There are great companies out there—even companies that genuinely set good priorities to take care of their employees. But it is important to remember that you remain in a business relationship with your company and your boss. At the end of the day, no matter your loyalty or their friendliness, you are just a resource to a company—one of many.
There are also terrible companies, who never even pretend to care about their employees’ wellbeing. Either way, it’s important to be savvy, and to learn how to conduct yourself in business transactions with your eyes open—to make sure you protect yourself.
Here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind.
Don’t be buds with your boss.
As tempting as it is to be your boss’s BFF (you get along like a house on fire, you have tons in common, you finish each other’s sentences!), it’s not always the best idea. First, there could be gossip from higher-ups and lower-downs if your promotion or bonus (however well-deserved) is seen to be a favor from the boss-your-friend. By keeping your boss at a bit of a respectful arms’ length, you avoid any accusations of favoritism, inappropriate conduct, mercenary behavior, even “sleeping your way to the top.”
It’s also best to keep secrets secret in a relationship with a power differential. Don’t spill your skeletons and don’t give your boss the opportunity to spill hers. Remember: you can’t un-know whatever you learn. So if you can’t separate what’s business from what’s personal, and you’re just starting out in your career, it might be best not to get in too deep until you’re sure you can handle the extra intimacy.
HR is not your friend.
You may think HR is a magic watchdog, protecting employees from all kinds of wrongdoing. But you’d be wrong. While they are there to manage your concerns and occasionally police wrongs, they’re mostly doing these things for the good of the company, not the employees. Remember who pays their salaries. They will always pick the needs and interests of the company over you, the little guy. With a few exceptions, you are “human capital” to be managed, according to HR. Don’t distrust them necessarily, just learn to function without thinking you need them as some kind of hall monitor for right and wrong.
Keep a job offer handy.
As often as possible, make sure to have a job offer in your back pocket. When you feel wanted, you work much better and much harder. And when you’re wanted by someone else, your boss looks at you as if through magic rose-colored glasses and sees your value double! Even if you have to hunt undercover (i.e. if your HR department gets really shifty when you update your resume), it’s a good idea to have an exit strategy to keep your ego up in times of stress. Keep looking, even when you already have a job.
Your network is your best friend.
Your professional network doesn’t have to be this scary thing that’s all work all the time. You can make it a truly social thing, you can even make friends. Build a group of like-minded contacts whose interests match up with yours and whose intellectual pursuits and career moves inspire you constantly to do and be better. Keep in touch with them. Do them favors and then ask for a few for yourself. Congratulate old office mates on new jobs. In short: be a good friend to your network contacts and soon they will start to feel like actual friends.
Know when to quit.
If you’re not happy in a job, it might be time to cut and run. Use that extra handy offer you’re keeping on hand, and use it to get to a better place for you and your career.
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