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Careers

Work cliques: women describe their experiences of being left out at work

Workplace cliques can affect your career progression and even your mental health. Here, women describe how they moved on from toxic workplace environments.

Remote working left us all feeling more distant from our work colleagues – but for some, a return to the office doesn’t mean restarting much-missed friendships.

43% of workers say that cliques are a feature of their workplace, and while not being invited out for lunch might seem like a relatively small slight, it can have deep emotional repercussions. Far from being an easily ignored snub, exclusion from workplace cliques can have a major impact on career progression, mental health, and work wellbeing

We spoke to two women who have experienced being left out of the in-crowd about how it affected them.

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Rachel*, 32, lives in south-west London. She was forced to go freelance after she was the victim of an office clique while working in the magazine industry.

When I joined an interiors magazine, the office was painted as a female-led creative workplace. In reality, it was an extremely vicious environment. I quickly noticed that at lunchtimes the same groups of girls would dash off together. When I asked if I could join them, it became apparent that I wasn’t welcome. It was an environment fuelled by backstabbing, and I found that everyone’s workload [was based on] whether or not they fitted in with the dominant crowd.

There was a particularly bossy woman who was definitely the queen bee in our part of the office. I could deal with not being invited to lunch, but when she started actively sabotaging me – deleting files and unnecessarily returning all of my work and telling me to start again – I realised that I was never going to progress in that office. I was often the last person to receive meeting notifications or press releases, which made my job an awful lot harder. I pride myself in always trying to be kind and genuine, so I couldn’t see what I’d done wrong.

It wasn’t just my peers who were very cliquey. My manager was also in the group of women who excluded me, which meant that I felt powerless. Although I eventually went to HR, I was ultimately told that I was making up issues and was unfit for work. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that something like that was allowed to go on. It made every day horrible and going into the office unbearable.

Being excluded really impacted my mental health. I wanted my career to be a reflection of my work, not who I’d built a fake relationship with. The office was toxic, and I finally decided that I would rather work on my own and went freelance. After having such a terrible experience with workplace cliques, I’ll never go back to an office if I can avoid it.

Amber*, 33, from Shropshire made the decision to leave a large PR agency after feeling excluded from a workplace clique.

My previous workplace was utterly toxic. The office was dominated by a group of young and predominantly female graduates who ruled the roost in terms of popularity, praise and the unwavering support of the managing director. The office environment was so volatile that you never knew what to expect everyday – from huge celebrations with gifts and free lunches to being berated by your boss.

I realised how cliquey the office environment was when I found out that there was a separate group chat for about 25 employees to plan nights out and social activities. The group was deliberately hidden from other staff, and I’ve since heard that it was regularly used to discuss the shortcomings of colleagues.

On one occasion, a co-worker and I discovered that there was a bottomless brunch being organised – we made it known that we wanted to be involved, but on arrival we were essentially stood up. It turned out that our colleagues had deliberately gone to another venue without telling us.

Unfortunately, there was no HR department for the business, as the managing director claimed that he could handle it himself. However, when I went to him with a complaint he defended the behaviour of my cliquey co-workers. Knowing that I was being deliberately excluded was awful. It made me feel that I was doing something wrong – that I was unlikeable and unworthy of friends at work. My mental health was in tatters.

Days after I went on maternity leave, my parents and husband all commented that the ‘old Amber’ was back. It made me realise how terrible my workplace was, and the impact that it was having on me, and I decided not to return to my job. I now work for a much smaller company, which has been wonderful.

Colleagues in an office

Sophia Husbands is a career coach and founder of The Go Getter. She shares advice on dealing with a cliquey workplace.

1) Communication is key – you need to demonstrate that you are in a place of business and are here to get a job done. Try taking individuals from the group aside and identifying common work objectives that create shared ground.

2) Try to find commonalities with colleagues, both within and outside of the clique. Even working remotely, you can send people a message to say ‘good morning’ or ask them about themselves. This can also be really helpful in changing the clique’s perception of you – you may find that they are basing their behaviour on preconceived notions, perhaps because of jealousy.

3) Remember that you can still be empowered as an individual – you don’t have to be part of a clique to excel in your career. If you find that work cliques are impacting your self-esteem, try creating a ‘success file’ of your achievements. These don’t have to be just professional – it could be being a good aunt and taking your nieces to a museum for the first time, or a thank you note from someone that you’ve mentored. This will help to boost your confidence and remind you that you are a valuable team member.

4) Approaching HR or a manager can be a sensitive situation. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so, consider first speaking to someone who has some distance from the situation. It could be a colleague from another department that you trust and respect. This will allow you to get neutral insight before making a decision on whether to approach a manager or HR. If you do decide to escalate a complaint then remember to be factual rather than emotional – you don’t want to be caught in a ‘he-said she-said’ scenario, so focus on providing information and context.

5) If you believe that you are being excluded at work as a result of discrimination you should raise this in a way that feels comfortable and safe to you. It’s best to take this to HR or a senior person that you trust – in many cases you may be able to do so anonymously. Often issues of racism or sexism are a problem with company culture and can have a very damaging impact on your mental and physical health, so HR have a duty to protect you.

*Names have been changed

Images: Getty

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