Article | 9 min read

“You can’t sit with us.” How to handle an office clique.

By Sara Lighthall

Last updated July 14, 2022

It’s Monday. You grab your lunch from the office fridge and make your way toward the picnic bench-style communal seating area. Buzz coming from across the room tickles your ears, and you are able to make out a few keywords from the lively conversation—they’re talking about your favorite show. In fact, you just caught up on episodes last night, and are itching to dive into the conversation to share your theories for season two. You approach the lunch table as the buzz reduces to a simmer and then stops completely. Everyone is looking at their limp salads, avoiding eye contact with you, the outsider, who just invaded their territory. No, this is not middle school, but you have just experienced an office clique.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt

If you’re at familiar with the film, Mean Girls, you probably cringed when Cady Haron ditched her woven bracelets and jeans for pink skirts and low cut shirts solely to fit in with the “plastics.” This happens at the office, too. In fact, 43 percent of employees say that their office is populated by cliques. Maybe you don’t adopt a new wardrobe, but many employees admit to taking on new behaviors they aren’t particularly interested in so they can fit in with a popular group. The most common offenses include watching television shows to talk about them the next day (The Bachelor, anyone?), making fun of a coworker, pretending to like certain foods, and taking smoke breaks as a non-smoker. These may sound like extreme measures, but I’d be surprised if you haven’t done at least one of these things. I know I have.

While it may seem like cliques are all childish fun and games, these close-knit groups are detrimental to both the individuals and the organizations involved. You might think that being on the outside of an office clique is the worst position to be in, the truth is quite the opposite.

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But why are we so drawn to group friendships?

Millennials, more than any other generation, believe that office friendships have a significant impact on their happiness at work.

We are the most socially conscious generation since the 1960’s, but we don’t yet have large social networks. Maybe we moved across the country for a job, away from the rest of our college friends, or maybe we’re single and don’t have kids—it can be lonely out there, so many of us are left itching for new connections. For Millennials, having friends at work increase both satisfaction and workplace involvement. Heck, having friends at work can even help your marriage. We prefer working and socializing in groups to working individually or in pairs, so it is only natural that we would gel with those we work with. But you don’t need to be in a clique. There is a better, beneficial, way to be social in the office.

Be careful of the company (or coworkers) you keep

Remember when your mom said, Her parental advice should still haunt you. Say you’re in a group of “cool,” but low performing individuals on your team. Even if you do your job well, coworkers now see you as a member of this group of slackers. When it comes time for promotions, or worse, layoffs, your association with a negligent group can have a negative effect on others’ perception of you as an individual. Along the same lines, if your clique is exclusive and potentially unkind toward others, as a member of said group, you could be perceived negatively too. The qualities of those you surround yourself with will become your image.

Individuals aside, cliques are also harmful to organizations. If employees are engaged in gossip, reputation management, and other frivolous matters, chances are these social efforts are siphoning energy out of their work. The exclusive nature of cliques can also take away from group work and brainstorming. Perhaps you’re in a meeting with your clique and a few outgroup members. The leader of the clique makes a suggestion and so does one of those who is not a part of the group. Whose do you think gets implemented? Office politics should not silence brilliant ideas that may improve the company.

If employees are engaged in gossip, reputation management, and other frivolous matters, chances are these social efforts are siphoning energy out of their work.

How to know if you’re clique-ing

Are you in a clique and don’t realize it? If you are unsure whether or not your group of friends may be detrimental to you or your organization, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my group exclusive? Happy hour with your four closest work friends is not a bad thing, but intentionally isolating individuals who wish to join is.
  • Is individuality in the group being rewarded? If you are a different person at work than you are on the weekends, that should be a red flag. Of course, we don’t need to be our full selves at work, but we should never be forced to be someone we aren’t. If you find yourself identifying with this situation, it might be time to re-evaluate your involvement with your current group of office buddies.
  • Are you being mean? This might seem like playground speak, but if you’re gossiping about coworkers and avoiding eye contact with peers due to your group membership, you aren’t being a true team player; you are being a bully.

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De-clique and diversify

Leaving a clique can be hard, but it doesn’t need to be a dramatic breakup with waterworks and slashed tires. If you think that group members are unknowingly being exclusive, suggest inviting new people to group outings. If you feel that the group is intentionally bullying other employees, perhaps remind them of the consequences of their actions. However, relationships at work are really important, so tread with caution. A graceful exit can be as easy as spending more and more time with other people outside of the clique and slowly decreasing involvement with the mean kids. There are other (nicer) groups of people at the office who will welcome you with open arms.

[Read also: How men can serve as allies for women in the workplace]

Relationships don’t get much more adversarial than the one-on-one fight-to-the-finish sport of fencing. Hear from US Olympic foil fencer Nicole Ross as she explains how, with the right mindset and some emotional discipline, her foes truly can be her friends.

In comparison to cliques, groups of friends are inclusive instead of exclusive, welcome differences instead of forcing homogeneity, and promote healthy competition and achievement instead of fighting for power. Being surrounded by supportive coworkers is associated with higher performance and effectiveness in the workplace—it is important to befriend people who encourage new innovation and success, instead of robbing you of your shining moments.

In comparison to cliques, groups of friends are inclusive instead of exclusive, welcome differences instead of forcing homogeneity, and promote healthy competition and achievement instead of fighting for power.

Instead of spending all of your time with an insulated subsection of your team, having friends across the company can teach you the ins-and-outs of the organization and If I’m on the marketing team and need help answering a customer question on the blog, having friends on the product or customer support teams would help me do my job more effectively. Offer assistance to others and return the favor. Your efforts will not go unnoticed.

If you’re not sure how to get started, here are some guiding principles for promoting healthy relationships at work (these work great whether you’re the clique ringleader or the one sitting alone at lunch):

  • Keep invitations open. Say goodbye to the group texts and hello to posts on communal boards or team communication platforms (like Slack or Yammer). Invite everyone to happy hour instead of just your group of four friends on the sales team.
  • Sit at a different table. Even if you have a diverse group of friends, why not have another? Mixing it up and spending lunch with someone different every day will help you meet more people at your company and ensure that you are not in isolating yourself in a single group.
  • Take advantage of workplace activities. Does your office have a bowling team, a public speaking club? Give it a try. Whether your company is big or small, there’s bound to be people out there you don’t know or don’t know well. Embedding yourself in the office culture will help you make lots of friends, fast.
  • Say “yes.” Maybe somebody is trying to create a group of friends themselves, maybe a clique is trying to de-clique. Regardless, every opportunity is one for expansion. You don’t need to be best friends with every employee at your company, but every connection is a missed one until you give it a chance.

These relationships also show upper management that you are highly-connected and a team player. Getting along truly does help you get ahead at work. In fact, one-third of Millennials believe that socializing at work can help them climb the corporate ladder. Why? Effective social coordination, what we know as “getting along with coworkers”, elicits energy and happiness, good feelings both physically and mentally. These positive feelings quickly translate to trust, and with trust comes greater responsibility (perhaps in the form of a promotion!). It doesn’t take much coordination to bring out these good feelings—making an effort to reach out and be friendly is all it takes. Gossip and exclusion, on the other hand, do not elicit any positive feelings.

Career benefits aside, being around a diverse, inclusive group of people can broaden your horizons, develop new interests, and make coming into work every day enjoyable. It’s possible. Surround yourself with people who build you up; surround yourself with people who don’t make you watch The Bachelor if you hate it.

[Read also: Squarespace’s Jessica O’Connell on customer support as brand ambassadors ]

Our Millennial view series is not just for Millennials. Everyone can gain insight on these important workplace issues. Topics such as Moving up, while dressing down and When giving two week’s notice is complicated impact us all, regardless of generation.

Meet employee expectations

See how consumer expectations are reshaping the workplace.

Meet employee expectations

See how consumer expectations are reshaping the workplace.

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