It's A Gray Area: Workers' attitudes can make or break them

Because Labor Day weekend is upon us, I am passing along to you some insights I have picked up over many years while working to help resolve employment disputes. I hope that they can help you or people close to you in applying for, keeping and being successful in a job.

The first insight came from a manager of a large company who said that workers are hired for ability and fired for attitude. Like anyone else, employers are attracted to people who have an optimistic and "can do" spirit, and who appear happy to be on the team. And not only does optimism provide a better work environment, it also attracts and retains customers.

Another important thing for workers (and businesses) to keep in mind is that if you give value to your employer (and customers) you will always be in demand. In other words, if you bring more benefit to companies than it costs them, or you charge less for your work or products than they are worth, you will always have work if you want it.

So even if you are unhappy, discouraged or bored in your work, or if you are looking for employment somewhere else, do not give even a hint of that to your employer. Why? Because if your employer sees that to be your attitude, your days there will be numbered. (The exception is that once you have found a new position, you should always give reasonable notice to your present employer, so that you can maintain your integrity and be able to leave on good terms.) For example, once the partners of my former law firm discovered that I was applying for an appointment as a judge, they realized that I did not see my future as being with the firm. Thus never again did I receive a raise in salary, or even a year-end bonus.

If all else fails, workers should play the "as if" game that many successful marital counselors encourage their clients to play. That means that the workers should act as if everything at work (or at home) is simply fine. If done effectively, usually their job performance and also their job satisfaction both improve. In some ways this is putting into effect the recommendation of Harry Truman, who said: "Always be sincere, even if you don't mean it."

Some more specific suggestions are, first, to be a team player. Do not stoop to gossiping about anyone on your team; make your boss look good; and pass credit for success on to your colleagues.

Next, take the initiative to volunteer for a greater workload, particularly on projects that appear to have the support of upper management. Just be sure that this does not jeopardize your performance in tasks that have already been assigned to you.

Furthermore, it is good to keep alert in spotting ways in which procedures can be improved in areas of safety, quality control or cost savings, and quietly pass your suggestions up the chain of command. But at the same time, be aware that many of your colleagues have probably invested a fair amount of energy and personal capital in the present procedures, and there could be many complicated factors involved of which you are not aware. So go slowly in suggesting any changes, particularly at the beginning of your employment.

Get a good night's sleep before each workday because this will help you to perform up to your abilities. In addition, always report for work at least five minutes early and leave at least 10 minutes late. Like anyone else, employers are attracted to reliability, and intensely dislike tardiness. Success comes from being known for reliability and working full days.

Make a mental note of the names and titles of your fellow workers as well as your customers and clients so that you can greet them by name and pronounce their names correctly. Everyone is impressed and appreciative of being recognized and addressed by name.

Depending upon its size, do some research from back issues of annual reports, newsletters and even newspapers about the directions that your company is headed. Employees who understand the "big picture" are often in a position to improve their worth to and standing with their company.

Be mindful of your appearance. That doesn't mean in today's world that you have to wear a shirt and tie when others are wearing jeans, but dress like you take pride in your appearance and know you are a representative of your company.

If you have questions, ask! It is far better to clarify what your company's expectations are and the instructions and procedures that are to be followed at the beginning than to fake it and then not perform well. Of course, try to understand directions the first time, so as not to have to ask twice about the same issue.

Similarly, remember that it is truly hard to learn while talking. So listen and absorb rather than try to show off how smart you are or what you know. Politicians learn quickly that they can't be criticized for something they didn't say, and that can be good advice for us all.

And finally, show appreciation to those who help you and are friendly to you, whether they be custodians or the chief executive. All people are grateful when others show appreciation for their actions. But be sure that the appreciation is genuine, Harry Truman's comment notwithstanding, because no one likes a hypocrite.

Of course when it comes down to it, these tips about how to obtain, hold onto and progress in a job basically apply to our private lives as well as our public ones. But regardless of the situation, I hope they help.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the musical revue "Americans All," that will be performed at Vanguard University Sept. 16 through Oct. 2. He can be contacted at

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