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Dealing with workplace cliques

They’re not just found at the school lunch table. Cliques can also have a presence behind the scenes in the kitchen.

“Any workplace that has more than two people is possibly susceptible to cliques, or the perception that a clique exists,” says JoAnne Robinett, school nutrition specialist and consultant.

While best friends in the workplace can help boost teamwork, cliques can diminish it. In order to combat the ill effects of these groups, management must spot and resolve them as quickly as possible.

Spotting them

During her 31 years with Pittsburgh Public Schools, Director of Food Service Curtistine Walker says she’s seen three types of cliques form in the workplace

There’s the “good” group, which Walker says is made up of the employees who come to work on time and do what they need to do to be successful. The “bad” group is made up of employees who “are just there to collect their paycheck and do the minimal job,” she says. And then there are those employees that don’t fit in with either the good or the bad. 

“They kind of fall in the middle and hope that either one of the two cliques will take them, but then if they don’t, they kind of have their own little group that they associate with, hoping that sooner or later, they can get into the other two cliques,” Walker says.

As for spotting cliques, Walker suggests observing who goes to lunch with whom as well as who sits together during meetings. 

“It’s very distinct,” she says. “Especially when you’re having your back-to-school meetings. It’s so easy to identify the cliques because [the employees] haven’t seen each other all summer, and usually that’s when they get with their counterparts and they sit with them.”

Robinett suggests observing who is often being left out when employees team up for tasks.  

“Managers should listen, not just to what is being said, but also to what is not being said,” she says. “If two or three people always ask to team up for an assignment, look to see who is not being included.”  

Managers should also pay attention to the tone used among employees, Robinett adds, which could suggest that there is a clear divide between them: “If a manager notices two heads that are always together, observe further. Listen to see if conversations are starting to take on an ‘us’ and ‘them’ tone.”

Stopping them

Once Walker spots a clique, she confronts the problem head-on.

“Normally, whenever there’s these different cliques, there is some type of rumor that goes on about a type of person in the other clique and it’s spreading around between the three,” says Walker. “I’ve always identified who started it and basically confronted them.”

While Walker has privately confronted the employee starting rumors, she thinks it’s sometimes more effective to call them out in a group setting. “You have to be a little brave to do that because they’ll confront you back, [because] you’re embarrassing them. [The message is], ‘If you continue to do this, I’ll continue to identify you in this way,’ and that person kind of backs off and stops it.” 

For managers who may not be confident enough to discuss the rumor with the employee face to face, both Robinett and Walker suggest trying to alleviate cliques by making different employees work together. 

“Rotate positions to shake alliances up,” Robinett says. “Team up new employees with a mentor.”

Getting employees involved on different committees at their local School Nutrition Association chapter is another good way to get different employees to work together, Walker says.

“That kind of dispels a lot of things because sometimes the person in the ‘good’ clique finds out that the person in the ‘bad’ clique really isn’t so bad, and they kind of help them out,” she says. “And then the person that’s in the middle that doesn't belong to either one of the two actually finds that they get along with both of the others.”

Ultimately, though, Walker says that one of the best ways to discourage cliques comes from the employees themselves.

“[Employees] don’t need to buy into what’s being said,” she says. “They don’t need to buy into the gossip. They don’t need to buy into picking on the good employee or even sometimes picking on the bad employee. They just don’t need to buy into the madness.”

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

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