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Sometimes an office’s culture can be so dysfunctional you can find it impossible to do your job.
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updated 9/12/2012 11:29:33 AM ET 2012-09-12T15:29:33

Three and a half years ago Forbes merged its dot-com and magazine editorial staffs, and we magazine editors got a dose of culture shock. We were used to coming and going as we pleased. We had few meetings. Especially in the mid- and upper-level ranks, we didn’t socialize together much. Having moved here midway through my career, from a nightly television show where I was by necessity joined at the hip with my colleagues, I loved the independence and freedom of the place.

Now I suddenly had a major adjustment to make. The dot-commers were a much more chummy bunch. Group e-mails whizzed around constantly. Announcements of birthday parties arrived, it seemed, daily. That meant we had to leave our desks at mid-afternoon, crowd into a windowless conference room and sing to some colleague while nibbling on cupcakes and sipping cheap champagne. Call me a curmudgeon, but I detested those forced moments of gaiety and collegiality.

Forbes.com slideshow: When you just don't fit in at the office

Which leads me to the topic of this column: What do you do when you realize you don’t naturally fit in with your office culture?

My situation was pretty mild. I didn’t want my new colleagues to think I disliked them, so I forced myself to show up at a share of the cupcake fêtes and made a point to offer the birthday boy or girl best wishes, especially if he or she was on my team. I got used to the faster pace of the dot-com schedule, and I attended a lot more meetings. Also, the office culture around here has shifted since then. We’re back to fewer meetings, no birthday parties and more independence.

But for some people the wrong office culture can prove truly onerous or even cost them the job.

Anita Attridge, a career coach in New York, had a client who worked as a vice president for a large pharmaceutical company based in Europe. The woman had to travel overseas once a month for three or four exhausting days at a stretch. Tired and jetlagged, she at first routinely turned down dinner and drinks invitations from her European colleagues, preferring to head back to her hotel and crash. Then she got some bad news: She wasn’t perceived as a strong leader and wasn’t doing her part as a member of the team. “She was startled,” Attridge says. “She had no idea she wasn’t doing well.” It turned out she was expected not only to give her all in the office but also to demonstrate her commitment to her company by socializing with her superiors and colleagues after hours.

“It wasn’t in her comfort zone to do that,” Attridge says. But Attridge advised her to come to terms with the need to socialize: “I said to her that going out to dinners was as much a part of the job as going to meetings. It’s a job requirement that isn’t listed.” Attridge also pointed out that a lot of informal but essential information changes hands at office social functions.

Attridge learned about the importance of office culture firsthand at one of her own first jobs 25 years ago. She was working on the sales staff at Xerox in Rochester, N.Y. She labored hard all day, and she eschewed any form of office socializing – until her manager sat her down and asked if she wanted to have a career at the company. “He said, ‘If you don’t start changing what you’re doing, you’re never going to move ahead.’ He was very explicit.” Attridge started going to lunches and attending going-away parties.

Attridge and other career professionals agree that job seekers should realize that office culture can be as important as workload and duties. “It’s very important to look at the culture before you start the job,” says Sarah Stamboulie, a career coach who had to confront two very different cultures at a crossroads in her own career. She’d gotten two job offers, one from Morgan Stanley and the other at a Japanese insurance company where the atmosphere was formal and buttoned down. If she took the insurance job, she says, “I realized that sooner or later I’d say the wrong thing.” She went with Morgan Stanley.

Sometimes an office’s culture can be so dysfunctional you can find it impossible to do your job. Pam Lassiter, a consultant in Boston and author of "The New Job Security: The 5 Best Strategies for Taking Control of Your Career," had a client who worked in business development at a three-year-old energy technology company. The company’s chief executive, terrified that competitors would steal his ideas, fostered an office culture corroded by fear, distrust and secrecy. Lassiter’s client, who was outgoing and enthusiastic, felt so stymied that he quit after a year to start his own energy financing venture. Says Lassiter, “If the CEO isn’t going to change anytime soon and your values or ways of working are different, then you should be developing an exit plan.”

Culture can also make a difference where you least expect it, Lassiter points out. One of her clients started a mobile phone marketing business from home. She got herself plenty of business and a robust income but also grew lonely. Says Lassiter, “She didn’t realize how much she enjoyed the camaraderie of teams, the comfort of the water cooler and the pleasure of informal chitchat with the same people.” The client set up arrangements with clients that had her spending extended periods in office settings where she realized she was much happier.

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© 2012 Forbes.com

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