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Friendly crowd or adolescent bullies: Assessing cliques in the workplace

Think the cool kids’ lunch table is confined to high school cafeterias and that grownups in the workplace don’t resort to such cliquish behavior? Think again. A survey from CareerBuilder shows that close to half of the workers polled (43 percent) reported the presence of cliques in their workplaces.

What’s more concerning is that a significant number of employees admit to doing things they don’t want to do so they’ll fit in. Often it’s just going to happy hour with the gang after work or watching a certain TV show or movie to discuss at work the next day, but sometimes the behavior is more serious.

The survey found that 19 percent of the people who owned up to bowing to the pressure of a clique said they’ve made fun of people or pretended not to like them in an effort to be part of the in crowd.

HR’s role
Di Ann Sanchez, president and founder of DAS HR Consulting, a Hurst, Texas-based provider of human resources programs for small to medium-sized companies, says cliques are often generational. The Gen Y’ers not only like to socialize together outside of work, they also are likely to look to each other for direction on the job. That’s not necessarily a problem and can even be positive, but if cliques cause productivity to suffer and the people feeling excluded complain, it’s time for the HR professionals to step in.

Sanchez recommends what she calls the five A’s of resolution:

  1. Assess the situation. Sanchez says HR needs to find out who’s in the clique, who’s being alienated, and why the clique exists.
  2. Acknowledge the issue. If the conflict or clique is ignored, it’s “just going to end up festering and getting worse,” Sanchez says. She suggests involving each of the parties and hearing their points of view. When cliques affect workplace teams, she says often various age groups stick together. The baby boomers may resent the younger members, and the Gen Y’ers may believe their older coworkers aren’t transferring knowledge the way they should.
  3. Attitude counts. Sanchez says it’s up to HR to adopt a positive attitude in working out differences. Sometimes it’s not intentional when someone feels excluded, and a positive attitude shown by HR in resolving the conflict can eliminate the negative aspects of a clique.
  4. Action steps are necessary. HR needs to meet with the individuals involved and decide on steps to solve problems caused by a clique.
  5. Analysis and follow-up. HR needs to ensure that all the participants agree on the action steps and then follow up to make sure everyone does what they say they’ll do.

Legal considerations
Often a clique leads to hurt feelings and a loss of productivity, but the harm can go deeper. The CareerBuilder survey’s subgroup that admitted to making fun of someone because of a clique signals behavior that may cross the line into workplace bullying. And while there may not be laws against bullying “that is not to say that there will not be any,” according to Sara H. Jodka, an attorney with Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP in Columbus, Ohio, who points out that since 2003, 25 states have introduced workplace bullying legislation.

Such legislative efforts, often called healthy workplace laws, would allow lawsuits without requiring a showing of discrimination based on a protected category such as the ones outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jodka says. But even without specific workplace bullying laws, “employers run the risk of liability for bullying behavior to the extent the conduct ratchets up to the level of illegal discrimination or hostile work environment harassment under Title VII and/or comparable state laws,” she says.

The situation becomes even more dangerous when a supervisor is part of a clique that excludes or even belittles someone. Jodka says that a supervisor taking part in action that escalates to a hostile environment “increases the employer’s potential for liability under Title VII exponentially.”

The CareerBuilder survey referred to “bosses” and their relationship to workplace cliques, but from a legal liability standpoint it’s important to consider who is a “supervisor” rather than just who’s a boss, Jodka says. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Vance v. Ball State University that an employee is a supervisor for purposes of vicarious liability under Title VII if the employee has the authority to hire and fire an employee. Those who direct and oversee the work of others aren’t considered supervisors unless they also have the power to take tangible employment actions such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassigning, or making decisions that cause a change in benefits.

Specific legal threats
In a hostile environment claim, an employer’s liability depends on whether a coworker or a supervisor causes the harassment and, if the harassment is caused by a supervisor, whether the victim is subjected to a tangible employment action. Jodka breaks it down this way:

• If a hostile environment truly exists and the harasser is a coworker, the employer can be liable if the employer was negligent in controlling working conditions.

• If the harasser is a supervisor and that supervisor takes a tangible employment action against the victim, the employer is automatically liable.

• If the harasser is a supervisor but the victim hasn’t been the subject of a tangible employment action, the employer can avoid liability by showing that it (1) exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behavior, and (2) that the victim unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer, such as following the harassment reporting policy outlined in the employer’s handbook.