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Funny Money: How to Work Hard at Seeming to be a Hard Worker

George Costanza, grumpy at the office in a Seinfeld screenshotWe’ve all noticed slacker co-workers who always seem to get the breaks when it comes to raises and promotions. It’s easy to resent these folks, but what you should be doing is learning from them. Though books have been written on the subject, their arts aren’t widely known, and most anyone can use a brush-up on the matter.

See, thriving in the office is not all about what you know, or even who you know, but mainly how much you know about making yourself seem like you know more than you do. Or something like that.

What I’m getting at here is the need to make yourself appear better than you are by maximizing the ways in which you appear to be competent while minimizing your inadequacies. By focusing on a few seemingly trivial details, you can improve your reputation and image, helping your workplace stock aimed upward.

Here are a few tips to make yourself appear to be a harder worker than you really are. They work just as well for do-nothings who are just treading water as they do for go-getters looking to get any edge they can on the competition.

1. Show up early.

Have I lost you already? Let me clarify. You don’t have to sleep at the office to seem dedicated to your work. Just make it a point to consistently come in a few minutes earlier than a few key people: your supervisors, those you sit near or anyone you consider a rival. Being an early riser yields many advantages. Not only will it make you seem energetic, reliable and enthusiastic, but it gives you the chance to get a jump on the day before others. Make it a point to greet the key people who come in after you. Not only are you subtly reinforcing your superiority, but you’re nailing important face time and small talk with superiors.

Many people try to get the same edge by staying late, but the upside isn’t as good. People are more tired and cranky in the evening hours, and being a serial late-stayer can leave the unfavorable impression of a workaholic, or someone who is inefficient with their time.

2. Appear angry.

This one comes from Seinfeld character George Costanza, Greek god of the office slacker. He theorized that people always assume you’re working if you have an angry look on your face. While no one appreciates a sourpuss, keep the anger expression in your back pocket for when you really need it, such as when you sense a middle manager fishing for a chump on which to dump no-reward busywork, or when you’re looking to scare off a productivity-sapping chatterbox. Save your most convincing fake smiles for when coworkers share their kids’ soccer exploits or when the boss goes on about his horse ranch.

3. Learn to talk in code.

Other than engaging in an Office Space-like game of Tetris on your computer monitor, there’s no way to make yourself seem like entitled, jumbled layoff fodder than fielding personal calls at your desk. It’s common sense to step into the hallway to defuse arguments with loved ones, protest credit card charges or secure restaurant reservations, but sometimes non-work callers manage to pin you down at your desk.

When you’re backed into such a corner, do not engage. Just say you’re busy and will call them back or, when denied, use job jargon to make it seem to others like you’re dealing with a work call. Terms you can use vary depending on your occupation, but words such as “files,” “appointments,” “service,” “reports” and “figures” tend to work as homonyms you can cram in to most any message. Your friend wants to meet you for a movie, but can’t decide which? Say you can “review the reports from the competitors, come to a decision and touch base with a meeting about the results later this week.”

4. Listen to gossip, but never offer your own or repeat what you hear.

The etiquette police tell you never to engage in office gossip, but that’s silly advice, because how else are you supposed to collect news you can use? The key is that you receive the full benefits of someone in the office gossip loop without demeaning yourself by becoming an active participant.

Gossips love to trade snippets, but most will settle for compliments or opportunities to talk about other subjects from anyone willing to listen. Get the goods by being a good listener and treating information traders with respect. Smile and laugh along with them, but stop short of endorsing whatever opinions they may have — lest you be grouped into a faction you want no part of — and change the subject whenever asked about your opinion on a controversial matter.

5. Rock the cradle.

Sure, it’s annoying that each new crop of hires starts at higher pay than you and seemingly slides on to fast tracks to promotions. Accept realities of the marketplaces and do your best to benefit from them. Go out of your way to help out office noobs in their earliest, most vulnerable days, leaving the impression that you will be worth that raise you’ll be begging them for three years from now when they’re your boss. Offer advice, listen to concerns and make yourself into a mentor. Stay positive and don’t reveal any of the bitter, soul-sucking truths of the work place. They will discover those soon enough. And maybe someday they’ll move on to work at a better place and hire you away.

Do you have any tips for showing the boss you’re a productive worker?

Published or updated on April 13, 2013

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.


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  1. Hi says:

    Always have 3 or so programs open on your computer. Spread them out so theyre all visible (this is easily done on a Mac…being a Mac user, im not sure how to go about it on PC.) It makes you look busier than you might actually be.

  2. Mattie says:

    I like the stare-at-an-open-Excel-file trick. Nobody bothers you if you scrunch up your eyebrows and stare at an Excel file. Got a few graphs on there? Even better. Nobody ever comes close enough to realize I’m working on my own personal budget or retirement plan projections!

  3. brian says:

    My father worked in the maintenance department of a manufacturing company.
    When he wanted to look busy, he could carry around a 48″ pipe wrench because if people saw you carrying a tool that large, they assumed you were doing something extremely important.

  4. Nick says:

    Always appear to be working when your boss isn’t. For example, if you have lunch with your team, leave a little early to go back to your desk. This makes you appear to be working hard because not only are you getting more work done in the day, you’re making everyone else look lazy. Do it sparingly though, you don’t want to make enemies by being the goody goody.

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