Piece of Work is a weekly column about workplace behavior and feelings: everything that happens at the office, except your actual job.
At a previous job of mine, it was obvious who was friends with whom, even when everyone remained seated at their assigned open-office-plan desk spaces. Every so often, a dispersed group of individuals would erupt in seemingly performative laughter at the same invisible, inaudible joke, and you would be reminded that they were in a Slack room together — a private one, to which you were not invited. Even when I didn’t particularly want to talk to the group in question, it annoyed me, and distracted me.
These episodes had a way of bringing me back to my high-school mentality, a time when most of my friendships felt uncertain and barely held together, and everyone looked like they were having more fun than I was. And as much as it stings to feel excluded by one’s actual friends, I would argue it feels even worse in the workplace, when friendship isn’t what you’re supposed to be there for anyway. There you are, just trying to get your work done so you can go home, and then you realize the co-workers you only sort of like don’t really care for you either? Humiliating.
Worming one’s way into an existing friend group is difficult, if not impossible, and might just make you feel more alienated than before. Or maybe you don’t even want in so much as you want to not feel so … out. If your workplace is cliquey (most places where humans gather are), and you feel excluded, there are some things you — and, perhaps more effectively, your workplace — can do. (A note: This advice applies more to non-manager employees, though managers may also be inspired to rethink their teams’ structure and/or communication techniques.)
Don’t feel bad for feeling bad — workplace relationships do impact careers.
If there’s a whiff of teenage drama to this whole thing, don’t let that make you feel like you’re a child for feeling rejected by the cool kids at work. Feeling excluded in the workplace has a real, negative impact, says Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management at Rutgers University. “We know that people typically get promoted through referrals and their informal friendship networks, so it’s not only about the emotional feeling of being excluded or alienated, even though that’s a really big issue,” says Methot. Remember, workplace exclusion isn’t just about hurt feelings — it’s often also an indicator of an office’s equity. When you see (or hear) people chatting intimately without you, it’s safe to assume that some of what they’re discussing is workplace gossip, like who’s in hot water with the boss, or which position might need to be filled ASAP.
And according to Julianna Pillemer, a doctoral candidate in management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, witnessing these workplace friendships is especially unsettling when they’re marked by some distance in status — like that between a CEO and an intern, for instance. “Even if no one has done anything wrong, and it’s a completely acceptable friendship, just the existence of that friendship makes you question the fairness in organizations,” says Pillemer. “If someone really high up in an organization is really close with someone below them, it can call into question the way processes are being done in the organization more broadly.” In a similar scenario, you might wonder if you’re as likely to be promoted as someone the boss is tight with, and sometimes, says Pillemer, that’s justified. These relationships can impact your professional success, not just your mood at work.
Find an ally.
If you’re feeling lonely at work, you’re not alone, says Methot. “Loneliness is being considered an epidemic at work right now,” she says. “We don’t have the opportunity to form the kinds of close-knit relationships and friendships that we used to, because of virtual work, and the gig economy,” and other factors. Loneliness is an awful feeling, but it’s also more easily relieved than we might realize. Research suggests “it only takes one friendship in the workplace to eliminate those feelings of loneliness,” says Methot. “We feel pretty secluded until we form that one strong, good connection.”
Perhaps even more important than developing one workplace friend is developing one workplace ally (who, yes, can also be a friend). “If we can find that one ally who is an informal person looking out for our best interests, then that can help us become more visible, both formally and informally,” says Methot. “Allies are willing to include us, bring us in, recognize that we’re not part of the conversation, and draw us in.” This is generally an informal relationship, says Methot (i.e. this person is probably not your direct manager), and is often a peer — perhaps one who’s a little more extroverted, or has been at the office longer than you have. Finding someone who can help you become more visible at the office can go a long way toward getting you noticed both personally and professionally.
Count your (mixed) blessings.
So we’ve agreed that being left out sucks. But have you considered that being in the friendship group in question also … sucks?
Pillemer, who has also authored a paper tellingly entitled “Friends Without Benefits: Understanding the Dark Sides of Workplace Friendship,” says that even those people in seemingly solid workplace friend groups feel tension about their place in them. “There is a tension between the voluntariness of friendship — friendship is fundamentally a relationship you’re supposed to choose — and the involuntary nature of organizations,” says Pillemer. “There are so many people that you have to talk to as part of your job.” This presents a challenge for those people excluded, who can’t exactly ignore the groups around them every day, but it also presents a challenge for those people in the groups, who might want to be less involved, but can’t be.
Workplace friendships can quickly become “frenemyships,” says Methot. When a friendship is positioned within a professional framework, it can create direct competition and tension where it wouldn’t otherwise exist. This is not to say that the work friends you see gathering at lunch every day secretly hate each other, but it is a reminder that no friendship group is without its own discord and alienation — especially at work.
Know that this is most often an organizational responsibility, not an individual one.
Having spent some time advising you on a few personal ways to manage your workplace exclusion, allow me to offer one giant caveat: None of this is really your job to fix — particularly if you’re a woman and/or person of color, or a member of any other group historically and systematically excluded from work-related socializing. While it’s all well and good to find a work ally, it’s up to your workplace to create an office culture in which that is possible in the first place, says Pillemer. “Office layouts can be set up so there are common spaces and ways for people to bump into other people, where it gives you the opportunity to get to know people from all sides of the organization,” she says. “You can design an office to combat cliques.” That might mean an open office plan, or a set of welcoming break rooms, or a Slack chat devoted to certain interests. The main thing is that the company itself should be working to ensure that employees don’t remain siloed within their own chosen social groups.
“What organizations can do, for example, is institute cross-functional groups, or lunches, or even social events, where once a week you meet with people from across different disciplines or across different offices and either talk about work stuff, or not work stuff,” Pillemer adds. In one organization Pillemer worked with, the weekly check-in meetings incorporated a sort of “adult show and tell” in which a different team member got up and shared something personal, or something of personal interest, every week. It sounds corny, and a little awkward, but it worked, says Pillemer: “This really gave people an opportunity to learn about others in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily based on the cliques or the way that work is done in an organization.”
Both Pillemer and Methot argue that organizations should be aware that encouraging workplace friendship comes with upsides and downsides, and therefore must be conscious of the potential for cliqueiness, and consistently work to mitigate that effect. This isn’t about missed inside jokes alone, but missed opportunities, too; being left out at work does hurt, both emotionally and, in some cases, professionally.