Dealing with high school mentality in the workplace is frustrating for department managers, human resources and employees alike. While it can seem surprising to see cliques in a professional environment, the experience is not unusual. Quoting a CareerBuilder.com survey, Forbes Magazine states that 43% of employees surveyed stated that cliques at work are a significant problem.
Understanding cliques at work
Workplace cliques are groups of co-workers who frequently socialize inside and outside the office. They like to discuss what they do together and seem to have a lot of inside jokes. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with that, the problem comes when these groups exclude other people and make them feel alienated.
Left unchecked, exclusionary behavior or members of the clique targeting others for harassment will eventually create a hostile work environment. Such working conditions are ripe for employee complaints and resignations, especially when employers outwardly state they support an inclusive work culture.
A caveat: Not all socializing by co-workers implies a clique
The genetic makeup of human beings pushes them to connect with and gravitate towards those most like them. People often perceive others who share their interests or who are a similar age or cultural background as safe. Some of the deepest friendships form at work among like-minded people who spend a lot of time together. Taking individual personalities and preference into consideration is important since some people are natural introverts who dislike joining groups or spending their lunch hour with co-workers.
Managing cliques in the workplace can be challenging because supervisors and HR should not dictate who employees can choose as friends. However, they do need to monitor workplace cliques to ensure their behavior does not have an alienating effect on others. Below are some of the most problematic issues presented by cliques at work along with what businesses can do to address them.
Gossip and bullying
Dealing with cliques can be especially challenging for people outside the group who become victims of the office rumor mill or outright bullying. Employers have the obligation to provide a safe working environment both from a physical and emotional perspective. Being the target of this kind of behavior can cause severe damage to self-esteem, increase absenteeism, and reduce productivity if not dealt with appropriately.
As Monster.com reports, gossip and bullying can be a form of verbal harassment and should never go unchecked. Some examples of bullying behavior include ongoing practical jokes directed at one person, verbal threats, stealing a co-worker’s ideas and taking credit for them, mocking someone, spreading rumors, or disclosing confidential information. Monster.com recommends that employers and employees take the approach below to gossip and bullying in the workplace.
- Give the employee an opportunity to speak to the perpetrators of the gossip or bullying directly. He or she should document the date, time, people present, and the outcome of the discussion.
- Employees should start with their manager or HR first if they feel the clique’s behavior has crossed the line into harassment. Companies have policies against such behavior, and the affected employee is right to escalate the complaint to someone in a higher position of authority.
- The offending party’s manager and representative from HR should meet with members of the clique together to address the problem behavior. The discussion should include providing a copy of the section of the employee handbook they violated along with expectations for changed behavior. HR representatives should also address consequences for non-compliance such as another verbal warning, a written warning, and even termination in severe cases.
- Sometimes employees feel threatened by their own managers. HR should have a written policy about how to proceed in this case to ensure employees feel safe to discuss their concerns at work.
Cyberbullying is also a huge concern for many businesses. Since a proactive approach is always best, employers should clearly spell out in the employee handbook expectations for online behavior. The handbook should make clear that employees cannot represent the company without authorization nor can they harass, threaten, or violate the privacy of co-workers online.
Anyone who feels they have been a victim of cyberbullying inside or outside the office should take a screenshot and report it to their manager. The manager can then decide whether to involve HR depending on the seriousness of the online harassment.
Cliques at work can make the whole team less productive
Healthy working teams depend on collaboration and input from each member to achieve their goals. With one or more cliques present, people can feel intimidated to speak up for fear of the group making fun of them or twisting their words to start rumors. Team leaders need to make it clear to employees that they welcome fresh ideas and will talk to anyone making others feel uncomfortable outside of group meetings.
One of the most effective ways for dealing with cliques is for team leaders to assign employees to groups with co-workers they do not know well. This approach prevents a clique that spends a lot of time together outside of work from becoming so insular at work that they make others uncomfortable. People not invited to these outside events do not necessarily want to hear about them in pre-meeting chitchat or while completing projects with members of a clique.
Recognizing clique-like behavior and confronting anything inappropriate is essential to a healthy workplace. Employers struggling with this problem must take the time to educate themselves about what constitutes inappropriate behavior and what they should let go in the interest of workplace friendships. Confronting problems with workplace cliques immediately is essential to stop their power over others from growing stronger over time.