Why Sucking Up Won't Save Your Job

Not all attitude adjustments are welcome in the workplace.

September 9, 2008, 6:15 PM

April 23, 2009 — -- Like many executives, John Kulisek has seen a significant change in his employees in recent months.

"Attitudes have certainly changed for the better," said Kulisek, who's vice president and COO of an import company in New Jersey.

Doors are held, lunch invitations are extended and smiles abound, the executive added.

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"Borderline cantankerous employees are now sheer delights to be around," he said. "It's almost like everybody's medicated."

Not that he's complaining.

"Where it may have been necessary before to settle for decent performance, shoddy appearances or unprofessional demeanors, we now have the princes and princesses of the labor force," Kulisek said.

With any luck, he added, the trend will continue even after the "ostensible threat to their job security is gone."

But not all attitude adjustments are welcome in the workplace, especially in today's penny-pinching economic climate.

Suck up without pulling your weight on critical projects, and you'll soon earn the title of office muck-up.

At the very least, your co-workers will find you annoying. Management even may come to question your motives.

At worst, you'll apple-polish your way right out of a job.

"At the end of the day, what an employer's really looking for is a person who's going to add value and work hard," said Thom Burke, senior vice president of human resources at the international staffing firm, MPS Group. "I wouldn't waste any time kissing up because it's not going to make a difference."

Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM PR, a communications firm in New York, will attest to that.

Last September, when his company was contemplating layoffs after losing several clients, one of his low-performing account executives began frantically e-mailing Laermer self-assessment reports every few days.

"I would get all these e-mails about all the things she was going to do," Laermer said. "But they were completely pie in the sky. Have you ever met anybody who has all these great ideas but no way of getting them done? That's what she was like."

To make matters worse, the floundering staffer refused to accept help when Laermer offered to have a co-worker coach her on how to become more results-oriented.

"She thought that the fact that she did the self-assessment was enough to keep her on," Laermer said.

Not surprisingly, this misguided muck-up was one of the handful of employees Laermer's agency laid off in November as a cost-cutting measure.

The Self-Appointed Subject Matter Expert

But the employee who proclaims, "Look at how much work I'm getting done!" isn't the only suck-up likely to raise eyebrows.

The self-professed guru who spends all his time dreaming up high-profile projects for himself rather than pitching in with the less-glamorous, day-to-day workload can easily wind up shooting himself in the foot, too.

Just ask Nate, who declined to give his last name for this column out of fear for his job.

"I have a suck-up co-worker," said Nate, who works at a consumer Web site based in San Francisco. "The whole department hates him. He does everything but his job."

Instead, Nate explained, this kiss-up has taken it upon himself to educate management about the latest Internet trends and to add many of these bells and whistles to the company's Web site, all the while doing his best to "pawn off as much busywork as he can on everyone else."

"He doesn't even do the part of his job he got hired for," Nate said. "He does stuff above and beyond, but I don't know if you can call it 'above and beyond' when he's dropping the ball on the day-to-day duties."

Such sucking up may allow a slacker-in-disguise to coast or soak up the limelight in the short term, said Burke, the staffing firm executive. But once a company starts tightening its belt, these poseurs will be outed, especially if the high-profile projects they've appointed themselves to spearhead aren't paying off financially.

And even if management's slow to notice what's going on, Burke said, your peers won't be.

"If people start to lose their jobs, it's inevitable that others will say, 'Hey, what about that person? What are they producing?'" Burke said.

In fact, Nate and his coworkers have no intention of waiting that long to out their teammate.

"While he's going out of his way to make himself look good in the eyes of upper management," Nate said, "we're all going out of our way to try to get him caught."

The Person Actually Doing His or Her Job

In this economy of doing more with less, "the best way to stay in the good graces of your boss is to work hard, be professional and be a good team player," said Burke.

Rather than sending out, "I finished the project!" or, "I'm researching the latest industry trend!" e-mails until your fingers are cramped, ask your boss what they'd like you to do to pitch in.

That's what Beth Rose Avery did when the sales team and workload she was managing at a Washington, D.C. consulting firm started dwindling down to nothing this year.

Besides showing up on time, dressing a bit sharper and laying off the celebrity blogs, she offered to help the company's marketing department with some of their projects.

"I'm glad I did," Rose Avery said. "My sales management position was essentially eliminated, but due to my hard work, they asked me if I wanted to take a job in marketing."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.