Q: My immediate supervisor has lunch every day with the same four members of our department. They eat behind closed doors, and never ask anyone else into their group.
Q: My immediate supervisor has lunch every day with the same four members of our department. They eat behind closed doors, and never ask anyone else into their group. In high school, this was known as a clique.
One member of this group just received a promotion that I had asked for during my annual review. I was told I would have to wait. I have no way of knowing if the other person was promoted because of being part of this clique.
I don’t think my supervisor’s boss has a clue about the lunch clique, and I don’t know how to raise the issue without sounding like a whiner. Any thoughts?
A: There’s nothing inherently wrong with workplace friendships. But a recurring closed-door confab with the same crew of subordinate pals is bad management. It almost guarantees feelings of unjust favoritism among others when a clique member thrives.
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That said, going up the chain to tattle about cliquish behavior does indeed have a sour grapes flavor. It’s also unlikely to resolve your real issue: being recognized and fairly rewarded for your work. As you concede, it’s not clear whether mere clique membership got your colleague promoted.
Besides, office politics can’t be abolished, only negotiated. That’s why there are whole books on the subject – like the Harvard Business Review’s “HBR Guide to Office Politics,” which addresses coping with both office cliques and “the boss’ pet.”
For example, an anecdote about one alienated employee describes how she voluntarily “collaborated with one of the ‘cool kids’ on a couple of projects, as her junior.” This had less to do with winning “in crowd” acceptance than with being able to demonstrate dedication and skill. She ultimately forged her own group of workplace friends, but by then she felt that her contributions were appreciated.
In your case, maybe you’ll need to work with the colleague who got the promotion you wanted. Keep an open mind about figuring out what that person does well (besides lunch). You might even consider seeking feedback from that colleague, and your supervisor, about what you need to do to move ahead (besides wait). Clearly this won’t work if it comes across as disingenuous or predatory. I admit this advice may be hard to take at first. But humans are social animals, and no set of rules can change that — in high school or the workplace.
Submit questions to Rob Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.