our executive is part of a clique led by an entry-level employee

A reader writes:

I work in a smaller office that can only be described as “tight-knit” for a select few in a clique of about 10 employees. These people do just about everything together… they go to bars, play sports, and even celebrate holidays together on occasion. It spans across pay grades and includes entry-level employees, managers, and an executive. If they like you, life is good and you will become a part of the group. If you are not what they are looking for, you are treated as a rank and file wallflower employee and shunned.

Interestingly, the alpha pack leader of this organization is NOT the executive as you would expect, given his leadership position. It is an entry-level employee, and one who is fairly unkind and gossipy.

I suspect that the executive may not have a lot of close friends outside of the workplace, and this provides an outlet of friendship. That being said, the constant inside jokes in the workplace and on Facebook, the slights to other employees, and the cliquey behavior make the place a relatively depressing place to work. Those of us outside the clique talk occasionally about it, but keep our opinions to ourselves.

Is it unreasonable to hold the executive in our office to a higher standard, and expect him to perhaps create some distance between himself and entry-level employees as to not create an impression of favortism? Or, are we being immature about the situation?

Hell no, it’s not unreasonable and you’re not being immature. The executive is being unprofessional and unwise, and you’re entirely justified in finding it an uncomfortable place to work.

It’s not even about the fact that the ringleader is an entry-level employee. (Although that does add a delicious weirdness to the situation.) It’s about the fact that managers at any level need to have professional boundaries with the people they supervise, and it’s also about the fact that having a manager participate in such a tight-knit workplace clique is inappropriate.

That said, it’s unlikely that there’s anything you can do about it. To the extent you can, I recommend trying to distance yourself emotionally and instead seeing it as a kind of amusing and pathetic Michael-Scott-like farce.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    re: Distancing yourself emotionally. I think one of the best things customer service taught me is to not take it personally when angry, unreasonable or weird people had a problem, to calmly resolve the problem to the best of my ability, and to store up the memories for later so I had hilarious stories.

  2. The IT Manager*

    De-friend these people (and anyone else from work) on Facebook. Or hide their posts from your friend’s list if you don’t want to de-friend them. That way you can at least avoid seeing the inside jokes and chumminess that goes on on Facebook and you can avoid thinking about it when you’re not at work.

  3. Annie*

    I agree with distancing yourself from these people and their behavior. I’m surprised that no mention has been made about finding a new job. I know personally I cannot work in this type of environment, particularly with such a small group, even with efforts to keep out of it, because somehow it always trickles back in.

  4. BCW*

    I actually see this a bit different. Without knowing the exact details, I think the OP may just think its bad because she is on the outside, which may or may not be her own doing. For example, I’m the type of person who has planned outings and things like that, including softball teams at my jobs. Everyone is initially invited, but only certain people want to participate, which is totally fine. Its not really cliquey, to the people involved, just looks like that way from the outside. I can entirely see it possible that this is the the executive joined a softball or whatever team (which I don’t see a problem with) and the OP didn’t. Well when people are going out playing together each week, they are able to form a bond that exists outside of work. So yeah, they may discuss things that happened there, and even on Facebook, but unless any type of favoritism is actually happening, it may not really be a problem except in your mind. Does this entry level person clearly get away with things because of the relationship, or are they just very friendly? Of course this may not be the situation, but its very possible. And if something like this is what happened, I don’t think its really that much of a problem.

    1. The IT Manager*

      If this make the place a relatively depressing place to work is not just the OP’s opinion then this is a problem.

      1. BCW*

        True. I guess it depends on how many people find it depressing. It really could be her and someone else find it depressing. The “in crowd” is happy. And other people may notice but not really care.

        1. fposte*

          It also sounds like the OP’s job freezes the non-participants out in the workplace; even if somebody did choose not to participate in the after-work stuff, it shouldn’t hurt them at work itself.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Managers really should not be participating in the type of thing described in the post — for all the same reasons managers shouldn’t manage friends or relatives. You need to have professional boundaries in order to manage well, and in order to be perceived as managing well.

      1. Jamie*

        “You need to have professional boundaries in order to manage well, and in order to be perceived as managing well.”

        This is so key – and so often overlooked. People tend to underestimate how much perception matters, regardless of the actual facts.

        If I went out to lunch every day with a member of my team and we never discussed anything except kittens and leave in conditioner – because we share those interests – and they were promoted or given a raise over others because of their exemplary work I could never erase the perception of favoritism. That would harm morale more, I dare say, than even actual favoritism which was cloaked.

        1. ncd*

          I completely agree that the executive is behaving unprofessionally. To me, one of the worst things about being a manager is that I have to draw that professional line with employees that I would have become close friends with if we were just co-workers. But I do it, because it’s important that there isn’t the perception of favoritism, and it would just make it that much harder if I had to fire or lay off an employee (or even if I just had to give some negative feedback).

          All the executive has to say when someone invites him out is, “I’d love to when you no longer work for me, but it’s my policy not to socialize with my employees.” Not one person has ever challenged me on that response.

        2. Cassie*

          This. In an ethics in accounting class I took, one of the key points was that you had to maintain fairness not just in actuality, but also in appearance. (I forget the wording the textbook had – it was a lot less clunky than what I just typed).

          I know of a manager who was very close to a couple of staff members (lunch together everyday, spent some holidays together or lunch on the weekends, etc) and saw absolutely nothing wrong with it. “What, I’m supposed to stop being friends with someone just because I’m the manager?” Yup, that’s it!

          One possibility is that some of the people in these cliques is that they don’t even realize it. They’re just trying to enjoy social activities with coworkers and they can’t help it if it’s the same group of people who partake each time. However, if I’m someone who is not interested in socializing with coworkers outside of work (or even during my lunch hour), I don’t want to have to hear about all these extracurricular plans while I’m trying to work. And maybe the clique is not shunning outsiders, but it’s difficult not to feel that way – even if you were the one who decided not to participate.

          Although I’m not sure which is worse – knowing that there is a clique in the office (and all the stuff they do outside) or not knowing there’s a clique in the office… I guess it could go either way, but for me, I’d rather not know.

  5. Anonymous*

    I’d like to hear the other side of the story, I guess. This is the kind of situation where there may well be two very different interpretations. The fact that it spans pay grades makes it seem *less* strange and exclusive to me- and makes me wonder whether there are just a few people in the office who aren’t easy to get along with, or don’t fit the culture, or both. I’m not saying this is necessarily the situation here, but it’s a possibility.

    1. BCW*

      Agreed. There are 2 sides to every story, and while I get that perception is important, some people will always feel slighted or excluded and you can’t pander to those people all the time.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Sure, you can’t. But what the OP has described is really very clearly over the line. As a manager, your first responsibility needs to be to your ability to do your job objectively, not to your workplace social life.

        1. Elizabeth*

          What was so clearly over the line? There are four (objective) issues that the OP brings up:

          1. Go to bars
          2. Play sports
          3. Celebrate holidays on occasion
          4. Post on Facebook

          None of those screams inappropriate to me. It sounds very much like a corporate culture that encourages people to form relationships in and out of work. I’ve worked with managers in the past who have sent out a mass email inviting anyone without plans to join them for Thanksgiving, etc. My current office has a get-together at a bar once a month, for those who are interested. My husband’s office has a soccer league. And posting on Facebook, while maybe not a great idea for those you manage, is hardly the worst I’ve heard. It sounds to me like maybe the OP just doesn’t fit into the culture. If the “clique” is everyone except a few people, it may not actually be a clique.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Well, for starters, this part: “If you are not what they are looking for, you are treated as a rank and file wallflower employee and shunned.”

            But also, managers need to keep professional distance and the reality and appearance of being objective. Close outside-of-work friendships with people they manage and make decisions about are hugely problematic when it comes to performance management and decisions about raises/promotions/resources/feedback/layoffs/firing and overall treatment.

            1. Elizabeth*

              But this:

              “If you are not what they are looking for, you are treated as a rank and file wallflower employee and shunned.”

              is totally subjective. It may be a perception rather than reality.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I mean, we could question everything any question-asker here reports in their letters to me. At some point, I need to assume they’re getting the basic facts right.

                But even if this OP isn’t, my second paragraph just above would stand.

              2. BCW*

                I too wonder exactly how people are being shunned?
                Does she think they are being “shunned” because they are no longer being asked to do things? Or is it like others are blatantly not interacting with them?

              3. Charles*

                “Shunned” popped out to me as well. It really is a very subjective word to use. (and isn’t “clique” itself subjective?)

                If this shunning involves work-related issues then she needs to have a talk with her manager pronto. (I am assuming that this is not the case, otherwise the OP might have stated so in her letter)

                If, however, this shunning is social, then the OP needs to realize that you cannot be and won’t be friends with everyone. Don’t get depressed over it.

                1. Joey*

                  Whether or not the shunning is real doesnt matter all that much. The perception is there and it’s reasonable to see why that perception is there. That’s the problem. It’s the managers job to prevent that type of cliquey/favoritism perception. That’s clearly not happening.

    2. Alisha*

      I totally, totally get what you guys are saying. For example, a trait people who are neuro-atypical frequently share is that we can misinterpret people’s reactions to us – both calling malice when there is none and thinking people like us when they don’t. Before meds, I certainly struggled at times, and even now, I’m not as quick on the draw at reading people as my husband and other NT folks. However, early on in my management career, I learned that keeping a polite, professional distance from my team/department was the correct thing to do.

      While I’ve missed out on some opportunities to bond more deeply with teammates, I’ve been fortunate to oversee drama-free teams, and adeptly resolve interpersonal conflicts between the people I’ve managed in an objective, non-partisan fashion. The behavior this manager is exhibiting is very troubling to me – it suggests that, should s/he ever needs to step in and mediate a conflict, s/he would side with teammates in the “clique,” regardless of the facts.

  6. Max*

    The focus on the clique being led by an entry-level employee seems strange to me. Would all of this be okay if the clique were being led by a shift supervisor? Middle management? The CEO?

    The OP claims that there’s a clique dominating the workplace that’s making non-members feel socially excluded, but their actual question (and problem) seems to solely be about whether the exec is fraternizing too closely with an entry-level employee. I feel like the OP might just be exaggerating the clique issue to excuse being mad about a low-level employee having social influence over a high-level employee.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, I didn’t get that at all from the question. I think the fact that it’s led by an entry-level employee just makes it extra weird (and frankly, additional evidence of bad judgment by the executive).

  7. Catherine*

    “…instead seeing it as a kind of amusing and pathetic Michael-Scott-like farce.” Lol. That is my boss. I see WAY too much Michael Scott in him. Hoping that I’ll catch him dancing at a holiday party sometime.

  8. Anonymous*

    I worked somewhere similar to this but a much larger company. There were number of cliques: the sports jollys, the children in same age/groups, the used to live on same roads etc. It doesn’t help that a large amount of them had worked together for a long time (sometimes decades). All of them are local towners and as an out of towner its a nightmare to deal with.

    Trying to actually be *friendly* to people and chat generally got you blank looks and trying to stay out of it all the time got you a chilly atmosphere when you passed them and they are talking and joking about non-work matters. Similarly a large amount of time seemed to be spent on non-work matters by them but anyone else got short shrift if they even stray off work matters for an instant and glared back to work.

    I’ve never found a way to deal with this. It can be pretty depressing. to deal with especially as a Introverted person who forces myself to be social to get along with others.

    1. Anon2*

      A former coworker moved from our office to another location and she found it very cliquey. So much so that she actually had trouble getting time-off requests approved and her work was affected (ie, she was still fairly new and had questions, but people were so unfriendly she didn’t feel comfortable approaching them). She stuck it out as long as she could, but finally quit.

      Luckily, it just meant it gave her the push she needed to start a better part of her work life anyway, but was very stressful for her and we lost a good employee sooner than necessary.

    2. Kimberlee*

      See, in this example, and Anon2’s example as well, I see the problem not so much as people being friends outside of work as it is people being intolerable to work with. If the issue is people being unfriendly, that sucks, and I think you can make a legitimate case that it is a problem at work (where you spend 8 hours a day, so people lacking a basic level of friendliness makes for a bad work environment), but the solution isn’t that people shouldn’t be friends with their co-workers. It’s that management needs to step in when outside friendships interfere with work getting done (though the management vs coworkers friendship is a whole different issue).

  9. Alisha*

    Oh my lawd, I miss The Office with Michael Scott. It’s totally not the same without him. I bawled on his last day, seriously.

  10. Janet*

    I’ve probably been on both sides and I think management involvement is key.

    At my first job we were all younger and we had a softball team and a weekly karaoke outing. Everyone was invited but new hires probably felt really out of it. BUT – managers were never there. All of those in upper management stayed out of these events and it was nice because no one ever felt like they were currying favor by being involved.

    At a later job, the main manager had a select group of people that he’d go drinking with. All white males from 30-45. Every week they’d all go off to the bar. Eventually they all started getting promotions and someone brought it up in the suggestion box and eventually the bar evenings had to be opened to everyone and then eventually died off.

  11. Anonymous*

    This happened all the time at my old company, but then we did not really have a hierarchy. It was 100% matrix management. As a relatively junior staffer I had the company VP on my team at one point, because I needed a “face & suit” for a press conference. And yes, I had to review his work. We socialized with all “levels” and yes, dated, dumped, married, & divorced. Messy but fun. Both the second best and third worst job I’ve ever had. We tried not to ever leave anyone out, but stuff happens. I got left out, and I did the leaving on other occasions. Life evens out these things.

    That said, I’ve worked in more hierarchical workplaces where there were definite cliques and found it very inappropriate. I used to hit the batting cage on the way home, name a ball, and whack the *$&# out of it. It’s also therapeutic to take a moment to update your resume. Just in case.

  12. K.T.*

    At my previous internship, I witnssed exactly what the OP described and did not like the working environment at all. Even I, as the intern, thought there was something seriously wrong with that. Although my experience didn’t involve execs, I just thought it was weird that the managers on my team went out to lunch often with the people they supervise. And it wasn’t once in a while, it was almost everyday.

  13. Liz*

    I have been on both sides of this kind of situation – some coworkers repeatedly turned down invitations but then accused me of running a clique of “the cool people,” and then some coworkers once made it a huge point to have everyone BUT me eat together every day. So honestly it can be hard to tell what’s going on when someone feels left out.

    But the comments about “unkind” and the weirdness of a boss who only hangs out with a few people… that sets off alarm bells. I totally believe the OP.

    Fwiw, sometimes if you approach just one member of the clique in a non-defensive way, and get a reasonably friendly rapport going with that one, it can start a chain reaction of the rest of them being nicer. Not always, of course.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      I’m glad to see someone else picked up on the words “unkind” and “gossipy”. I’ve seen that before – people whisper together, laugh, and look at one specific person, laugh some more, etc. Or the clique members make fun of something that someone wears to work and then whisper together,..well, you know.

      Unless the top management gets involved and does something, this will keep up. If you can live with it and just “pity the fools” doing it, fine. But if it starts affecting your work, go the big boss and raise holy hell.

    2. AMG*

      That’s so bizarre. But at least you were called ‘cool’. :)

      There are a couple of members of our team who everyone absolutely despises, but they are part of the team, so they are included on invites. Being an adult is so much more like high school than I ever thought it would be. At least I could skip school when I didn’t feel like putting up with the BS.

  14. BCW*

    So here is my question. Do people on here seem to have an issue with the “clique” itself or with the fact that the exec seems to be a part of it? I ask because some of the responses are more regarding workplace cliques than the manager. While as I said earlier, I don’t necessarily see a problem with a manager playing on a company softball team or something like that, I suppose I could see why people would say that any extra face time with employees can be seen as favoritism.

    However what if that exec wasn’t a part of it, and there were still a select people who socialized all the time with each other. Went out for drinks, played on sports teams, had dinner together. Do people see that as a problem? If so, then why? I mean it seems whenever you have a large group you will have smaller groups that break off and hang out more right? So why would that be a problem. I’m of course assuming their work is getting done and they aren’t being unprofessional.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wouldn’t have any problem with that, as long as they weren’t freezing people out at work itself. My objection is to managers taking part in cliques or crossing professional boundaries with people they manage, because it interferes with their ability (real or perceived) to do that part of their job.

      But as for non-managers, workplace friendships are often normal and nice. They become a problem if people start taking on other people’s battles for them, freezing out others while at work, etc., but you can certainly have friendships with your coworkers — even close friendships — that don’t involve those things.

  15. Sandrine*

    I actually find it really sad not to be able to be “friends” with one’s boss. Because, to me (but apparently we aren’t that many!) , being friendly is one thing, and kicking my butt because I missed something on a customer’s file is another.

    I mean, while I am diplomatic (to a default, sometimes) , I won’t hesitate telling a friend the important things that I don’t like if there’s something like that happening, because I distinguish the things that irk me personally and the things that are not “good” or “cool” .

    My boss’ birthday was on June 25th. I baked a cake (yup) and brought drinks, paper plates and all. We even sang happy birthday to him. He almost cried since he was moved from the gesture, and later that day I had a performance review (they listen to our calls at least 5 times a month) and the call wasn’t one of my best… Boss seemed mortified to have to “reprimand” me and I told him that the cake wasn’t meant to have an excuse from that: if he needed to kick my butt, he very damn well should. I didn’t say it like that but he seemed to appreciate my reaction.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      It sounds like you work in a nice, friendly, and healthy environment. You’re lucky, plus I like your business-first attitude. Good for you!

    2. Jamie*

      The integrity expressed in Sandrine’s post exemplifies what differentiates a good employee from an exemplary one.

      Pleasant and friendly yet focused on the work. I can’t even imagine the productivity level of an office full of people like you.

      1. Sandrine*

        Thank you! When I was younger I had my bad times with slacking off and stuff… but that was ten years ago, and I know better.

        I even worked on my performance to the point where today I managed to reach a crucial goal where I lowered my average time per call, and Boss is impressed and satisfied.

        While I was already working really hard on it, I’m even surprised myself, to be honest XD … I mean, here I am working my ass of for months to be able to reconcile “good” with “fast” (sortof) and all of a sudden, BAM, I get a day where it all flows ok o_O .

        And now to hope it pays out at the end of July when the bonuses are calculated XD … I think I’ve missed out on at least 3,500 USD worth of bonuses so far because of that timing issue :( (general goal was an average of 6:40 minutes per call and was lowered to 6:10 in June . I started at at least 9 minutes in January when my team’s average was around 5:40 , so far for July I was at 7:05 or so. With yesterday’s stats I am at 6:53 minutes and today was the first day where my average for the day was below 6 minutes, it was even below 5 most of the day…)

        Thanks to this my Boss said he’ll probably push for me to get a bonus assignment (tutoring new hires) when the next training session is done. I hope it happens soon because it’ll take me off the phones for at least a week *_* (and I consider this a HUGE reward LOL) .

        1. Jamie*

          “While I was already working really hard on it, I’m even surprised myself, to be honest XD … I mean, here I am working my ass of for months to be able to reconcile “good” with “fast” (sortof) and all of a sudden, BAM, I get a day where it all flows ok o_O .”

          This is one of the mysteries of life. I’ve had the same thing happen to me, where I’m wrestling with something for ages and it’s just not working (whether it’s a formula in a nested sub-report or trying to find the accounting error in the inventory numbers) and all of a sudden a light bulb goes off and everything falls into place.

          I always wish it was something that built on the stress of the previous hours/weeks but it never is. It’s just like the cosmos aligned and gave me the answer out of the blue and then I feel like an idiot that I didn’t see it all along.

          My goal in life is to figure out how this happens so I can skip the struggle and jump directly to solution every time.

  16. Elizabeth West*

    The whole executive hanging with the entry level employee thing seems weird to me. I’ve had jobs were there was a lot of cameraderie, and at Exjob, there were people who hung out after work together. But the higher up they were, the less likely that would happen. I had one job where there were only twelve people, and we often went out all together. Nobody was excluded. I miss that job.

    I definitely believe the cliquey stuff. Seen that, lived it, both in high school and at work. Some people never grow past that. I was hoping when I left high school years ago that it would stop, but no.

  17. Kimberlee*

    On the one hand, I agree with Alison, that you can’t go wrong with a philosophy that managers should not hang out socially with people they manage.

    But on the other, I don’t know that I’ve ever had a job where managers DIDN’T socialize with those they managed. I’ve been on both sides. I’ve managed some good friends, and did not have a problem with disciplining when necessary. And I hang out with my current boss on occasion. He also plays bar trivia with people from our office all the time. I actually really like that, since there are tons of people (like interns) who otherwise will probably never even speak to my boss (who is the executive director). Having social outings like that seem to encourage people across departments and heirarchy levels to get to know each other, and I think this has improved my work environment in a lot of ways.

    I think when I run my own organization, I won’t have a hard and fast rule of not allowing socialization between heirarchy levels (not to mention that the lines blur if you don’t happen to run a heirarchical organization). Managers have to stay on top of stuff happening in the workplace, whether it’s a person getting frozen out or people being rude, but there are all kinds of sources for those behaviors, and they need to be address as what they are, not as a symptom of some other “problem” of workplace socialization.

    But, as I said, having such a policy of not socializing with underlings won’t get you in any trouble. It is easier, and in some organizations (if you have employees who just love drama, for instance), it might be the only way to go. I’m just reluctant to say it’s always better to ban it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You shouldn’t need to ban it; rather, you should hire managers who simply get why it’s problematic and who will exercise good judgment in this regard.

      Managers who cross professional boundaries with the people they supervise tend to be absolutely convinced that it’s not problematic until suddenly one day the consequences pop up, at which point they can see clearly the tracks they laid leading up to that moment but it’s too late to fix it.

  18. OP*

    Hi OP here…
    I’ve been meaning to post this update but as it turns out, I was told to me by a newer member of the clique that the executive was actually romantically involved with the entry level ringleader. To top it off, there is another suspected manager/employee romance in the office as well. So the icing on the cake is that members of this clique also date each other across pay grades.
    It’s ridiculous.
    The irony is how despite nothing being said… all the signs were there.
    For managers/execs who have relationships with subbordinates… it’s hard NOT to notice it through the daily things such as unprofessional behavior (this man is constantly at the employee’s desk and vice versa) or via the cliquey behavior that other employees pick up on.

    I have chosen not to say anything about it for fear of retaliation, but I think that the writing is on the wall as to how unprofessional the environment is.

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