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Toxic Work Environment: Addressing Cliques & Catty Behavior

gossip-in-the-workplaceI remember in high school I naïvely thought that once you graduated all the cliques and catty behavior would stop. The Free Dictionary by Farlex defines catty behavior as “Subtly cruel or malicious; spiteful.” I was surprised to find out that work environments are very similar to high school. When I worked in a restaurant, one group of waitresses were all very close friends and had worked together for a long time. They would often exclude all the other waitresses and even talked poorly about them behind their backs. When I worked in the law firm, I observed on my very first day a group of female co-workers sit all huddled together at one lunch table excluding others. I have witnessed the formation of cliques and catty behavior in both working environments with men too! The cooks at the one restaurant where I worked did not like the new waiter; I watched them purposely ignore his questions or walk away when he was talking. Cliques and catty behavior can be detrimental to the work environment, especially if it interferes with day-to-day activities.

I have heard many stories from friends who have experienced these behaviors and felt excluded. My friend Christine told me about her previous job where the head boss had complimented her work more than once in front of a group of female co-workers. She noticed in the lunch room that her co-workers wouldn’t invite her to sit with them. Or they would stop talking the moment she walked in the room or talk about getting together on the weekend in front of her and not invite her to come. Christine said they all began to act passive aggressively towards her, such as taking a long time to complete their part of the group projects, or not suggesting ideas at all to help, and it got to a point where she hated coming into work. I asked why she hadn’t spoken up and said something? Christine said that her immediate supervisor was among the female co-workers acting this way, and she felt like going to her or Human Resource would only make the situation worse. Christine took another job where she was much happier; however, was this best? Perhaps for Christine yes, but the company lost a valuable asset.

Humans naturally form into groups, often with people that are similar to themselves. But it is the catty behavior and the formation of cliques that results in a hostile and toxic work environment. Companies are losing money, woman/manpower, and skills. Depending on the organization one or more of these items lost can be bad for business.

How can cliques and catty behavior be stopped?

The truth is, cliques will never be able to be stopped. People will always associate with like-minded people. However, if you notice you sit with the same people everyday maybe try and switch it up and sit with someone new. Or, if you notice someone else sitting by themselves most days invite them to sit with you. If you hang out with your work friends outside of work and don’t invite everyone, then it is best not to discuss openly these interactions. Exercising empathy can also help, try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. How would you feel if you were being excluded?

Catty Behavior should and needs to be addressed. You could approach those acting catty one-by-one and calmly let them know how (name the specific behavior) is impacting you. And then, simply ask them to stop. If the behavior continues, you could approach your immediate supervisor or human resources. While I understand where Christine was coming from in her situation, not everyone can or wants to leave their job. A situation may not become better immediately, but at least the situation is brought to your supervisor’s attention or Human Resources have the behavior on record.

Toxic work environments can ruin companies and cause employees to be unhappy. The best companies are the ones that promote positivity, quash gossip, and encourage inclusivity.

Abigail R. C. McManus M.S Negotiation and Conflict Management


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