I’ve been at my job for about three years, and I really like it. The work is always interesting and challenging, my manager pushes me to grow and always has my back, and my work-life balance is the envy of my friends. There’s just one problem: The cliquishness is so intense that I feel like I’m back in high school! The “cool kids” are all pleasant enough to work with, but in meetings they’re always visibly giggling at some inside joke, and now that we’re all vaccinated they’re constantly posting photos on Instagram where they’re all hanging out and none of the rest of us were invited. How do I either get over my jealousy or help change our office culture so it doesn’t feel so much like a popularity contest?
A former boss used to say that people should never be friends with their coworkers. It’s a sensible philosophy—most people need brighter lines between work and life, not more blurring, and separating the two avoids toxic culture issues like the ones you are experiencing. But it also fails to recognize how humans actually operate. Roughly 100 percent of the people I can reasonably call friends were either classmates or coworkers (or the partners or close friends of my classmates or coworkers); I don’t even know how else I’d meet new friends. A highly scientific survey of the people who were active on my Gchat buddies list when I sat down to write this column indicated that most people feel the same way. Even my reluctant boss caved on her principled stand; our entire team became close and remains so to this day.
If we accept the inevitability of workplace friendships, we’re probably stuck with cliques, too. It’s in our nature to form subgroups, and subgroups are by definition exclusionary. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s helpful to have people who are especially loyal to you, even if that means there are others who are especially loyal to people other than you.
But while rationally we know everyone deserves a great circle of friends, it can still hurt to witness everyone else’s. While I don’t doubt the ability of the “cool kids” to create larger culture problems—I’ve been a seventh-grade girl—I do think bruised egos can sometimes lead people to see “cliques” in place of just normal ol’ friend groups. I have drinks with some colleagues but not others, and I’ve definitely been caught giggling in a meeting because of a side-channel DM. This is mostly healthy, particularly when everyone is feeling a bit disconnected a year and a half into a global pandemic. You don’t say whether you have a close work friend, Melissa, but focusing either on finding one or two or on developing inside jokes with them can be a good distraction from understandable jealousy.
Let’s assume, though, that the cool group at your workplace really is creating a toxic environment beyond the occasional envy-inducing laughing fit. There are plenty of things they can do to change their behavior, but your options for changing it are pretty limited. Because they are adults and not seventh-grade girls, I’m inclined to think the clique is clueless, not actively evil, and they don’t understand the effect they’re having on everyone else. With that in mind, I’d recommend that you choose one member you know to be kind and reasonable, and nicely ask them to cool it with [insert problematic behavior here] because it’s hurting other people’s feelings. Also: Invite the clique members to hang out with you and your work friends. Even if you don’t all start hanging out regularly, the occasional summit of different groups can go a long way to making things feel less siloed.
If none of that works, though, you’re going to have to figure out how to manage your own feelings rather than fixing the cause. Step one: Mute or unfollow the cool kids on Instagram. They are fully entitled to post photos of their wild nights, just as you are entitled to avoid seeing said photos. Step two: Send a friend a spicy DM during a work meeting, then watch as she tries to contain her laughter. You’ll be too delighted to care what the clique is doing.
More Great WIRED Stories