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Workplace as High School?

Recently, I’ve been talking about the realization I had some years ago that the workplace is really no different than high school.  We laugh but think about where the stereotypes often ring true in the places you’ve worked.

  1. Do your account managers remind you of the jocks?

  2. Do your IT folks remind you of the geeks?

  3. Does your HR team remind you of those on student council?

  4. Does your marketing team remind you of the folks who were friends with everyone?

Of course these are stereotypes. Duh. But they are often stereotypes for a reason, because many people naturally fall into roles not dissimilar to where they tended to be in school. For some reason, most of us expected that when we got “real jobs” that all of a sudden we’d be around folks acting like grownups, where (as our parents once tried to convince us) “cliques won’t matter anymore”.

What a load of crap.

As the one who entered middle school a year younger than everyone else (nothing more socially devastating than skipping from fourth grade right into the evil world of sixth grade and all that junior high entails…oh and doing it in glasses, braces, and the year 1984), I remember eating lunch in the library after being ignored in the cafeteria.  I remember that while I was in the “talented and gifted” classes, I never fit in with the geeks because that, to me, was just another restrictive clique (the only girl on the Math Team who hated math, heh). I remember that when I finally did get some friends, they were the kind who, like me, didn’t have a lot of restrictions, laughed loudly, and didn’t look at my IQ as a sign of whether I was friend-worthy.  Some were writers, some were artists, some were dancers, some were still figuring it all out.

So when I entered the workplace, I assumed that the politics of school would be far behind me. I got my first apartment when I was 17, went to college on a full course load, and worked 40 hours a week at the discount division of a high end department store.  And the good fortune for that sector retail is that most folks were supporting themselves there for the short term. They came from all walks of life – from age to color to gender to everything, it was truly diverse. I thought that's how all workplaces were! And for the next 7 years, because of this, I remained with that company.  Their unique culture insisted on promoting from within, and it was never hard to make a lateral move. I went from the sales floor to credit to the buying office with nothing but my past experience with them to get me there.  They didn’t expect me to get a degree because they took responsibility for training me.  I developed relationships during those years that last to this day – both with my coworkers and the customers I served. When my position was eliminated after 7 years of employment, I could have moved into another area, but I was just shy of my 24th birthday, and thought, maybe it’s time to do something different.  So I left “home”.

It took me many years to realize that what I gained during those years had left an indelible imprint on who I am – from my philosophy around customer service, to my brazen expectations that others treat each other with respect and appreciate our diverse backgrounds.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

Fortunately for me, my first job led to my career in human resources, where I had bar none the best boss I’ve had during my entire career.  As an administrative assistant, my boss saw my knack for organization and customer service, and helped me utilize those strengths.  She coached me when I was a bit too blunt, encouraged me when I was full of trepidation about a new assignment, and celebrated even the smallest of accomplishments.  Three years later, when she announced her departure, most of the team disbanded as well – that’s the kind of effect she had on us...we didn't want to risk who her replacement might be!  World class leader and mentor, to put it lightly.  Our team was tight – and to this day, every few years, we get as many of us together as possible to reconnect over good food and drink.

Where’s that surprise I’ve been alluding to?

After that job, I had what you’d call more run-of-the-mill bosses.  My expectations were so high that I wanted every boss I had to be a mentor, and assumed that I’d be friends with most of the people on my teams.  But here’s the interesting thing about HR: you get a close look at all the other teams, and when you’re an HR “department of one”, the dynamic changes quickly.  Suddenly you have no peers, and you’re this one person that many departments are suspicious of.  You’re supposed to keep an eye out for everyone, while also trying to figure out who you can have lunch with (yet not be able to bitch about your job like everyone else does).  You notice that most of the sales team were on their high school football or soccer or wrestling teams, and you notice that the IT folks remind you of the math team, with their own inside technical jokes, and you notice that the ones who get ahead are usually the ones who know how to play the game best – not always the people who should be leading. And you notice who doesn’t “fit” in because often, in HR, the word “fit” is often used in a negative way to point out employees who are different, who defy the norm, who are less complacent and more likely to call things out that aren’t working. Because the problem with cliques are, few within are daring enough to call bullshit.

And then there was, years later, realizing how much sexism and inappropriate behavior I’d been exposed to, because ultimately, you can’t trust that just because an employee handbook exists that you’ll be protected…

  1. I remember the old company founder kissed my cheek as I was clocking in or while I was standing talking to him and the (female) President, he reached over and rubbed my belly.  And how my boss, while her eyes widened, ultimately did nothing, said nothing.  I was in HR yet I was unprotected and afraid to not “fit in”.

  2. I remember the general manager who would come down and psychoanalyze the depths of my personality (no seriously, actual terminology and all because he had many years worked in a hospital and thought that gave him permission).

  3. I remember the executive director who hired his kid to be one of his managers and how they would have knock-down drag-out yelling fights in the hallway that reminded me of my parents fighting when I was little, and how when I gave my notice he was nothing but snide (because ultimately, he was pissed I was leaving that crazy environment).

  4. I remember the job I was fired from weeks after getting a special commendation and bonus for my work, all too coincidentally after I had filed a whistleblower complaint about their business practices (karma has since been a bitch for them).

  5. I remember the job where my boss sat across from me saying and doing nothing while a manager started loudly cursing me out because of a scheduling conflict, and her response was (after he walked away) “you should have told him to fuck off.” And did nothing.  No disciplinary action for that manager, nothing.

  6. I remember the job where employees regularly got drunk and sexually harassed (both while drunk and sober) the female employees, leading to the departure of one of the women. While I had reported it as per protocol, the executive leadership neither investigated nor disciplined nor terminated the employee. In fact, that person has since been promoted.

  7. I remember multiple times being asked to come in to a new company, do what I do, shake things up, and make things better, then ultimately being thrown under the bus for doing exactly what I was asked to do.  And I remember going to a conference of women where I learned, finally, that I wasn’t the only one being screwed over for being a “difficult” or “disruptive”, when men were doing the exact same thing.

  8. I remember hearing from an employee about how the hiring team he was part of had been assessing candidates based on their physical appearance, including whether they should hire a male software engineer because of his larger size. At another company, I found engineers ogling a female candidate's feminist blog...and simultaneously using it as an excuse not to move forward.

  9. I remember being asked by one of the bosses that I’ve mentioned here (#5), on my last day as she took me to lunch, in all her insecurity, if she had been a good boss.  I remember biting my tongue and artificially smiling.

So now I work for myself, at a healthy distance from the cliques and the dysfunction, and am finding my own unique place in the professional world.  Sometimes it’s a fit, sometimes it’s a short-term fit, sometimes it’s get-me-the-hell-outta-here.  Sometimes it’s pure awesomeness. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t see the dysfunction from a mile off. The key to my success now has been in my ability to evaluate/assess upfront if I can both give of myself and get what I need in a mutually beneficial way. If I can customize my approach based on the types of folks I’m working with – i.e., understanding if they are deeply institutionalized into the clique mentality, or have the maturity and foresight to see that teams are best when they are diverse – I know I can serve them well.  When the manager hires the football player who wants to code, or brings on the marketer who doesn’t look the same as all of his other employees, or sees the importance of diversity and knows that it goes beyond color, age, gender, or clique, and must include diversity of personality and work styles as well?  That’s when I’m inspired.  That’s when I breathe that sigh of relief and know I’m making a difference.

Think about your preconceived notions in the workplace, the presence of cliques or the lack thereof, and how as hiring managers you can improve diversity on so many levels.  Think about how you felt in high school, and how you treated (and were treated by) others. Ask yourself, where can you influence change for the better?

As Maya Angelou said, when you know better, you do better.

NOTE:  I loved the article by Mary Lorenz on CareerBuilder, From the Classroom to the Cubicle: High School Cliques Make Their Way to the Workplace, so much so that I am sharing it in its entirety below as an addendum to my above rambling:

Even if it’s been years since you’ve stopped trying to make fetch happen, rallied for Donna Martin to graduate, mooned over Jake Ryan or sacrificed an entire Saturday in detention, a new study indicates that high school personas remain long after graduation – at least when it comes to the workplace.

In a nationwide CareerBuilder survey of nearly 3,000 workers, 43 percent of participants said their workplace is populated by cliques. Not only do these cliques exist, but they can affect workplace culture in a variety of ways…

Peer Pressure Persists While only 11 percent of workers said they felt intimidated by office cliques, 20 percent of workers said they’ve done something they’re really not interested in or didn’t want to do just to fit in with co-workers, including the following:

  1. 46 percent attended office happy hours

  2. 21 percent watched a certain TV show or movie to discuss at work the next day

  3. 19 percent made fun of someone else or pretended not to like them

  4. 17 percent pretended to like a certain food

  5. 9 percent took smoke breaks

Pressure to fit in also causes some workers to hide certain things, too:

  1. 15 percent of workers hide their political affiliations

  2. 10 percent keep personal hobbies a secret

  3. 9 percent keep quiet about their religious beliefs.

Bosses and Office Cliques Cliques may seem harmless, but according to the study, 13 percent of workers say their presence has had a negative impact on career progress. Managers aren’t helping the problem, either: Nearly half of the workers who claim their workplaces have cliques (46 percent) say their boss is in a clique him- or herself.

According to Rosemary Haefner, vice president of Human Resources at CareerBuilder, one way to counter the negative effects of cliques is to focus on team-building activities, or group projects that bring together different groups and discourage behavior that tends to alienate others.

Workers Voted Most Likely To… Are IT workers just grown-up members of the math club? The survey also looked at how workers perceive members of different departments, and much like it is with clubs in high school, certain workplace departments are associated with specific attributes. Consider the following:

  1. Customer service people are perceived as “most social”

  2.  Information technology workers are perceived as “smartest”

  3. Sales people are perceived as “most attractive”

  4. Production & quality control workers are perceived as “most productive”

  5. Legal is perceived as “most intimidating to an outsider”

You Can Take the Jock Out of High School… Results from the survey seem to indicate that the likelihood of cliques forming in the workplace depend on how strongly workers identified with certain cliques in high school. Former self-described “class clowns,” “geeks” and “athletes”, for instance, were the most likely to say they belong to an office clique today. Meanwhile, participants who chose not to self-identify as fitting a certain stereotypical high school archetype are the least likely to be a part of an office clique.


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