At my last job, there was this one guy who I worked with on a few projects – to do our jobs we didn’t really need daily interaction or anything, but we did work together occasionally. Though for some reason, this guy took it upon himself to come over to my desk and talk to me any time he had a question about anything. Anything. Even if it wasn’t directly related to my job, even if it could easily have been covered in an email. Now that’s kind of irritating but what annoyed me more was that he would come over and talk me regardless of what I was doing at the time. If I was on the phone he would sit there next to me and wait until I’d finished the conversation. If I was eating my lunch, he’d interrupt (not even a ‘Sorry to ask this while you’re on lunch, but…’). My response to this behaviour was to be polite and friendly and handle his question as quickly as I could, then silently fume to myself for half an hour. Who did this guy think he was? What the hell made him think it was okay just come over and interrupt me, without apology, any time any random question popped into his big dumb head?
And here’s what nobody pointed out to me then, and what I’m going to share with you now: because I was always friendly and helpful, I kept signalling to him that any time he wanted something I would get it for him. So he continued to bug me, I continued to not say anything to him about it until I eventually quit (not because of him, but you know. It didn’t help.) Then, months later, somebody told me something that struck me like a bolt of lightning. You train people how to treat you. Through your actions and the things you say, you’re giving cues to people about what they can and can’t expect from you. If you’re not happy with the way someone’s acting toward you, but you take it with a smile on your face and never say anything about it, they will continue to act in the same way. It’s so simple, but this has honestly totally changed the way I approach work.
I think when you’re a junior at work, it’s really hard to set boundaries with people. You worry so much about making a good impression and that, combined with having not much professional experience, means that lines often get crossed in ways that you’re not always comfortable with. That can range from really serious transgressions like sexual harassment (another issue for another column) to being expected to take on extra work whenever it’s convenient for someone else. When these situations arise it can often feel like you’re kind of stuck. You’re junior, you like your job, and you don’t want the people your work with to think you’re lazy. So you stay back after everyone’s left, and you do the extra work. It happens, and it sucks, but remember that even if you are junior you still have some agency in the way you get treated at work. If you think someone’s taking the piss with what they expect of you, don’t let them set a precedent where they can keep doing that. If someone’s making a habit of asking you take on something that’s unreasonably out of your normal responsibilities, make it clear to them that you won’t be able to keep doing this on top of your usual job. Otherwise, you can expect them to keep on doing the same thing.
This applies to how your behaviour influences what people think of you, as well as just drawing a line around what you will and won’t accept at work. For example, if you’re sitting in meetings texting, not taking notes, generally not showing much interest, don’t be surprised when your colleagues start giving work to someone else. Ditto if you’re getting too involved in office drama, or take forever to respond to emails, or roll in to the office hungover every other morning. Being in your first “real” job can be extremely stressful as besides the workload, you’re having to adjust to a whole new culture and lifestyle, and probably spending an inordinate amount of time worrying what your boss/colleagues think of you. So it’s easy to get this kind of tunnel vision, focusing on what other people are doing, do they like me, am I doing okay, do I deserve this job etc etc. You internalise that and turn it over and over in your head but don’t forget that you aren’t just passively existing in that office, churning out ad copy or package designs. Your words and actions are sending out messages about yourself and what people should expect of you. That’s really important to keep at the front of your mind, and I think it can be pretty powerful.
I’ve been at my new job for a few months now and I’m much more comfortable pushing back on something if I think someone’s being silly. That doesn’t mean transforming in to an office nightmare who’s impossible to work with, it just means that if someone has a question while I’m on the phone or eating lunch, I’ll just say I’m in the middle of something and I’ll catch up with them later. Boundaries, you gotta set ‘em. Sometimes I worry that people think I’m a hard ass but I’m a lot happier now and I spend a lot less time sitting at my desk at 8pm frowning and clenching my teeth. If someone’s being an a-hole at work, just tell them to cut it out. If you’ve been asked to stay late for the fourth night in a row to finish something that could really wait until the morning, just say you need to go home on time and that you’ll get to it first thing the next day. It’s that simple! You have the power!