by Don Levett Comments (35)

The Office Politics Game: How to Climb the Ladder Without Being Assassinated On Your Way to the Top

Office Politics Investment BankingYou’ve seen it all before: the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Soon-To-Be “The Star” joins the office with every intention of making you look bad – while being obscenely chipper.

But then a senior banker piles the workload onto our brave young Analyst and he withdraws from everyone one else and pretty soon, he’s just a pitted useless rock that everyone avoids.

So how can you avoid these same pitfalls when you join a new office?

“Don’t get involved in office politics” is common advice, but there’s one glaring flaw with that: office politics can still get involved with you.

Even attempting to stay “neutral” is reason enough for some to make you an enemy.

Being able to read and react to the dynamics around you is vital for anyone looking to get ahead (or even remain) in their corporate environment, and rarely is it truer than in the finance world (OK, an exception may apply if you’re trying to win the Iron Throne).

So how, specifically, do you keep advancing on your way to the top without falling off the ladder as your rivals swat it away from you?

The Following Are Lethal and Should Be Avoided:

1) Looking at Explicit Materials / Doing Stupid Things Online

Corporations keep company policy documents – in fact, you probably received one alongside your contract. Read them. Obey them.

If you break these rules you’re being foolish – and you’re also laying a trail of material that may later be used against you.

More devious parties will let things pass without correcting you, for the express purpose of stocking up their armory in case they want to knife you later on.

Keep in mind that nothing ever dies on the Internet.

Comments and stories you posted 5 years ago could easily come back to haunt you, and recruiters and bankers will almost always search for your name on Google before hiring you.

Oh, and it doesn’t even have to have your name attached – just look at the comments from this reader who lost multiple banking job offers by requesting advice online.

2) Breeding Vampire Emails

Never write an email you wouldn’t be happy to leave pinned to the front of the office door, let alone send it.

Sure, it might seem amusing… or a great way to relieve stress… but it could also result in the death of your career.

Everything you produce should pass the ‘sunshine test’.

If the email doesn’t pass this stress test, then in the best-case scenario some hung over or absent-minded officemate will inadvertently forward the poisonous paragraphs and in the worst case, a malignant operator will store it for future use.

In any event, plenty of finance employers provide line managers with reading rights of their employees’ emails, so you should assume that others are reading your emails unless company policy has explicitly forbidden it.

And unlike normal companies, banks are required to keep all emails ever sent/received on record.

So if you look at what you wrote and wouldn’t feel comfortable showing the entire world, resist the temptation to hit “Send.”

For Safety’s Sake, Do Try To:

3) Read Between the Lines

So far, so good – this basic stuff is easy.

The implicit rules are much harder to work with: not only do you need to spot them, but you also need to realize that they’re at least as important as company policy.

In fact, plenty of your colleagues won’t be aware of the finer policy details, but they’ll be acutely conscious of any of YOUR social infractions.

Study your colleagues and their interactions as much as you can – little side comments; raised eyebrows; people trying to please others.

While the investment banking career path is hierarchical, social capital doesn’t always follow lines of seniority – more senior staff will suck up to juniors if they have valuable internal or external connections, or simply a wicked sense of humor.

Alliances form. So do romances.

And if you’re ever tempted to complain about someone, assume that the person you’re about to confide in is having an affair with that person.

For all you know, they are.

Being sensitive to the implicit rules is enormously important in your own country, but even more so abroad, where cultural differences can lead to all sorts of misinterpretation – so if you’re headed to a job or a trip overseas, or even just dialing in internationally, do your homework.

This might seem obvious if you’re moving somewhere like Japan, where there’s a lot of visible ritual, but even similar societies such as America and Britain carry hazards.

For a Brit dealing with Italians, asking if they “would possibly mind” doing something might make it seem optional to them (anyone from the UK knows it translates as ‘Do this!’), whereas an American in England might have to tread more carefully simply because their accent is more likely to stress the ‘I’ at the start of a sentence – a simple inflection that can carry the impression of brashness (locals put the emphasis on the verb).

4) Be Nice to Secretaries

People who are rude to waiters really shouldn’t be surprised if their food gets spit on in the back kitchen – and that same line of reasoning applies to personal assistants.

One strategy consultant I know did a study of a FTSE 100 client and found that, in terms of the flow of decisions, the most powerful person in the organization was the CEO’s PA.

She had the power to control, prioritize, and even veto issues. And if one of those issues is of great personal importance to you, then you really don’t want to let it slip to the bottom of the pile.

Aside from this, the PA gets to see all the juiciest material – everything from the MD’s schedule with his 5 mistresses to salary/bonus details, warning notices, and a pretty good map of who in the department really wears the trousers.

You don’t want him or her leaking your secrets to others; conversely, if they are loose-lipped, being privy to the most salacious gossip can be both entertaining and illuminating.

At the very minimum, never take them for granted, and never be rude.

You don’t necessarily want to “suck up to” secretaries, especially if they can see through it easily, but you do want to make nice gestures occasionally and always take an interest in them.

5) Go Drinking with Your Co-Workers

You spend more time with these people than with your romantic partner (if you have one) – so why on earth would you willingly spend any more time with them?

For a start, avoiding office socials out of habit can leave you socially isolated.

If the hordes smell social weakness, they close ranks and it can be a tricky position to claw back from.

Without being there to represent yourself favorably at after-work drinks, this can happen with alarming alacrity.

Avoiding invitations can come across as a snub – while the occasional “it clashes with my existing plans” is seen as perfectly normal, doggedly avoiding any commitment may come to be seen as a lofty ‘rejection’, at least until you’ve settled in properly.

But there’s another solid reason to attend: as people get progressively plastered, they let their guard down a little and disclose their true feelings about the organization and the people within it.

Act on this how you will, but it’s always useful for navigating agendas and biases.

6) Never Bet Against the House

Company cultures vary widely, and you need to calibrate your behavior to the house style.

In calm or thoughtful environments, aggressive or overly playful behavior will irritate your colleagues; conversely, in highly competitive or raucous workplaces (see: the trading floor), blending into the background will render you ‘dull’.

If one approach fits all, it’s to be likeable.

Don’t be an arrogant ass: be humble, yet competent; try hard to understand where everyone else is coming from, and pay special attention to how individuals communicate.

Some people simply lack emotional intelligence, and may be abrupt or inept at communicating.

Avoid this yourself by communicating a bit of context for any requests you make, and pushing back gently for more information when you need it, all while remaining respectful. Studies show that simply adding a reason to the end of your request considerably increases your chances of getting it granted.

Being entertaining is even better, but it’s trickier to pull off without offending someone in the process: you better make sure you’re hitting the right note, or you’ll be a target for references to The Office.

And don’t whine. Constant negativity makes people run for the hills – not least because they don’t want to be tainted by association.

Ultimately, if you’re friendly, fun, and make the other people in your office’s lives easier where you can, people won’t want you to go wrong and you won’t have to contend with too many daggers in the night.

Minefields and Organized Crime? Your Final Warnings…

7) Meetings are Minefields

It’s a peculiar quirk of human nature that plenty of otherwise smart and sensible people go through a character transformation when they enter a meeting room.

IQ levels drop. Focus evaporates. Conversational tangents become oh-so-appealing.

It’s lethal stuff, and your carefully planned meeting can get sidelined by anything from holiday anecdotes to hobby horses, or whatever a participant has been queuing up to buttonhole someone about, and you have to tread a thin line between ticking the necessary boxes without stepping on egos in the process.

Before you converge, just think about the meeting in more depth: what are the participants looking to get out of this meeting? Is it information? A decision? An ego massage? To be seen looking good in front of their manager?

Often people are unaware of what’s really motivating them. So make sure everyone gets what they want, even if they don’t realize they want it.

8) Beware the ‘Godfather Gambit’ 

A friend was relating to me the story of a colleague on his trading desk…

A charming, talented, good-looking prince of a guy: everyone wanted to be in with him, and be liked by him. And he was perfectly happy to dispense this patronage.

Yet beyond a certain point he’d nudge people toward doing things for him: things that would occasionally blur the line (use your imagination).

In their haste to please him, plenty of colleagues did this. Then – BAM – he owned them. From that point onwards, he had the power to blindside their careers, and only afterward would they realize it.

Confidences and seemingly benign impropriety can be turned against you, so don’t assume your relationship with someone will always remain cordial – especially in a high-stakes environment like finance.

Got Integrity?

Although it may run counter to both public and internal perceptions of the finance industry, the best, most consistent, defense in the world of office politics is cultivating integrity.

To do so isn’t bunny-hugging hippiness; it’s a solid practice.

It guards against those who might try and sink a hook into you, and ensures that you don’t need to keep track of your screw-ups and keep tabs on everyone else who knows about them.

And it also means that when the chips don’t fall into a pretty pattern, you won’t be the one stumbling down off the ladder – or being hauled away in handcuffs as the police raid your building.


About the Author

Don Levett is the author of How to Find a Graduate Job and has produced events that brought together some of the world’s top financiers.

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  1. Avatar
    Cameron Dennis

    Hey guys, do associates usually get their own office or offices are strictly for VP’s and up?

    1. That would be very rare. Normally only senior bankers get offices.

  2. In all honesty, I’m not much of a party person, not that I’m anti-social, I just don’t enjoy high energy social situations. I prefer the laid back type of atmosphere. With that being said, what should a person like me be concerned about when invited to these social gatherings? What’s really important for me to participate in? And how should I deal with a playful office atmosphere? I don’t want to force fake behavior, then again, I don’t want to not be “cool”…

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Try be yourself. When you converse with others, focus your attention on them rather than yourself. I don’t think you need to participate in all social events; I’d speak with your team and see which ones the team is all going to. You might want to participate in such events. If you have a good relationship with your boss, I’m pretty sure he’ll let you know which events he wants you to attend cause my ex-boss did. Playful office atmosphere – just adapt and be yourself but no need to “fake” – inauthentic

      1. That’s fair. I appreciate the response!

  3. hey guys.

    How would you rate the night life of Hong Kong for an expat living there?

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Depends on what you’re looking for. It can be a lot of fun or boring. Most expats usually hang out at Soho, LKF and Wyndham Street.

      1. what I would be looking for would be attributable to mindset: Is this the kind of city where people at work will get together with their pals on fri. or sat. night, or will they all just be content to sit at home & watch t.V. over the weekend?! In some cities, people are more interested in having a social life while in others, nobody really cares.

        also, how would you rate H.K.’s clubbing scene relative to London or NYC?

        1. Ok I’ll jump in here since I’ve been to HK and gone out there a bunch of times… I think people definitely go out over the weekends with co-workers, simply because many people are foreigners and don’t know that many other people there. So if you go to an area like LKF on Friday night, you’ll see a lot of co-worker groups out together.

          Clubbing scene: honestly I don’t think HK is that great vs. the others because there just aren’t that many clubs. It’s relatively small. There are a few good places but not as many as in NYC or London. You’re more likely to go drinking with co-workers than go to clubbing.

          1. Avatar
            M&I - Nicole

            I agree with Brian. Yes, HK is small! NY club/lounge scene is way bigger and there are way more people so you don’t bump into the same people over and over again (at least not as likely as HK)

          2. thanks for your responses Brian & Nicole! I sensed from reading prior articles in the site, that you had a great deal of experience living and working there. I’ve done lots of research and have had numerous conversations with friends who are from there and I so was hoping if you could confirm or deny the following info:

            a)Most Expats live within the same residential apartment blocks, which are generally separated by some distance from the rest of the populace.

            b) Virtually all meals are eaten at restaurants or outside of your home during the weekdays. On weekends, people eat mostly at home.

            c) There is very little, if any interaction between locals and expats as both know very little or care much about the other.

            thanks so much,

          3. Avatar
            M&I - Nicole

            a. They live close together, but I wouldn’t say most of them live within same residential apartment blocks
            b. No, I disagree. Different people have different lifestyles
            c. This depends on the local and the expat! It varies according to individuals and their mindset. I’m a local but I interacted with expats all the time.

          4. I think karaoke is more common in HK.

          5. Not sure about a) but b) and c) are definitely true. I have never seen expats interact with locals other than guys hitting on girls at bars. Karaoke – yes more common in Asia in general.

  4. Excellent article… Bang on target…!
    I just got broke into an Indian boutique two months ago after a 2.5 years’ consulting stint at a Big4 in India… Would like to point that I have experienced that office politics are all the same, be it consulting or IB (at least in this part of the world)… Tight-Rope Walking!!

    1. Yup very true… office politics exist everywhere, no matter the geography or the company type

  5. Hey Brian, great article!

    I few questions related to the content of the article:

    1) If colleagues find out any details about the details of your romantic relationships with people outside the office, will they generally gossip about the details of it behind your back, with your other colleagues?

    (I’m assuming its generally wise to avoid talking much about these sorts of affairs with any work friends, regardless of however close you may get with them).

    2) When dealing with jealous colleagues, is it better to deal with them directly (give them a verbal ‘tongue-lashing’) or ignore them completely?

    1. Thanks!

      1) You should assume that they will gossip about anything and everything, especially at a bank. So yes, be careful what you tell them and never assume that they’re your “friends.” Much different from university or school friends.

      2) Probably best to talk to them directly, but do it behind closed doors. And resist the temptation to scream at them, no matter how annoying they are.

    2. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      It depends on your colleagues and how juicy the details of your relationship are ;) Honestly, you can’t control what people say/do so I can’t answer your question because it depends on your colleagues (uncontrollable factor). Yes it is wise to avoid talking these sorts of affairs with your work friends if you want your privacy because you cannot control what they do with your information. You may perceive them as jealous, but that may only be your perception – best to deal with them face to face and try to understand them; it may just be a misunderstanding

      1. Hey thanks for the reply, Brian and Nicole.

        A few more questions:
        My first surrounds the idea being nice and respectful to colleagues at all times…. if you were working in Trading, would being nice to the Back-Office Support people yield you any potential benefits? (They may for example, execute your trades before everybody else, give you a better price, or just give you any sort of material benefit associated with their job that only they can deliver). I ask because its my understanding from this website, that they are generally treated quite badly by front-office personnel.

        2) In trading, your value as a human being (in the eyes of the Bank anyway) is determined very much by your ‘performance’.
        What does performance entail?
        Absolute $ value of revenue that you produced that year, % Rate of Return, or your ability to consistently predict the direction of the financial markets?


        1. Avatar
          M&I - Nicole

          I think you may want to be nice to as many people as you can, whether they are in back office or front office. Treat others as you want to be treated. And there is a difference between being nice to get something and being nice because you are genuinely nice – people can feel it.

          Other readers may have better insights as to how banks determine your performance/P&L (I’m not familiar with the process).

          1. Would probably add that being nice doesn’t necessarily mean not to be demanding. Back-office people do respond better to front-office people who are demanding, but the key is to do it AND make them feel good.

          2. Yup that is a really good point. You do have to be somewhat demanding to get people to do things for you.

  6. Avatar
    mirror mirror

    everything is exactly correct (well, I wasn’t sleeping with anyone, maybe people who wanted me out were in bed together). Hence I’m no longer at the hf. next job i’ll make sure to go out for drinks and not write anything personal on their email.

    1. Yeah you really need to be careful with email. I’ve seen stuff from years ago come up and end up screwing people over. Sender beware…

  7. Initiating Imagination…
    Imagination Fail…

    Elaborate: “nudge people toward doing things for him: things that would occasionally blur the line (use your imagination)” please.

    After 2.5 months in my internship, I experienced or witnessed the events of this list, but never met the prince or the godfather. Then again, everyone on my team except the interns and the occasional Generalist is at least 10 years my senior and married. Somehow, jedi mind control, and flying daggers doesn’t seem the way of life in this fine Canadian institution.

    1. They must be nicer in Canada… the only possible explanation for that one. Or maybe The Godfather hasn’t made his entrance yet. Basically I think the person described here was asking for things that are not normally delivered within the scope of work… think models/bottles only more extreme / illegal / controversial

  8. Thoughts on dating/sleeping with other employees to get ahead?

    1. Strongly recommend against that unless they’re leaving soon and can help you move somewhere better afterward. :)

      1. What would happen if you got caught? Could you get fired?

        1. You wouldn’t get fired, it would just be awkward and make going to work very uncomfortable

          1. Thanks!

  9. Great post, office politics is a 360 defense/offense. Make a dumb move and you will probably end up being viewed unfavourably for the rest of your term no matter how hard y

    1. Yup, completely agree. A poor first impression is very difficult to overcome.

    2. You try. Popularity and the right impressions are gold, even if u are the dumbest guy around. Don’t learn it the hard way.

      P.S. Accidentally sent incomplete comment

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