Seven Workplace Lessons from The Office

Seven Workplace Lessons from The Office

By Larry Buhl, for Yahoo! HotJobs

The TV series The Office is an example of how a company should not operate. It's a virtual laboratory of corporate dysfunction, complete with a narcissistic, childish boss; an ineffective, clueless human resources department; and petty, game-playing coworkers.

Is it over-the-top? Sure. Is it completely unrealistic? Unfortunately, no.

Real work environments may not be as funny, but there are some ways The Office imitates life, according to Vicki Baker, a professor of economics and management at Albion College. Baker, who teaches a course called Lessons Learned at The Office, uses the series to open discussions about diversity, ethics, leadership and conflict resolution.

Baker and other experts suggest that the following lessons can be learned from The Office:

Identify the Real Problem

The Office boss, Michael Scott, continually makes racist and sexist comments. In one episode, a complaint about this led HR to force everyone into diversity training. "In the real world there should be a zero-tolerance policy for those kind of remarks, and the person saying them should be the one held accountable," Baker says. "On the show, HR didn't understand that Michael Scott was the issue, not the whole office."

Maintain Personal Boundaries

As a boss, Scott insists on a "friendly" atmosphere, and he thinks that makes it OK to ask very invasive questions. If you think you may be prying too much into coworkers' lives (or sharing too much about your own), check it out by asking whether your comments are appropriate. And if someone is continually overstepping your boundaries even after you've said it's not OK, scrupulously document every incident and let HR handle it, experts say.

Keep Private Matters Private

In one episode, in a twisted form of conflict resolution, Michael Scott goes to the complaints box and reads everyone's private comments aloud. "In a real office those matters should be kept private, and you would never reprimand or yell at an employee in front of others," Baker says. "If it happens, and it's a generally good boss in a moment of weakness, just explain that you felt it was inappropriate. If it continues, go over his or her head or notify HR."

Be Clear About Company Ethics

Sleeping with a supplier to obtain a discount, as one Office character did, just may be at odds with the company's ethics. "The trouble was, sleeping with a supplier really was a gray area on the show, because nobody in HR had thought of it," Baker says. She suggests being very familiar with the employee handbook -- and being in touch with your own personal code of ethics. And if a situation tests the boundaries of either, check it out with HR, your boss or your boss's boss.

Use Caution with Romance

On the show, the romance of coworkers Pam and Jim is one storyline that wasn't full of dysfunction. In fact, as far as real-life office romances go, the characters did it right.

"Generally, office romances are not advisable because if they don't work out, you still have to see that person every day," says author and workplace columnist Marie McIntyre. "But if you do think you're falling for someone in the office, go slow -- get to know each other very well before you get physical."

Sleeping with the boss is another matter entirely. "For many reasons, just don't do it," McIntyre advises.

Disengage from Game-Playing

The employees in The Office spend far more time spying, gossiping and posturing than actually working. Unfortunately, that's not uncommon in many workplaces, according to Kathi Elster, president of K Squared Enterprises and coauthor of Working with You Is Killing Me.

"Emotional inefficiency is typical in many offices," she says. "People spend a lot of time on political maneuvering and figuring out others' intentions. Highly effective workers notice what's going on but also find a way to pull back and do their jobs."

Cool Off Before Confronting

If your boss makes an offensive joke, for example, put off the confrontation, Elster says. "Calm down and speak with them later when you have some clarity," she says. "Then you can say, 'I like working here, but I find it demeaning when you use that word.' Actually this has been done well a few times on the show, and the boss has backed down."

Linnda Durre, author of Surviving the Toxic Workplace, acknowledges that, while human resources should be your ally, that's not always the case. "Some companies don't have HR departments, and sometimes HR protects bad bosses and will come to the rescue only when there's the possibility of a lawsuit," she notes. If only a lawsuit will work, then you might consider threatening to file one, Durre says -- but you must also be prepared to deal with the consequences. "If you're working in a culture of corruption that is run by sociopaths, you need to strongly consider what's more important -- your integrity and sanity or your ability to pay your mortgage," she says. "You always have options even if you have to leave the company."

Experts agree that in the majority of nontoxic companies, truly horrible bosses don't stay around. "If someone like Michael Scott is your boss and he can't be fired, I think it's time to look for a new job," Baker says.