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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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Give It to Me Straight- Communicating Directly and Constructively

verbal-agression-e1294095402272It is a widely known fact among my family and friends that I am direct. I am not a person who beats around the bush or sugarcoats. The Free Dictionary by Farlex defines beating around the bush as “To speak evasively or misleadingly, or to stall or waste time.” Merriam-Webster’s definition of sugarcoat is, “to talk about or describe (something) in a way that makes it seem more pleasant or acceptable than it is.” Many people I have found tend to dodge or pacify their delivery of certain messages to avoid conflict. Or, they dodge and pacify because being direct makes them uncomfortable. I am not afraid of conflict because I learned how to resolve and manage it efficiently and constructively, which is a skill everyone can learn! Even before learning these skills, I was direct. I have always been this way because I observed when I was growing up that when people are not straightforward they are leaving room for misunderstanding. I also feel there is a misconception that being direct means you must be nasty or hurtful. There is an art to delivering a direct message in such a way that it is received well, and the recipient is not offended.

So what is the best way to deliver a direct message?

  1. Plan out what you will say before the conversation happens.

My fiancé often thought I overly prepared when I was speaking to someone about an uncomfortable topic because I would plan out what I was going to say. However, recently he had an awkward conversation that required directness. He prepared beforehand and in doing so he felt that it assisted with the effectiveness of his delivery. I recommend saying things out loud because hearing the words spoken allows you to critique and alter whatever is needed.

  1. Talk directly to the person who you want to receive the message.

Never relay your message to someone and ask him or her to talk to the person in your place. First, this is a complete cop-out. Second, it can hurt the person’s feelings especially if the message being delivered is a difficult one. While technology has provided many outlets for communication, I believe face-to-face is always best. If you must give a message in a different form make sure you are the one doing it.

  1. Communicate the message honestly, but do not be hurtful.

Anytime a person feels like they are being attacked they will get defensive. The moment someone gets defensive the possibility of conflict increases. There are several ways to deliver a message directly so that it can be well received. I outlined my two favorite tactics below.

Tactic #1 – Ask a question. If a friend is consistently late when meeting you for lunch rather than saying, “Leah, you are late again, I have been waiting for fifteen minutes, and it’s rude.” Most likely, Leah will get defensive. Instead, you could say, “Leah, I noticed you are often running late when we meet for lunch, next meeting would it be more convenient to pick a later time?” The same message is being conveyed, but Leah will be less likely to get defensive.

Tactic #2 – Make a comparison/empathize. When I was on my high school’s dance team, we learned a challenging routine that we would be performing at a basketball game. One of my team members was struggling with a combination. I pulled her aside and said, “I noticed that this combination was giving you a hard time. I had issues with it too; let me show you a trick I used that made it a little easier!” I was able to address directly an issue and show that I too had struggled. Many times when people speak directly to others they can come across as condescending or snobby, pointing out your struggles and flaws can assist in keeping a the conversation balanced.

The more people practice being direct in a non-confrontational way, the least likely misunderstandings will arise.

Abigail Clark M.S Negotiation and Conflict Management


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