You can always spot them. That group laughing at the table in the back of the lunchroom, the foursome always nabbing the coveted picnic table in the shady spot, the trio slipping out for breaks together.
It’s “that group.” It’s “The Crew.” It’s an office clique, full of inside jokes, shared interests, exclusivity. And they don’t accept just anybody.
I once knew a celebrated office clique of just three people, one girl and two guys. They did everything together. They had the requisite inner jokes and uproarious laughter, often shared under the noses of the less fortunate. They referred to each other as “work spouses.” Oh yes, people whispered about them, the way people do, about how they’d never invite others to lunch with them.
This wasn’t strictly true. Occasionally they extended an invitation to someone else. Twice this was me. Great! I was a desk-eater at the time and welcomed the chance to get out of my shell. But the second time an odd thing happened; I was having such a good time laughing it up with the two guys that I failed to notice until afterward that the girl, who we’ll call Ms. X, was not joining in. I was never asked again.
Coincidence? You decide:
I was good friends with one of the guys independently. He swore blind they weren’t in a clique and that “anybody could join them for lunch,” but always followed that up with “Just ask Ms. X.” Fine. After that second lunch incident, whenever I mentioned to Ms. X that we should all go out to lunch again, she’d respond with something such as “Oh, the boys want to discuss something work-related; another time for sure,” (we were all in the same department!) or “Today’s the day we brought our lunches to eat at our desks.” I soon gave up.
Looking back, I think I was on trial to be a potential fourth clique member–and failed for stealing attention!
So whether you’re a newbie on the job or have been in the same company or same department for years, how do you bust into one of these established work cliques? And do you even want to?
First of all,
- Don’t act desperate. You’re a viable, knowledgeable, brilliant person with your own life–especially outside work! They should be glad to have you as part of their group. And crashing in just because you’re longing to be in the inner circle turns you into that “Um, hi guys, what’s up?” dweeb. Awkward! Just relax.
Got that? Still determined the grass is greener under their picnic table? Well, then:
- Get some sense. And use it–all of it, ears, eyes, the works. When the group is together, is one person doing all the talking or is everyone more or less in accord? What do they talk about? Is it all work-bashing or do they actually mention lives outside of the 9 to 5?
- Examine your reasons. Are you interested in being with these people because you want to climb the corporate ladder, because you’re sick of eating alone, or because you sincerely think they’re cool people that you want to get to know better? I’m not saying any of these reasons are 100% wrong or right; being nicey-nice doesn’t tend to get you the corner office. But the group you’re trying to infiltrate will smell a rat if you’re pretending to dispense sweetness & light when the whole time you’re all about me, me, me.
- Make sure you actually get along with at least one member of the clique. Do you actually talk to any of them on an independent basis? Do you enjoy it? Cultivate that. Don’t do it because of your secret agenda, do it because the person is interesting and because they show interest in you.
- Go ahead and ask. There’s always a chance that the clique doesn’t see itself as a clique. I know this because in another job, I ended up going to lunch with the same people all the time, and only later found out that other people thought they couldn’t join us. Oops! So you may be pleasantly surprised by their honest, open “Sure, come on!”
- Be bold. If you get along with the cliquettes anyway, chances are you don’t have to wait for an engraved invitation to sit at their table. Stop by with your lunch tray, put a genuine smile on your face and ask if there’s room to squeeze in. Trust me, I used to fit 12 people around an 7-person lunch table in college, there’s always room. If they actually say no, I’d like to assure you here & now that you do NOT need people like this in your life. So when they say yes, sit yourself down and start listening. See if you really do enjoy being on the inside as much as you enjoyed watching from the outside.
As a bonus, here’s how to avoid being perceived as cliquey when you really don’t mean to be:
“When you go to lunch, ask the people around you if they would like to join you,” says Christina Lee in How to Conquer the Cliques in Your Office. “Avoid making a habit of taking lunch breaks with exactly the same set of people every day and leaving others behind. “
Also, be a consciously-inclusive person on your own. Are you the newbie? You’ve got a built-in excuse to infiltrate! Ask your cube-mate what she’s doing for lunch, or send an email to the friendly person in the next row. Sure, it can be a little nerve-wracking, but in the end it’ll help you more than if you just sit and desk-eat day after day.
Pay it forward and watch for newbies on your own–and do the inviting. You’ll all benefit.