Shakespearean-style skulduggery or schoolyard tantrums – office politics are universal, and can make or break your production.
The heady world of the media is fast paced, glamourous (at times!) and run by highly creative and often temperamental people. Unfortunately, this can lead to a minefield of egos and Shakespearean-style skulduggery of the highest order. OK, I am being over dramatic, but working in an industry where the majority of people are freelance, where job security is precarious at best and where you’re only as good as your last programme creates a different level of office politics, which can be damaging if you don’t know how to deal with it. Based on my experience as a talent manager, here are a few simple tips on how best to deal with creative but difficult people.
Don’t take it personally
Often in pressurised and busy work environments people can be brusque and rude; when time is precious and goals need to be achieved quickly, this can escalate. You need to remember that this is not about you as an individual. People are not openly saying that they don’t like you as a person; they’re saying that things need to get done.
This is a lesson that can be difficult to learn, but focus on the tasks in hand and think ahead. Make sure you respond quickly, that everything you need to do is done, and be willing to do more. In your head you might be calling someone all the names under the sun and telling them where to go, but how is that going to benefit you? Keep calm and carry on, as the posters say.
“The production office can often mirror the school playground and productions can often feel like starting school with every production.
Act like a grown up
Psychologists often talk about work relationships being a reflection of parent child relationships. Before I ask you to lie down on the couch and tell me about your childhood, this is actually a really valid point, particularly in the way you respond to situations.
Those who respond as a ‘parent’ will respond to situations in a calm, authoritative way, remaining factual and measured about their approach. Those who respond as a ‘child’ will take a much more emotional route, either being defensive – “Why have you asked me to do this? You know I’ve got so much to do!” – or by verbally throwing someone under the bus to deflect attention away from themselves.
The most conducive working relationships are when you have two ‘parents’ who can engage in a professional manner. Don’t ever lose youthful energy and idealism, but think about your responses and how effective they may be in ultimately helping your career and achieving your goals.
Check your emails
Stressed people can often write stroppy emails or send out communication that isn’t always clear. Sometimes when you are up against a deadline or just in a bad mood, the temptation can be to respond in a stroppy way too. You effectively mirror the sender’s attitude or perceived attitude, but this can just fuel the fire and add drama. It can also make the sender think of you as they imagine a stroppy teenager, flicking their hair, rolling their eyes and tutting, which does nothing for your credibility with that individual.
A natural reaction might be to find fault with their request or on some occasions use countering tactics – “Well, you haven’t done this…” But for an easier life, take emotions out of the equation. Take a deep breath, make a cup of tea (if you sit near me, make one for me too) and then come back to the email with fresh eyes. In your response be calm, professional and factual, and keep it quite brief. A colleague once said to me, the longer the email the shorter the response. I am not saying don’t be thorough, but when responding to a long ranty email look for the coherent and resolvable points and answer them factually.
If the sender is sitting opposite you, glaring at them while furiously typing isn’t going to help the situation. Make them a cup of tea (it’s all about the tea and killing with kindness) and ask them to chat about the email in a calm manner.
Sometimes in the heat of their email drama, people can also get information wrong and you may feel like pointing that out. If you are going to do this, my advice is not to cc in everyone and their mother to the email. It’s way better to approach the individual directly to discuss this. If something is going to affect health and safety or the production in some way then do speak up, but don’t humiliate the sender in the process.
We’ve all been tempted by the allure of office gossip – not only does it make us feel included, but also can take the attention away from any perceived flaws we may have. Actually what we are doing can be quite dangerous.
The production office can often mirror the school playground, but the popular ‘mean girls’ change more frequently and the rotation of staff and productions can often feel like starting school with every role. Particularly when you are starting out, stay clear of gossiping and bitching at work. It can make you look untrustworthy and unprofessional and can detract from the credibility you’re aiming for with your good work.
Yes, other people will do it, but if at all possible avoid the bitchiness, change the subject or just nod – most likely the gossiper will soon bore of relaying the gossip anyway. Most people gossip about other people out of boredom, jealousy or wanting to belong. Remember that and it will help put it in perspective.
When you are tired and working with difficult people it can be so tempting to have a good old whinge and moan. In fact it can be quite cathartic, but choose who you open up to carefully. For me, sometimes it’s better to have a whinge with trusted friends and family. They can give distance from the issue without judgement.
There is also always someone in the office who wants to go for a drink, but they are often looking for allies and for people to reinforce their opinions of how badly they’ve been treated or how unfair the situation is. Avoid being lured into these conversations, as before long they could well be relaying to other people that you feel exactly the same way as they do about the boss, or Sue from Accounts (who’s actually a lovely lady).
We are not in high school, but in work you need to maintain a degree of professionalism at all times. The TV industry in particular is a small world and your ability to deal with a range of different people and difficult situations will set you apart and will stand you in good stead for future roles. I think perspectives can become skewed, but you need to remember that whilst your job is important, you are not saving lives, and sometimes a sense of humour, a sense of perspective and a sense of pride can get you through.
So, you’ve been invited to a ‘do’. You know there will be wine and guest speakers, but then you see the dreaded word ‘networking’. Thoughts of Bridget Jones, polite conversations about Chechnya, and ‘how do you get a job without appearing too desperate, too annoying, or heaven forbid, you have food on your clothes’ race through your mind. Some people are natural networkers, effortlessly breezing through awkward stilted events with laughter, always saying pertinent and interesting things, with an occasional flick of the hair that seems to work in their favour. At least that’s how it seems. So, here are a few hints to combat nerves, speak to those you want to speak to and create the right impression.
At these events serial networkers can often feel like vultures attacking their prey. They’re so keen to say what they want to say that they remain blissfully unaware that they’re being rude, not listening and generally not assessing the situation very well. As someone who has been ‘networked’ myself, this is incredibly in your face and inappropriate. The words “Nice to meet you” don’t necessarily give you carte blanche to divulge your whole career history, self shooting skills and what you want to do. Be polite and also be mindful that people may want to leave. I have often said, “I’m sorry I need to get my train,” only to be met with, “I’ll only be ten minutes”. Now, I know I’m not Madonna, but surely there are other ways to get your point across?
“Be yourself. Don’t speak like you’re from Made in Chelsea when you’re much more Coronation Street.”
I personally feel more comfortable talking to someone if I’ve been introduced, but that isn’t always possible, so the options are either to be brave, skulk in the corner, or chat to your friends, later kicking yourself that you didn’t ask the question you wanted to. If you’ve been to an event and heard someone speak, a great opener is just to say, “I really enjoyed your talk, there were some really useful points I hadn’t thought of,” and then introduce yourself. This will immediately put the other person at ease and engage them, making it more appropriate for you to ask any questions or talk more about what you’ve been doing. Always remember to keep it relevant, and if you want to talk about your skills make sure they are useful to the person who is listening. “I’m a big fan of the observational documentaries that you’ve recently produced. I’m a factual researcher and I love to self-shoot and develop ideas. I would love to talk to you about some of them.”
If you can’t get to the speaker, then talk to the people around you about what you’ve heard and engage with them. You never know who’s going to be useful or how their network can benefit you. It’s not always the loudest or the most gregarious who can be the most helpful – it can often be the least obvious person who can be the most useful, so chat to everyone.
There’s nothing worse than chatting to someone who’s constantly scanning the room, looking over your shoulder for someone more important. You can see through this. Maintain eye contact and engage. If you need to speak to someone else, wait for a suitable pause in the conversation and simply say, “I’m sorry, I need to catch up with such and such, but lovely to meet you.”
If you’re handing out business cards or you’re collecting them, follow up with an email to say, “It was great to meet you and talk about… . As discussed here is my CV… .” What you’re doing here is showing that you’re keen and also that you listened to what they said. Talk about your skills and how you can help them rather than just what they can do for your career.
Most importantly, be yourself; don’t speak like you’re from Made in Chelsea when you’re much more Coronation Street. Don’t be affected or fake, don’t be over familiar … and don’t be too drunk. Be professional but polite, show your personality and speak passionately. For me there is nothing worse than someone spouting business talk which leaves me clueless as to what they said.
Introduce people to each other and facilitate this – “Oh I know someone who works in… Do contact them!” Sharing contacts and ideas will ultimately do you good, and think of all that lovely karma.
Be careful not to alienate and be rude to those around you. You may be hampering your chances, maybe not in the short term but definitely in the long term as you never know where everyone will be in five years time. Speak to those around you at the same level and network with them. They may not be a CEO but this collaborative working can lead to more contacts and ultimately more opportunities.
One of the questions that I get asked a lot is “How can I get from runner to researcher?” often accompanied by a frustrated expression and a look in their eyes that reads, “I can do more than make tea!” The simple response to this is that there is no clear answer, but there are certain things that you can do to get yourself noticed and that can aid the transition. I have sourced and recruited thousands of runners and researchers, so here are some key points that I have got from them on how to get up the ladder.
Do your job
Nothing frustrates a production team more than a runner who constantly moans that they shouldn’t be running and that they are above the tasks that they have been given. No matter how skilled or talented you may be, delusions of grandeur don’t do you any favours! If you’re constantly bigging yourself up as a researcher – “I have a degree, I should be researching” – and don’t actually do the job that you’re paid to do, then frankly you’re going to get on everyone’s nerves.
Get your runner jobs done well and then when you have a bit of spare time get involved in research, get out on location and show a real interest in everything that is going on – this will help you immensely. If you can come up with ideas and forge great relations with contributors (without getting too fresh and over familiar) then this will really help you get noticed.
“Sometimes the thing that you take for granted can be your unique selling point.”
Do your own thing
If you believe that you’re a researcher then you need to be doing research, it’s as simple as that. You need to be finding contributors, finding stories, coming up with ideas and showing results! But you can also show initiative and make yourself indispensable to the team. Spot particular points of stress in the team and help out. Perhaps the team is lacking someone to do social media or online stuff – could this be an opportunity for you to step in and save the day? However, it’s a balance – you have to be careful not to annoy the existing researchers by treading on their toes. Aid them in their work but don’t take over and definitely don’t take credit for work that is not yours. That is one sure way to annoy colleagues and potential future employers. Everyone wants to get noticed but a bit of humility will get you noticed for the right reasons.
Film and write as much as you can in your own time. Let your producers see this, but choose your moments carefully. Build up trust and then ask them for their critique during a quieter time or at the end of the production. This just reiterates the fact that you are serious about developing your career and that you are passionate about creating content.
Make a change
Sometimes it can feel that you’re just so good at your job that people don’t want to promote you, or no one is moving on in your team and you feel a bit stifled and stuck at a level. Look clearly at what your options are. Sometimes the only way to get ahead is to move out. If you are marketing yourself as a researcher but have only worked as a runner, then highlight on your CV the researcher tasks that you have done. Often companies are more concerned with what you’ve done rather than your job title. Apply and get yourself known and give the interviewers clear examples of why you should be a researcher. Simply being enthusiastic about wanting to be one is not enough.
Use your USP
Sometimes the thing that you take for granted can be your unique selling point. Whether that be a love of science, a foreign language or a fascination with serial killers, this can actually get you your first researcher role. If you have specialist knowledge or a particular passion for a subject, then that can really help, particularly for last minute researcher requests demanding specific skills. I have often been asked for Urdu or Arabic speaking researchers, or researchers with particular historical, scientific or literary knowledge. But it doesn’t have to be academic: I know of a runner who had previously worked in childcare and this was a huge asset to the production team when they needed a researcher for a documentary about child development. It’s important to let your team know about your knowledge but only if it’s going to benefit the production. There’s no point just waxing lyrical about your knowledge of members of One Direction (no matter how great that may be) if it’s not relevant.
So it’s not an exact science but it’s not impossible either. You need to put yourself in the mindset of the hiring manager and think, “Why would I employ me as a researcher?” If you doubt yourself, then make some changes!
So you are sat at home watching Flog It, or on your lunch break queuing for a sandwich and you get that call: “We’d love to see you for an interview.” You agree a date and time and when the initial buzz of excitement wears off you think, “OMG, what am I going to say to get the job?”
Preparation is key and essential for any interview. There have been times when I have interviewed people for a particular programme and the question “What do you think of the last series?” comes up. I have had people say, “Oh, I was too busy to watch it” or waffle on about a different programme or an episode from many years ago. This automatically tells the interviewer that you haven’t done your homework and if there was a buzzer a-la Britain’s Got Talent then rest assured this would be pressed right now! So watch or listen to the output. This shows that you are keen, passionate and interested in what you have applied for.
If you are being interviewed by senior producers, research them beforehand, find out what they have been working on and throw that into the conversation. You don’t want to look like a stalker but by knowing someone’s style and history of programmes this can reinforce the fact that you have done your homework.
Be careful not to go too far and talk about partners, kids, or say “I love that you are such a big fan of Adele.” This might throw the interviewer off guard and make you look like a needy fan. I interviewed someone recently who talked about some of my tweets. Now I know that Twitter is a public space but do you need to remind me that I know all the words to Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance?
Take time to look at the job description carefully, know what the tasks are and what is expected of you. Don’t go into an interview talking about a completely different job or a job that you want to do, talk about the job that you applied for. It is great to have ambition but if you apply for a job the interviewer expects you to want that job, not something two grades higher.
If you have more experience than the job requires then acknowledge this and talk about why you want to do the job, what experience it will give you and how your experience can really benefit the role. Don’t give the impression that you are just here to fill in time before you get another job; interviewers can tell when you are doing this. I’ve often heard “I really want to be a researcher and this is a great step to get there.” This might be true but the interviewer needs to know you want the job you applied for and will stick at it, at least for a decent amount of time.
Have an opinion and ideas
Ideas are your currency in the world of TV and radio. Everyone is looking for the next big idea, and ideas can really help you progress with your career. Have an opinion about the programme you are being interviewed for, but avoid being too critical. Don’t say things like “It just didn’t work for me” or “It was just too unrealistic and the camera work was shoddy.” Rather, do say things like “I really enjoyed the programme but I felt that by adding… and… you would have really developed a different angle to the story.” Back your ideas and opinions with evidence and always focus back to the audience.
Watch TV, listen to the radio, get online – love the output! When you love the output this really comes across and it astounds me in interviews when people say “Oh, I don’t really watch TV.” To which I say “Why are you wanting to work in it then?” If you are interviewing for a particular independent production company or the BBC, know their output, know their big successes and read the trade magazines or follow them on Twitter so you know what is coming up and understand the ethos and culture of the company.
Be careful not to make presumptions about the panel. You may well have your own opinions and feelings about political issues, places in the country or human rights issues but think about why you are sharing these in an interview. I have interviewed people who have slagged off the north, and someone who was blatantly homophobic. As a gay northerner this really put my nose out of joint and showed a rudeness and lack of sensitivity from the candidate.
Don’t bad mouth previous employees or colleagues. The media industry is a small world and your interviewer could be the partner, friend or mentor of the person you have been ripping to shreds. If you are asked to talk about a negative experience in work, keep it anonymous in terms of other people, focus on what you learned from the experience and how it developed and shaped you as an individual.
What to wear?
The media industry is known for its casual dress sense in the office and ‘what do I wear’ is a common quandary when attending an interview. Do you go formal and wear a suit – and risk looking slightly out of place but very smart – or do you go casual? There are no rules, but wear what makes you feel comfortable. That doesn’t mean slippers and jogging bottoms, by the way!
Personally I like to dress formally in a suit for an interview, or shirt and smart trousers; that just makes me feel interview ready and smart. A tie might be a step too far but research the company and job and decide what’s appropriate. You can wear jeans but teaming it with a smart shirt/ blouse and a jacket is always good. I am no Gok Wan but make sure your clothes are clean – there is nothing more distracting for an interviewer than a giant stain or dirty hair.
Don’t dress as if you are going clubbing. You might think you are looking sexy but the interviewers may have a different opinion. You don’t need to be dressed like a nun but you want the interviewers to remember your ideas, not what you wore!
I’ve also interviewed people who have worn t-shirts with slogans. This might be cute on a night out but not really interview appropriate.
In the world of media you will often be called in for an ‘informal chat’. This can take place in a coffee shop rather than a formal interview room. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security and think this isn’t an interview. In a short space of time make sure you get across what you’ve worked on, what your skills are, why you want the job and also the output of the company. Be positive, be enthusiastic and listen to the questions.
I know stories of informal chats where the interviewees are asked if they had a good weekend and people have gone into great detail about drunken debauchery. This is still an interview and the interviewer is not your best friend.
Do ask questions at the end of the interview, but make sure the answers are not in the job description. If, for example, it is clear that the job is based in London and is paying £25,000, don’t ask if you can work from Bristol or “What is the salary?”
Ask about the company, future commissions, why people enjoy working there; the kind of questions that show that you have a real interest and a keenness to work for the organisation. When the questions to you are over, don’t say “Is that it? I was expecting you to ask me…” That can annoy the interviewers.
So my key points to remember are
– Be enthusiastic.
– Dress to impress.
Most importantly LISTEN, and answer the question that is asked – not the question you want to answer.
So you have come out to your family and friends, it may have gone well, maybe not so well but you’ve done it! You know who you are and are starting the process of being OUT and PROUD…all is great…then you realise that its work on Monday and the people you work with don’t know. Or do they? Do they really think you’re straight? Do they even care? Do you suddenly become more conscious about how you walk, sound or just generally ‘are’…?
Maybe you’re not actually out to anyone yet but those thoughts still linger in your head; always conscious of what others say about gays and lesbians and who would be sympathetic, who is homophobic.
Do you need to come out to them at all? After all, you have so far successfully avoided after work drinks conversations by either claiming to be single or referring to your other half as “them” or “they” and not disputing when others have assumed that they were the opposite sex; always avoiding the term “partner” as that might give you away.
I remember having all those thoughts when I was new in London and working in my first job. It was a mixture of really caring about what people thought about me and feeling desperate to be like as well as feeling that I didn’t need the drama, the attention or the questions.
I wanted (and still want) to be respected for my work and to do a good job and in the work place I felt that my sexuality should take second place to that. Having said that, being open and honest about who you are can only be a good thing and that is the way that we should see it. If other people disagree then surely that is their issue. You are at work to do a job and that is the most important thing. Your sexuality has no relevance on how good you are at the job that you do.
It is all about being comfortable with whom you are and letting your colleagues know what you want them to know. I found it remarkably refreshing working for a gay boss who openly talked about his partner in the same way that the straight people in the office talked about their husbands and wives. This is how it should be. Often we are more self conscious about things like this than other people are. Research also shows that you are more likely to stay with and progress in a company that accepts you for who you are and allows you to be open about your sexuality.
Surprisingly I found that straight male colleagues were rather accepting and in the cases where they weren’t then they would simply keep quiet about it rather than make an issue. I think at times there was the avoidance of the conversation or lack of acknowledgement and that was partly due to me not being upfront. Female colleagues were interesting! There was the, “Oh my God I love gay people”, followed shortly by, “Oh lets go shopping.” This may seem unfair but I do remember thinking that I was no longer the geeky straightboy they perceived me to be and by simply coming out I had become this glamorous new best friend. Although this was in some ways quite flattering I did find it somewhat disingenuous.
I remember being out for a work dinner in the early 00’s for a recruitment firm that I worked for and my female boss, who was rather drunk, decided to interrogate me about my sex life, as if being gay made you fair game for these questions. I don’t want to come across as a prude but I was intrigued by her double standards and said to her, “Have I just asked you what you and your husband get up to in the bedroom? No, then why do you think its ok to ask me these questions”? For me it was about being respected for who I was and at that time I felt a bit like a performing monkey, always having to be entertaining, stylish, fun and also not entirely taken seriously. That really resonated with me and I felt that actually I can be like if I choose to be, but not all the time. It also made me face my own feelings of internalised homophobia. There would be times when I would see other gay men in the office perform in that way. I would think that these guys were not being taken seriously! But as I get further into my 30s I realise that everyone has their place and you need to be true to yourself, I think that is the most important thing.
If you are finding that being ‘out’ at work is making your life uncomfortable then it really is important to acknowledge this and then speak to someone. A lot of companies are affiliated with Gay and Lesbian networks and this can be a great source of support and advice. Stonewall offer a great service and can provide an ear to listen and some wonderful resources too. They also have a great site about role models where successful men and women discuss coming out in the workplace and how that has affected their careers:
“Having lesbian, gay and bisexual role models is very important. It shows others you can be who you are.” – Sarah Weir OBE “If you’re concealing an important part of your life then it’s difficult to be comfortable with others.” -Margot James MP
You may not be fully aware of this. I even now catch myself being guarded or second guessing what other will think. Will I be judged? But judged for what? Being in a relationship and being proud of who I am? Being supportive and compassionate and being true to myself? If people are judging us on that then judge away I say! There is legislation out there as well that can support you through any difficulties you might face. My friend Rob Whitfield was the first gay man to openly take his employer to court under the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Act that came into force in December 2003, aimed at preventing gay workers suffering discrimination.
Rob’s Case . . . . .
“I wasn’t out at work when it started. There was a small group of senior people who decided it was funny to call me homophobic names and make deeply inappropriate comments. It kept escalating and I felt awful. I had proven my capability but this group of people made me feel undermined at work. I felt I had no value; as much as I tried to let I wash over me, I felt like I was drowning instead. One day, I handed in my notice with no other employment to go to in a moment of measured desperation. I thought that would be the end of it. But they wouldn’t let it go. Ultimately, they forced me to come out with their “internal investigation” and at the time I remember thinking, this isn’t what I want. I was – and still am – a very private person and I wanted to keep my private life separate from work. The “investigation” was flawed and they found no issues. Then it came down to it; I had built a strong career with them and had great performance ratings. Why should I walk away in shame when I had done nothing wrong? That was it for me. That realisation made me decide that I’d come out to fight for my rights and the rights of every gay and lesbian person. So I took them to court, and I won. I remember the tribunal reading out the verdicts of each count. It felt so good to hear all but one of the nearly 20 counts were upheld. There was no shame left. My face was splashed on local and national newspapers, TV and magazines; I was interviewed on the radio. I didn’t feel alone then. If anything, I wish I’d come out earlier, but I know that everyone has to make their own choices and find the time that is right for them. I do know, though, that there is a lot of support out there and it is growing every day. One day, you’ll know when it is right to come out. You’ll just feel it. And when it is, be strong, remember how wonderful you are and start your coming out journey on your own terms.”
Read more about Rob’s experiences at http://www.robwhitfield.co.uk
Find out more about your rights at work at http://www.acas.org.uk and http://www.dol.gov/elaws/elg/
Ultimately, the main thing is that you are comfortable in your job, going to work every day; comfortable to be yourself and be respected for that. Coming out in the workplace can be daunting, but remember there is support and many people have been in your shoes and will tell you that it really does get easier!