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Get tips on steering clear of messy workplace relationships

Get tips on steering clear of messy workplace relationshipsImage Credit: Supplied

Working in an office brings a lot of experiences including the building of friendships, exchange of ideas and encounter with a variety of personalities. The latter can be tricky, not only because of it means dealing with people, which requires social and emotional intelligence, but because when they are coworkers, supervisors and subordinates, your relationships are bound by professional work codes and even laws.

Although these limitations make the situation seem more complicated, they actually streamline problem solving and make sure you don't cross legal and workplace lines accidentally. Here are a few steps that can help ensure the office connections and relationships are in line with expectations.

Tone and signals

Personal misunderstandings in the office can complicate work. That is why you should have measured reactions to implied invitations, whether positive or negative. A co-worker who is being kind or friendly may not be welcoming to any personal gestures. Similarly, a negative tone from a co-worker or a supervisor may not warrant a fist fight.

If your action crosses professional lines, don't expect it to be justified simply because you think you have read others' cues right. Think twice and make sure you are not jeopardising your job and integrity.

Proper channels

When a problem happens, you must be aware of the right way to tackle it. Based on the type of problem, you may need to take it up with the person, the supervisor or the human resources department. Your understanding of the company's protocol is essential in making sure that a complaint doesn't become an issue in itself and you don't offend anyone further or seem to be talking behind someone's back.

When you go through proper channels, make sure the story is accurate, and to leave out conclusions, assumptions or analysis because they can be misleading or be taken as emotional. In addition, don't assume you're the only one going to tell the story. Any reasonable manager or HR officer will hear from both sides. Be ready for the consequences of your actions on your relationship with the person involved and others around the office.

Picking battles

As mentioned, we all come from different backgrounds with different communication styles and personalities. It is important to differentiate between what is classified as a problem of harassment or improper behaviour and what simply just get on your nerves. In short, pick your battles and decide what warrants escalation.

Even when you are right about a point of discussion or when working to avoid misunderstandings, be constructive and selective. Someone who goes often to HR or supervisors with a list of complaints is probably not perceived as the best team player. Keep an open mind in dealing with others and try to eliminate situations that lead to tension.

Handling problems

If you are the one who has done something — intentionally or unintentionally — that is problematic, you must be aware of how to handle this situation. Assuming your intention is to fix the situation and move forward, first apologise and seek all the information regarding the offence. Next, you should get a clarification from your supervisor as well as the HR person regarding what you can do to avoid the same problem in the future.

That may not be enough, because you want to make sure that you don't become a repeat offender. If needed, try to come up with a plan that involves deliverables that specify what you can do to prove that you have made changes. The more involved and detailed you become in such a situation, the better you will be in accomplishing the goal — that is to avoid the association with a particular problematic behaviour or action.

In additional to these formal actions, work on repairing the relationship with the person who was offended. Based on the type of problem, determine who to normalise the relationship again — with some respect that doesn't allow for any misunderstandings. If the person is sensitive to anything you say, you may need to let some time lapse before making a move.

Meantime, don't appear to be avoiding this person. That, in itself, can be misunderstood.

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Source: Rania Oteify, Special to

The writer, a former Gulf News Business Features Editor, is a Seattle-based editor