I'll fix your computer, but don't have to be nice about it

Being courteous toward co-workers may not be a stated part of the IT job description, but it's certainly a skill worthy of attention

For employees who deal directly with paying clients and customers, positive people skills are a requirement. For internal support departments such as IT, it's too often forgotten that fellow co-workers are the department's customers. Being competent is only part of the package; it'll only get you so far if people don't like to work with you.

At a former company (we'll call it Company X), I was part of a seven-member IT support team. We were each assigned various responsibilities throughout the day. These could range from mundane tasks such as replacing keyboards to adjusting the access lists on our Cisco routers. Most days, however, the bullying and name-calling and insubordination more closely resembled a grade school playground than a workplace staffed by adults.

[ There are few jobs as, um, interesting as being in IT. InfoWorld has collected some of the most memorable 2008 experiences from the IT trenches ]

Simply put, my IT co-workers had no people skills at all. They would cuss at fellow employees and sometimes call them "stupid" -- or worse -- to their faces. Whenever employees complained to management about the IT staff, nothing was ever done. Management said the IT staff's skills were too critical to the company, and besides, we only dealt with fellow employees and these actions weren't turning away potential customers.

One of the most inconsiderate was my IT co-worker "Paul." For example, one day, the COO came into the IT room and was talking to me about a problem he was having with his computer. Paul was playing his usual head-banging music too loudly. The COO asked Paul to please turn it down since he told him that he couldn't hear himself think. Paul turned around and point-blank told the COO "No, I'm not going to do that."

Out of this IT team, co-workers and my manager indicated that I was considered the "likeable and approachable" IT guy in the office. I treated each employee as an internal customer and tried to keep them as happy and content as possible. I even won "Employee of the Quarter" due to my "caring and genuine regard for other employees' feelings and my can-do attitude." I was proud of this achievement, but it caused resentment amongst the other team members. And, like grade schoolers, they taunted me and other employees who seemed "nice."

Like any poorly run business, eventually Company X was forced into bankruptcy. Most of the original management was demoted or outright replaced as part of the restructuring process. Rumor had it that the IT staff was going to be downsized and/or outsourced as well.

My IT manager was the first to go, due to "poor performance," and a new IT manager hired -- for less salary. Soon after, most of the original IT team was laid off (except Paul, whose skills were still considered highly valuable to the company). I would later find out that most of these guys were eventually fired from other jobs because of their poor attitudes toward others.

As the years went by, I managed to survive four layoffs at Company X, but the fifth one put me out the door. My skills were less valuable than Paul's and my good attitude wasn't going to save me after all.

What happened to Paul? I heard through the grapevine that he was eventually axed from Company X after the straw that broke the camel's back was when he called the CFO a racial slur to his face. He was replaced with a guy (we'll call him Tim) who was even worse towards people. Tim would later get laid off but immediately hired at a very large company in another state as their head IT Manager. While shopping I ran across Tim about a year ago and he told me that he isn't doing IT anymore. He has moved back home to pursue other venues. I didn't ask him to elaborate on this.

The moral of this story? No matter how skillful you are, your bad attitude will most likely catch up with you eventually. Now I'm an IT manager myself. Out of all the IT guys that I used to work with at Company X, I am the only one now who is currently still doing IT. Does having a courteous attitude pay off? Well, it's nice when it does. But no matter what, it's just plain right to treat everyone with respect.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.