How to Handle Cliques at Work

By Jacquelyn Smith, Forbes Staff

If you thought cliques were a thing of your past—something from your high
school years—you thought wrong.

According to a new survey, 43% of workers say their office is populated by cliques—which are tightly knit groups of co-workers who socialize in and outside the
office, and often exclude others.

“This isn’t surprising at all,” says Amy Hoover, president of Talent Zoo.
“People are creatures of habit, and the habits you pick up early in life often
carry through to adulthood. One of those habits is to group with others who
are like-minded or similar to ourselves. It happens at work, at parties, at
networking events–any place where there are groups of people.”

David Parnell, a legal recruiter, communication coach and author of InHouse: A Lawyer’s Guide to Getting a Corporate Legal Position, agrees. He
says the fields of evolutionary and social psychology have found that we are
genetically bathed in the drive to form groups. “In fact, minimal group
paradigm studies have shown us to form groups within minutes in a novel
situation, and if there are no salient reasons for doing so, groups will even
form based on irrelevant criteria such as shirt colors.”

The nationwide survey—conducted by Harris Interactive – sked about 3,000 full-time U.S. workers about the social dynamics in their workplaces, and how cliques can affect the office culture.

Only 11% of respondents said they feel intimidated by cliques at work—but
one in five (20%) have done something they’re really not interested in or
didn’t want to do just to fit in with a particular group. About half of this subgroup attended happy hours; 21% watched a certain TV show or movie just so they’d be able to discuss it with co-workers the next day; 19% made fun of someone else or pretended not to like them; 17% pretended to like certain food; and 9% took smoke breaks to fit in with an office clique. Meanwhile, one in seven (15%) said they hide their political views and affiliation, 10% percent don’t reveal personal hobbies, and 9% keep their
religious affiliations and beliefs a secret to avoid being excluded.

“At work, joining a clique can give you a feeling of security, a sense of
identity,” says Katherine Crowley, co-author of Mean Girls At Work and
Working With You Is Killing Me. ”We find that office cliques tend to form
most in corporate environments with weak management. They are like office
gangs that emerge to fill in the void of leadership.”

But Crowley and her co-author, Kathi Elster, recommend steering clear of
cliques. “While they wield social power, they can decide who is popular and
who is not – and they are not usually respected professionally.” Very few
cliques are populated by the highest performers in a company, they say.
“We always encourage someone faced with the choice of joining a clique to
keep a healthy distance,” Elster adds. “You want to act friendly without
becoming friends. This can be difficult because clique members may ostracize
you if you refuse to join.”

Hoover agrees. She says having friends or a group of people who you like to
hang out with at work can help you relieve stress and allow you to form lasting
friendships—however, being in a clique may mean that you’re spending so
much time with one group that you miss out on what other co-workers have
to offer. “Cliques tend to lack diversity,” she says. “Another disadvantage is
being branded and known for your friends, not for who you are.”

The survey found that workers who fit a specific stereotypical archetype in high school—like “athlete,” “cheerleader,” “geek,” “class clown,” or “teacher’s pet”—are more likely to be in an office clique. Former class clowns, geeks, and athletes are most likely to belong to one, while respondents who chose not to identify with one of the above personas are the least likely to be part of an office group. Additionally, 17% of those who
consider themselves to be introverts are members of an exclusive social group
at work, compared to 27% of extroverts.

There may be some advantages to joining a clique at work—but it can also be
extremely detrimental to your career. About 13% of workers said the presence
of office cliques has had a negative impact on their career advancement. “It’s
easy to get labeled as part of ‘that group’ and then it becomes part of your
identity,” Hoover says. “This can be important when upper management may
not be able to spend enough time with staffers and get to know them well, and
sometimes who you associate with is who you become to a boss or manager.”

Rosemary Haefner, vice president of Human Resources at CareerBuilder,
says while it’s human nature to associate with peers who possess similar traits
and personalities, cliques can be counterproductive in the workplace.
“Regardless of age, cliques form to provide social comfort to its members, but
from an organizational perspective, they can stand in the way of big picture
goals by preventing collaboration and inclusion of diverse perspectives. While
being a member of the ‘in group’ can provide short-term satisfaction and
advantageous connections, the best workers and leaders will ultimately be
those who can work and empathize with many different types of people.”

She says more managers are using team-building activities or assembling
people from different groups to work on projects to help discourage behaviors
that can alienate others–but as it turns out, not all bosses are practicing what
they preach. Nearly half of all employees in cliquey workplaces say their boss
is part of one. “This may lead to the perception that recognition, promotions and raises have more to do with politics than merit,” Haefner says. “If you’re a manager, this is
obviously something you’ll want to avoid.”
Here are nine tips for working in a company populated by cliques:
–Try to spend time with all your coworkers, not just one particular group, Hoover says. If you’re not part of a clique, still treat individual clique members in a courteous manner, Crowley adds. “Maintain a professional attitude when you interact with them – even if they do not.”

–Do your best not to be intimidated by a clique, says Elster. “Most cliques have little institutional power; their members are not in a position to promote you or give you a raise.” Know that most cliques have a “leader.” Identify who the leader is and double
your efforts not to be intimated by him or her, she adds.

–Determine whether joining a clique will be beneficial or detrimental to your
career. “Take a very real assessment of whether you really need the advantages of a clique,” Parnell says. “If you don’t, the potential for professionally damaging stereotypes just might outweigh the potential for gain.”

–If you decide against joining a clique, do not engage in gossip with clique members, Crowley says. “That is their way of enrolling you; trying to get you to join.” If a clique targets you — if they taunt you or turn their backs on you or gossip about you – do your best not to react. Elster says this means you should also try to act friendly towards a clique and its members—as you would any co-worker—without becoming friends.

–If you decide it will be advantageous to your career to join an office clique, spend time observing all your co-workers so that you can make an informed decision on who you’re best aligned with, Hoover suggests. “Describe the cliques to a trusted friend or spouse and ask their opinion,” she says. “Simply the act of describing the types of people in any one clique can help you decide if you want to spend a lot of time with them.” Parnell says it is smart to pay attention to the signals that are being sent to coworkers because “once you’re in a clique, it is very difficult to wash away any stigmas that are attached.”

–Divide and conquer, Crowley says. Try to form positive connections with each clique member separate from the group setting.

–Should a clique make your work life difficult, seek outside guidance from a mentor, a counselor or a career coach, Elster suggests. “If your company is full of cliques, you may even want to find a job in a different company with better leadership and stronger management.”

–Try to find a group of co-workers to spend time with who don’t overindulge in office gossip, Hoover says. “It’s the biggest pitfall of a clique.” Crowley recommends that you try to become a “non-clique role model.” Demonstrate non-exclusionary behavior by asking different co-workers to join you for lunch, coffee breaks or after-work events, she says.