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Toronto city worker Donna Smith expects haters back on the job. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Toronto city worker Donna Smith expects haters back on the job. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Back-to-work politics

Why the hostility? I'm only doing my job Add to ...

Donna Smith isn't expecting much love at work this week. If anything, she's ready to be hated.

"I'll get it from some people," the 48-year-old community-centre custodian said last week.

Having been on the picket lines during Toronto's divisive five-week labour strike, Ms. Smith has already had plenty of abuse thrown at her from passersby.

"They scream 'parasite' and call us lazy bums," she says. "They tell us to get a job."

It's not as if this animosity is going to suddenly vanish now that the 30,000 members of CUPE Local 416, which represents outside workers, including garbage collectors and paramedics, and Local 79, which represents inside workers, including daycare staff, are back to work. Chances are there will be some lingering resentment.

One thing is for sure, however: This may be the first time Ms. Smith knows what it feels like to be David Beckham.

When the English soccer star returned to the L.A. Galaxy this summer after five months of playing in Europe, it was to a chorus of boos from fans angry at him for abandoning the team.

An extreme example would be Michael Vick. The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback became the most hated man in sports when it was revealed he was running an illegal dog-fighting operation in 2007.

Now that he has been reinstated by the National Football League, it's only a matter of time before he's back on a professional team, a return that promises plenty of vitriol from fans.

Whether you are a professional athlete or a custodian, however, going to work in an environment where you are despised, even if only by a few people, can be a difficult minefield to navigate.

Doing too little to quell animosities can be just as harmful as doing too much, experts say. And while unionized workers such as Ms. Smith are in a unique position, there is a protocol that anyone who is disliked at work should follow to put the haters behind them and get things done.

"You have a twofold agenda. One is to actually get the work of the department or the organization done, but the other one is to make people realize that you are not a bad person," says Ann Frost, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business. "If you're treating people courteously, with dignity, respectfully, eventually they will reciprocate."

Most professional athletes have probably developed a thick skin, given that fans so often hurl abuse at them. Mr. Beckham was greeted by booing fans holding signs saying "Go home fraud" and "23: Repent" - a biblical reference that mocks his jersey number.

While he may have been able to move on easily, not everyone can work in an environment where they are despised, regardless of how much they might be told to simply knuckle down.

"There are personality types who simply couldn't do that without suffering some ill consequences physically and emotionally," says Linda Schnabel, principal of Career Works, a human resources consulting company in Toronto. "It would almost be impossible for them to work in that kind of environment."

And encountering dislike at work is more common than some might think, says Franke James, founder of Office-Politics.com, an advice site for people with work woes.

"We hear from all sorts of people that have run into issues with being disliked," she says. "People can kind of shrug their shoulders and say, 'Well, what difference does it make if I'm not liked?' But the fact is it's always accompanied by nasty and often demeaning behaviour."

Still, defusing hatred at work is no easy task. Go too far out of your way to win people over and chances are you will be further vilified. Do too little and that can be just as dangerous. The worst possible course of action, experts say, is to ignore the problem in the hope it will eventually go away.

"If you're ignoring everybody, what you're doing is allowing them to imagine the worst," says Randall Craig, author of the career-planning book Personal Balance Sheet . "You don't want to reinforce what's going on in other people's minds if those things are negative."

Amid all the worrying about whether you are doing too little or too much, one can lose sight of an important fact. "You have to remember that you're hired to do a job, so you've got to do it to the best of your ability. Sometimes when you try and fit in, in a situation of disdain, you spend your time worrying about that rather than just getting the job done," Mr. Craig says.

If you are despised at work by one or two people, experts suggest approaching them to discuss the problem. In most other situations, the best thing to do is perform your job well, treat others the way you want to be treated and eventually you will win over the haters, Ms. Schnabel says. Just don't give them any reason to hate you further.

This may be especially true for unionized city employees in Toronto who are returning to work after a protracted strike.

"You have to recognize that people will be angry," Ms. Frost says. "If you're the garbage man, you're making sure you don't leave anything on people's driveway and their recycling boxes are put back on the grass or whatever it might be, and delivering that high level of service that people can't fault you for."

Ms. Smith has her own strategy to deal with any anger that might be directed at her when she's back on the job. "I'll smile and nod my head," she says.

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