Have you ever felt like Milton from Office Space? Completely isolated from your peers, degraded by your bosses and reduced to nothing more than a mumbling, squirrel-watching, stapler-hoarding office leper?
Well, the good news is that you aren’t alone. Actually, sorry, you are alone — that’s why you’re the office leper. What we mean is that that you’re not the first one to experience this depressing, isolated condition — being the person who everyone at your job knows, for whatever reason, it’s career suicide to be seen associating with.
The better news is, with some work, you just may be able to get yourself out of it, but be warned: It’s not going to be easy. To work your way out of your doghouse-for-one status, you’re going to have to first figure out what got you there to begin with. Every person and every situation will have its own unique challenges, and you’ll have to face those obstacles head-on.
Now, some problems may be simple, in which case, the solutions may be equally simple. Say you’re the guy who always forgets his wallet at lunch — before long, you might notice that people stop inviting you, and you’ll discover yourself the subject of the rumor mill for your notorious cheapness.
For a situation like this, simply owning up and making amends may turn your status with your peers relatively quickly, according to personal and executive coach Joshua Miller. “In a situation like that, you can offer to take everybody out to lunch. This might cause some joking at your expense, but immediately, you’ll start to put yourself in people’s good graces,” says Miller. The caveat to this situation, though, is that your notorious wallet absence will have to completely stop there — if you suddenly revert back to your mooching ways, your grand gesture will seem completely insincere and your isolation will only worsen.
Avoid looking too needy when it comes to grand gestures in general, in fact, as they may have the opposite effect. “Clumsy or overly-obvious efforts to ingratiate yourself could lead to ridicule, making you look pathetic,” cautions Robert Kelsey, author of What’s Stopping You? and other “anti-self-help, self-help” (his preferred term) books. So be careful to not go overboard.
For more serious rifts, your reputation revival will be much more complicated. “It’s almost impossible,” warns Miller, who says that when you’re rebuilding a damaged reputation, you should expect to be in for the long haul. “Reputation is all about perception, and perception is reality. So, if you rub someone the wrong way or you do something unprofessional, it’s hard to come back from that,” says Miller. “The only way to fix things is to take consistent actions to intentionally and mindfully conduct yourself more thoughtfully and professionally every single day.”
If you’re not willing to put in that kind of deliberate, continuous effort all the time, more than likely the problem won’t get better. “This is why so many people jump jobs and relationships — it’s really hard to face the problem,” says Miller.
The specific fixes will, of course, pertain to your specific situation. If you were caught lying, for example, you have to become more forthright and honest. For the mistake prone, you’ll have to double- and triple-check your work. If your email tone always rubs people the wrong way, try rereading them before you send, or waiting five minutes before sending and reading again. If you lost your temper, apologize and be more patient in the future.
Whatever it is that got you into trouble is going to have to be addressed with a constant and concerted effort — people have to buy into the fact that this is who you are now, not the screw-up they heard about.
The really bad news is, at the end of the day, this may not be enough. In fact, as far as Kelsey is concerned, it may not be wise to even try. “Prejudice exists, so being isolated isn’t always a reflection on you as much as it’s a reflection on them,” he says. “In this respect, you should find your own tribe — by that I mean seek out groups that suit you, and are tolerant of you. Like you, even.” By seeking out those people and building a new network, you might find yourself with a stronger support group than you had to begin with. Naturally, this, too, involves you putting yourself out there.
If you aren’t willing to put in the effort to rebuild your network or make a new one — or if you believe that your good name simply can’t ever overcome the black hole that is the rumor mill — it may not be as simple as just getting a new job, either. “Whenever I interview candidates, I’m always keen to ensure they’re not ‘runaways,’” says Kelsey, referring to someone who’s trying to escape their current situation, rather than move on to the next step in their career. “Moving won’t help if you’re running away,” he warns. “The same attitude and issues will follow you everywhere.”
So, if you do decide to jump ship, at least try and learn from the experience first so you don’t replicate it elsewhere.
Alternatively, you can always just set the place on fire.