It seemed that he really didn't want to be bothered with this dispute. Again, Maureen documented the meeting.

Kathy was furious that Maureen had gone over her head and retaliated by taking the extreme (also unwise and illegal) step of ordering Maureen not to talk to her co-workers--and she put it in writing. Maureen kept that memo too.

Maureen then contacted the Director of Human Resources, who was horrified about the "gag order," and promptly made a couple phone calls on Maureen's behalf. The "gag order" was lifted within the hour.

Though Kathy wanted to get rid of Maureen, she subtly let Kathy know about her paper trail of excellent reviews, documented conversations, the "gag order" memo, and more. Kathy didn't dare fire her. Maureen had let Kathy know that she couldn't step on her.

Upon completing the project on-time and on-budget, despite Jim's sabotage, Maureen requested and got a transfer to another department-plus a substantial raise.

Too often, the good guys lose in situations like this, and we applaud Maureen for coming out on top. Here's a few things Maureen could have done even better.

Use email
Be sure to use e-mail to document meeting outcomes, and then keep the e-mail as a "paper trail." Otherwise, you have no proof of when the memo was actually written or even if it was actually sent.

Make use of your HR Department
Maureen might have made more extensive use of the Human Resources Department. If your company has good HR people, you can benefit by bringing them in early when problems like this arise.

Read and understand the employee handbook
Make sure you have read and understand your employer's policies (see the employee handbook). For example, some companies won't allow a very new supervisor like Kathy to give a performance review, and Maureen could have had her bad review thrown out.

Keep records of your expenses and more
One important additional piece of advice is to keep your own records on any expenses incurred and any meals or gifts received from a vendor or supplier. Some companies periodically audit both suppliers and employees on this.

A good paper trail can help you to protect the position you've worked so hard to achieve, and to keep moving up the ladder.



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