What Does it Mean for an Organization to Have an Ethical Culture?
The Ethics of Dating in the Workplace

Ethical Considerations of Office Politics

Playing the Game

I first blogged about office politics this past February. Today’s blog repeats some of that information and adds new perspectives. Office politics affects virtually everyone in the workplace so it is important to understand the scope of behaviors and best ways to deal with the challenges of working in a political environment to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes.  

There are a variety of definitions of office politics. The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines it as “the activities, attitudes, or behaviors that are used to get or keep power or an advantage within a business or company.”

According to a survey by the National Business Research Institute, “The definition of office politics may be a bit ambiguous, but wherever you find human beings in an office environment, you’re bound to have office politics. They’re used to gain power in the workplace, or by many accounts, misused. Their competitive nature can be used in a positive sense, but office politics can also be damaging to employee morale.”

A more comprehensive definition is offered by Michael and Deborah Dobson in their book Enlightened Office Politics: Understanding, Coping with, and Winning the Game – Without Losing Your Soul. They define it as: “The information and sometimes emotion-driven process of allocating limited resources and working out goals, decisions and actions in an environment of people with different and competing interests and personalities.” This is a more operational definition that fits the workplace better.

Reasons for Office Politics

A Management Study Guide lists the reasons for workplace politics:

  • Employees aspiring to come in the limelight easily without much hard word depend on politics.
  • Politics arises when employees aspire to achieve something beyond their authority and control in a short span of time.
  • Lack of supervision and control at the workplace.
  • Too much of gossip at work lead to politics.
  • Arrogant superiors.
  • Jealous colleagues.

Negative Effects

Some workers play office politics to gain an unfair advantage over a colleague by currying favor with a superior at the expense of the co-worker. This may occur by criticizing the co-worker, talking down about him/her to the superior, or taking credit for their work. Office politics stabbing

A toxic culture may develop when office politics is played. Employees may find it difficult to concentrate, tensions develop in the workplace, and some employees may wonder if they will be drawn into the conflict. There can be a real fear of having to take sides to resolve these issues or support a fellow worker.

Office Politics as a Skill

Not everyone thinks office politics is harmful. Jill Griffin writes for Forbes online that workers need to learn how to play office politics because being politically savvy is a crucial ingredient in one’s career success. She believes developing good relationships up and down the organization is a sure way to get yourself promoted and key to becoming a respected leader. She suggests that politics is how business gets done in organizations. Moreover, learning how to navigate through the firm and influence others to get your ideas accepted is how you gain traction and rise to the highest levels of the organization.

Can Office Politics Have an Ethical Dimension?

I believe Griffin makes good points and support her statements that someone who plays office politics should: “Be transparent. Be great at what you do. Use your gifts and talents to their fullest. But while you do, pay close attention to your surroundings and listen carefully. Use your political instincts to sort out the real line of authority in your organization.”

What’s missing in the discussion so far is the role of ethics in office politics. By its very nature, office politics has an ethical dimension. Ethics is about how we treat others; whether we respect their rights; how our intended decisions affect others; and whether they are treated justly. The question, then, is: Can office politics be played without violating ethical norms of behavior?

I find it challenging at best to say office politics and ethics go hand in hand. This is not like the performance evaluation system where fairness is the underlying ethical value. Given that office politics typically involves gaining an advantage over another, it’s quite likely that is accomplished by being less than 100 percent faithful to relationships in the organization.

Trust is a big issue when we talk about office politics. Why should we trust an employee who takes sides simply to impress a superior without a conviction that it is the right thing to do? How can it be ethical to take credit for someone else’s work? We wouldn’t want someone else to treat us this way.


At the end of the day it’s up to each organization to set informal rules about office politics since it is a realty in most organizations. Employees need to understand who to speak to when office politics significantly affects worker productivity, workplace relationships, and even one’s physical and mental health.

Office politics can’t be banned. It wouldn’t work anyway. However, the potential harmful effects can be managed by considering the following:

  • What are the ethical issues involved in my encounter?
  • What are my choices: play the game or avoid getting involved?
  • How should I determine an acceptable way to deal with the matter?
  • Who should I speak to about my concerns?
  • Think first, and then act: How would you feel if your actions and words were posted on the Internet and discussed on social media? Would you proud to defend them?

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 27, 2019. Follow Steve on Facebook and “Like” his page. Visit Steve’s website, sign up for his newsletter, and you can preorder his new book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior.