News & Politics

Nine Secrets to Getting Ahead at Work

Work hard (to a point), imagine your boss as a child on a long car ride, ditch the cologne, and other tips for working your way up the ladder.

Photograph by Robert Daly/Getty Images.

You’ve probably heard one tired nugget of advice for advancing in your career: Be a team player! But come on, you’re a junior assistant researcher in a Federal Triangle cubicle farm, not a relief pitcher for the Nats. What team are they talking about in your beige-walled, fluorescent-lit world, where coworkers are as often as not your competition?

Moving up takes savvy, stamina, and a strategic plan. Here, experts offer advice.

1. Don’t be the hardest worker.

The busiest bee doesn’t end up in the hive’s corner office? Not necessarily. Work hard and get your tasks done, of course. But if you work longer and harder than everybody else, you may come across not as super-dedicated but as desperate, disorganized, or not as capable, says Penelope Trunk, author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success and founder of the career-advancement website

“If you are the hardest worker—why?” Trunk asks. “Because if you are at the same pay grade as four other people in your office, why are they able to earn that much money and not work as hard as you?” The hardest workers, she says, “don’t understand how the world works.” How the office world operates is, for better or worse, like high school: Being popular can be a plus.

“People come to me all the time and say, ‘I work harder than everybody else, and I can’t believe I got fired or somebody else got promoted,’ ” says Deborah Brown-Volkman, president of the career-coaching firm Surpass Your Dreams and author of How to Feel Great at Work Every Day. “What I have to say to these people is that they weren’t liked. People get hired for personality and fired for personality.”

2. Your boss is a jerk? Deal.

Butting heads with the boss is a bad idea. “You have to like your boss,” Brown-Volkman says. “When people tell me, ‘But I can’t like my boss!,’ I say you have to find something about your boss you can focus on that is positive, because the person whose life is going to be hard is yours. If your boss is an idiot, you have to figure out how to work for an idiot.”

One strategy she suggests is to think of your supervisor as a child on an eight-hour car trip. It’s your job to figure out how to keep him or her from getting fussy and upset.

Andy Teach, author of From Graduation to Corporation: The Practical Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder One Rung at a Time, has two rules for dealing with the person above you: “Rule number one is to develop a strong work relationship with your boss,” he says. “And rule number two is to follow rule number one.”

3. No whining.

While your supervisor might well be an idiot, he isn’t a playground monitor. “Don’t take squabbles with coworkers to your boss,” warns Marie McIntyre, author of Secrets to Winning at Office Politics and of a syndicated advice column called Your Office Coach. “Bosses hate drama.”

Clashing with a workmate? Try resolving the conflict directly with the person before turning tattle-tale. “If you can’t settle things, look for what the business angle is, so that what you take to your boss is a business problem,” McIntyre says. In other words, you don’t go into the boss’s office and say, “Steve from accounting is a moron”—you say something about how sales numbers might be compromised because your daily reports are going out late because you’re not getting the information you need from accounting.

“If you take business problems to the boss, you look like someone who is concerned with getting the work done,” McIntyre says. “If you take personality problems, you look like a whiner.”

4. Love meetings.

Seriously, nobody loves meetings. Okay, professional meeting planners might, but for most everyone else these conference-room confabs, with their bone-dry PowerPoint presentations, fall somewhere between watching the Skins get drubbed by the Cowboys and a rush-hour trek on I-66 in a snowstorm.

Think of each meeting as a chance to step out on your own Broadway stage. “Meetings are a time to shine for an employee,” Teach says. “This is when you can enhance your reputation at work, sitting there with coworkers, supervisors, and people from other departments. If you come across as prepared and bring ideas, that is only going to help your career.”

Even when you do find yourself counting the ceiling tiles, don’t show it.

“I just had a conversation with a senior manager who talked about an employee looking at their watch and sighing during a meeting, sending a negative perception to the new CEO,” says career counselor Kim Thompson, who writes the Career Rescue column for the Houston Chronicle. “It’s imperative to speak with your body language. When you get that glazed look that says you are about to go into a coma, that sends a message that you just don’t care.”

5. Cleanliness is next to promotedness.

There are lots of ways you should try to stand out in the office, but having a desk cluttered with month-old memos and Potbelly wrappers isn’t one of them. Sloppy workspaces, Trunk says, telegraph that you’re overwhelmed.

“The only way you get a promotion is if it looks like you have a grip on your job so they can give you more work,” she says. “No one is going to give you extra work if you have a messy desk—they don’t want the extra work to get lost.”

6. Don’t smell.

This would seem a no-brainer, but maybe not. “I hear a lot of complaints about people not bathing enough,” McIntyre says.

Al Gore thanks you for riding your bike to work, but your coworkers would appreciate it if you could wash up a bit before coming into the conference room.

And, no, cologne isn’t the answer. It’s easy to imagine that back in the Mad Men days, workers doused themselves with Old Spice or Miss Dior to counteract the office odor of Pall Malls and Old Grand-Dad. Today, not so much. “There’s no reason to put on any kind of perfume at work, as some people are very sensitive to it,” McIntyre says. “The goal is to smell like nothing.” You don’t want to be the one whose heavy hand with the eau de toilette makes the CEO’s eyes water.

7. Firewall your Facebook page.

If you have a job, it could be because you had the good sense not to post on Facebook pictures of yourself drinking Cristal out of a pole dancer’s shoe. (What happens on a bachelor weekend in Vegas should stay in Vegas.) But vigilance over your online image shouldn’t go soft now that you’re ensconced in an office.

Don’t friend your boss, and think twice about doing so with coworkers. Says Teach: “There’s no need for them to see your personal stuff.”

A little paranoia might serve you well. “Anything you post is not private, no matter your privacy settings, and somebody may see it, ” McIntyre says. “And just because you delete things doesn’t mean it can’t be found.”

Want to reach out to work-mates and management in Cyberspace? That’s what LinkedIn is for.

8. It’s an office, not a singles bar.

Looking for nooky between 9 and 5 is a well-established no-no. But still there are people who think each trip to the copy machine is an exercise in speed dating. If you do end up getting busy in the supply closet, consider it the worst-kept secret since the ending of The Crying Game.

“People who get romantically involved always think they are invisible, but everybody knows what they’re doing,” McIntyre says.

Besides, says Suzanne Lucas, a veteran human-resources executive who blogs as Evil HR Lady: “Relationships fail, and when they do and you are sitting in the cube next to your former beloved and current nemesis, it makes your work life extremely difficult.”

9. Watch the movie Office Space.

We’re not suggesting that taking baseball bats to office equipment or burning down corporate HQ is an appropriate career move. But this 1999 cult classic—which Roger Ebert called “a comic cry of rage against the nightmare of modern office life”—can provide cinematic catharsis and a bolstering bit of grin-and-bear-it when the boss says, “I’m going to need you to work Saturday, okay?”