Playing Politics in HR — How to Master the Game…Without Being a Sleazy, Back-Stabber!


by Alan Collins


Hi Alan,

Is it worth accepting an HR position in a larger company, if that means I have to play company politics?

I hate people who suck up and I don’t believe in being a back stabber.

Here’s my situation. I’ve spent most of my HR career at a small successful start-up tech firm.

Despite the pandemic, I’m now being recruited by a large Fortune 200 corporation with a 25% bump in comp and more perks.

While the opportunity is fantastic, they want to bring me in at a lower level as Senior HR Manager and I’m okay with that (I’m currently the acting HR VP at my smaller company now).

The hiring manager says I’m a clear high potential, but tells me that the corporate politics in the new company can be brutal and cutthroat and I’ll need to master them in order to grow at this firm.

So here’s my question: How do I ace the politics there without totally compromising my ethics?




Hi Amelia,

Thanks for your question.  Let me start by being blunt.

You do NOT have the luxury of
opting out of company politics,
if you want to succeed in HR.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but here’s the deal.  The larger the organization, the more you will need to acquire a skill that doesn’t appear on any SHRM competency model.

That skill is called…political savvy.

But let me clarify.  Most people view company politics negatively. They believe:

“Playing politics is sleazy, dirty and demeaning.”

“Business and getting ahead should be a meritocracy.”

“I’ve never been good at office politics and don’t know why I need to brown-nose people and play this game at work.”

“My hard work, talent and results should be enough to get me praised, raised and recognized.”

To these naive folks I say…GROW UP!

Politics exist everywhere, even at your current smaller firm.

But 99% of succeeding at politics, has NOTHING to do with dwelling on all the negative stuff.  

Instead, being political savvy and playing the game well is all about knowing the key influencers, building alliances and helping people win!

That’s all it is.

Most HR folks are great at these things. And the superstars in HR are absolute masters of the game.

So give yourself permission to play the game of politics.

This is essential, especially during this pandemic.

To help, here are a few steps to follow if you want to ace it:

*   *   *

#1:  Make your boss your biggest ally!

Politics is all about having alliances that can help you and this is where it all starts.

Be proactive with your boss.

Get to them before they come to you.

Know their priorities cold.

Anticipate what they need to know and provide it to them regularly.  Get smarter on the things that drive their success.

As you get started, take steps to correct any adverse client feedback you get, so your boss can be your advocate. You don’t want them to fight uphill political battles on your behalf.  Or have to debate client perceptions that you’re a jerk.

The last thing you’ll want is to make it difficult for your boss to champion you when an opportunity arises. 

That’s just the start.  Then there’s this..

*   *   *

#2:  Know the key influencers and become their ally!

In every organization, especially large ones, there are influencers.

They come in all shapes, sizes and exist at all levels.

They could be executives, department heads, admins and support staff, high-potentials or the savvy old-timers.

To find them, ask yourself:

Once you’ve identified these power figures, think through ways you can help them win.  For example:

The goal is to look for ways you can help others and provide favors…both little ones and big ones. 

Also, here’s a nifty little chart (from the Arise Training & Research Center) with a couple of additional suggestions…

However, let’s now flip the coin and look at the dark side.

Everyone is NOT going to be your BFF.  So, this next point is crucial…

*   *   *

#3:  Know thy enemies!

You will have your detractors.

If you’re doing well, in large companies they’ll grow like weeds.

The key is that you know who they are and that you don’t let them derail you.

Rise above petty little personal conflicts and never, EVER rely on their confidentiality.

You don’t have to be paranoid about this, but assume that anything you say to them will be gossiped about, shared or used to your disadvantage.

However, they are often difficult to spot — and even more difficult to smoke out during this pandemic — when many folks are working from home off the grid. 

So have your antennae out.

While some adversarial co-workers will confront you without hesitation, others operate under the radar.

In fact, your haters may not say anything to you at all, but use subtle little non-verbal cues like eye rolling, deep sighs or finger tapping while you’re speaking. Or undermine you behind your back.

If it takes place in front of other people, diffuse the situation with a little light humor directed at the person in question.

If it happens more often, then confront the offender privately.

But pick your battles.  While these behaviors may be distracting, you don’t have to address every single one and they don’t have to intimidate you.

*   *   *

#4:  The REAL secret in succeeding in corporate politics is knowing when to focus on people, instead of your ideas.

Your amazing new HR program or idea means nothing in your new organization if you can’t figure out how to get the right people to hear it in the right way.

Try to look at the matter from their angle.

Sometimes that means:

There’s nothing sleazy about any of this.  This is how all large companies (and small ones) work and get things done.

*   *   *

#5:  Finally, get a mentor!

A good one can help you crack your company’s political code (and every company has one). 

This should be a person comfortable with building coalitions and well-networked within the company.

Pick their brain to find out how they approach things. I can almost guarantee the person will be flattered and eager to help. And you’ll gain another ally that will support your success.

Things can be more subtle and nuanced in large organizations.  No one may tell you you’re off-base, barking up the wrong tree, or talking to the wrong wall entirely.  You may only get an inkling or shades of feelings.

Your mentor can help you get a GPS reading on these situations.  And can help you maneuver and become more perceptive…at least to get started.

*   *   *

Here’s the bottom line:  Don’t hate the game of politics.

During this pandemic, it’s essential that you play politics — but play it positively, authentically and honorably.

If you don’t know how to play, learn.

You don’t have to be a brown-noser, boot licker or disgusting little suck up to win.  Follow the above five tips to get started.

Remember, it’s all about knowing your key influencers, building key alliances and helping other folks win. 

Amelia, I wish you much success in your new HR role.



Please view the comments on this article or add your own below by clicking HERE.

Portions of the above article were excerpted from:  WINNING BIG IN HR: 100+ Powerful Strategies For Accomplishing Great Results Faster & Getting Your Clients To Rave About You As A Human Resources Professional!   For more detailed information about the book, go HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR, Inc. and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals including WINNING BIG IN HR.  He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

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13 Responses to “Playing Politics in HR — How to Master the Game…Without Being a Sleazy, Back-Stabber!”

  1. Bonnie Nguyen Says:

    Spot on Alan!

  2. Suma Says:

    Thanks for your advise on the playing politics. But what would you do when your own boss is playing politics and you cant help it coz you don’t have a mentor or godfather.. and that too he is trying to play politics with you coz he is biased to someone and insecure about loosing that person and so letting the other person down. How do you handle such a situation.

    With regards

  3. Alan Says:

    Suma, you need a boss, mentor, godfather or strong influencer. Nobody survives alone. I repeat no one survives alone. Re-read points 1, 2 & 5 in the article. Be well, Alan

  4. Wilbroad Katema Says:

    Thanks Allan, Corporate politics always pop up, your article will indeed assist in playing them.



  5. Jennifer Says:

    Great article. I actually attended a workshop this past weekend about being Organizationally Savvy and it spoke about this exact topic of being savvy and staying ethical while dealing with office politics.

  6. Steven Chan Says:

    absolutely right. keep yourself into the game and work it out. build up a good relationship with your vital coalition ally, provide your assistance and service to them to gain their respectful. stay away the evils and always remind yourself don’t be a jerk.

  7. Sunil Says:

    Hi Alan,

    Loved your article. Beautifully explained!
    Can we remove preconceived notions about us from the mind of boss?

  8. Lindsay Says:

    You have given me much to do starting ASAP. You’ve become a Phantom Mentor for me. Thank you.

  9. Prudhvi Says:

    Thank you for sharing. It is so helpful for political world.

    Thank you.

  10. Muhammad Tahir Says:

    Thank you Alan. This avery good inrod to office politics.

  11. Muhammad Tahir Says:

    Thank you Alan. This avery good inrod to office politics.

  12. Josephine Says:

    Right on spot Alan!! I would just piggy back on point #5. Find mentors inside and outside of your organization. Sometimes you will need an objective view. Also, political savvy matures with time and experience.

  13. Alan Says:

    Josephine, great insight! Couldn’t agree with you more…mentors both in and outside of your organization – right on the money. Thanks for weighing in.