When Sayma Alam started working in healthcare right after finishing her bachelor's in 2020, she was full of hope. However, her hope soon wilted when her supervisor began to treat her with contempt.
Sayma was a quick learner and her work performance resulted in her taking over the tasks he previously used to overlook.
His actions – stemming from obvious insecurity and jealousy – were new to Sayma as it was her first exposure to office culture. He soon began an unhealthy competition, creating a rift in their mentor-mentee relationship.
Gradually, he cornered her to a point where she wanted to quit every day. He went as far as spreading rumours about her personal life and blocking her promotion.
Anyone with at least half a year's experience in any office would be able to identify with Sayma. Politics in the workplace – as hazardous as it is – is not new.
All kinds of drama open up with office politics. Its manifestation begins with insecurity and its other signs together form a long chain of events.
Insecurity often leads to a power struggle, which in turn leads to forming groups and sub-groups in the same office. Sometimes the groups play favourites and chat and shimmy up to bosses to gain favours.
The blame game is always a crowd favourite. Some even take the high-road to create a divide between their socioeconomic backgrounds, i.e. the fluently English speaking crowd love demeaning those that cannot, some form groups based on their fashion statements undermining those who love rocking a casual outfit at work.
A few bosses take advantage by dividing territories in the already cut up sections. And not to mention how female employees fall victim to typical misogyny going around the workplace.
Insecurity: The gateway to office politics
"My supervisor and I both reported to people above us. His insecurity came from my performance and took the form of jealousy," said Sayma.
She also said no matter how hard she tried to keep up, she was constantly sidelined and disregarded.
That was a blow to her confidence and she carried that forward to her current job as well. "Even in my current job I still get the feeling I am not doing good enough," she said.
The rate of unemployment in Bangladesh is 5.3%. Although new startups are popping up every day, job security remains low in the country.
The number of applications that drop in for a few job posts/vacancies usually exceed thousands, and lakhs when the job offered is a lucrative one.
Inadequate legal protection for employees gives employers a perfect excuse to exploit the abundance of fresh graduates who would take up any job for any sum of salary.
In such cases, existing workers may feel that they must indulge in misconduct to keep their jobs.
Power struggle: Each man to himself
Most senior officers often use their influence to bring people on their side. The bigger a team grows, the more leverage they have in the office.
"This quickly becomes a game of popularity and attaining higher approval ratings for them. Employees too feel encouraged to 'grease the right elbows' to acquire some extra perks," testifies Proma Tasneem, currently working in an electronic media outlet.
She also thinks this is what gives birth to the blame game in the workplace.
The Blame Game Super Bowl
It is normal to make mistakes at the workplace. However, a tendency to deny accountability for a mistake is the easiest way out of a sticky situation: deny, deflect and point fingers.
These actions, as some workers believe, also help to put them in a favourable light in front of the bosses.
Mahmud Hossain, who now happily works at New Zealand Dairy, shared an experience with us from one of his previous working places.
"I used to work there (name kept anonymous per request) while I was still studying. While my bosses would allow me to enter a little late on class days, a few colleagues would misuse my unintentional delays and highlight my other mistakes to mask their own," Mahmud recalled.
Eventually he quit the job and diverted from that industry where his career was actually looking good.
It is not wrong to want to belong to a particular group of people because of common interests or goal sets. In fact, it ensures higher efficiency especially when like-minded people work together on a project.
Even if offices promise to deliver fair treatment for all, most of them fail to do so. So, sometimes workers form groups among themselves based on what socioeconomic class they belong from.
In the context of Bangladesh, if employees coming out of an English Medium background only group up amongst themselves, everyone else is bound to feel inferior.
It is the same with employees who are financially privileged. The privileged siding up with others alike will also only instil inferiority among the employees who work out of necessity.
These typical clannish behaviours are a quick road to an entire workplace becoming one big land of disputed territories.
Business runs in the family or does 'family' run the business?
Business families often have their own family members looking after their organisations and it makes perfect sense.
But sometimes, higher officials in an organisation only recruit family members or people they know within their circle.
"One of our most qualified colleagues was replaced by someone who had no technical know-how of the job or the willingness to learn. Then we came to know that he is family to one of the executive officers of our mother company," Proma Tasneem shared with us.
This is the ugly side of nepotism: appointing clearly unqualified people all because they are family.
Then there is the unfair safety net these unfairly appointed people enjoy. That can have very direct and detrimental effects on those that worked extremely hard to reach the same position as theirs.
How to make things better
One manager working at a mobile financial service provider shared with us a few ways using which supervisors can make sure office politics does not harm workers or at least control the situation before things become too intense.
According to him, office politics stems from three major sources: one, homogeneity; people often tend to create cliques within a department on the basis of their shared backgrounds, shared educational institutions and in some bad cases of nepotism, familial relations.
The second reason is competitiveness: employees competing on the same level for promotions as well as other benefits might suffer from the anxiety of being left out.
And the third option is not as obvious but is as relevant: uneven responsibility distribution. Employees with less responsibilities and more free time can be looking for trouble out of sheer boredom.
He said, "One method by which managers can handle politics in office is by holding regular conversations with all employees, asking about their work and the challenges they might be facing in executing the job," adding, "by creating a safe workspace, managers get better insights on every individual's take on emerging situations."
The other method involves a manager indirectly stating how bad office politics is during meetings etc and thus discouraging employees from being involved in such things.
In Bangladesh, a very common practice is only dissuading the employees from engaging in office politics during their performance evaluation but that should be done all year round, the manager believes.