Why cliques can be bad for business

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Mean Girls movie poster. Image: Paramount Pictures

If you thought cliques were a thing of your past - of your school years - you thought wrong. Office cliques exist and while they seem harmless, they can create a toxic environment that affects the bottom line.

Friendships at work are a good thing, whether it’s someone to grab a coffee with or a close colleague you can seek advice from. In fact, most of us have a confidant at work, with a 2018 survey by the job site Comparably finding that of more than 33,000 workers, 60% of women said they had a close friend at work.

Forming good relationships at work can create a positive culture in the workplace, which in turn can boost morale, wellbeing and engagement with work. But what happens when groups of work friends form cliques - and are they really so bad for business?

Learn from Mean Girls

As it turns out, the film Mean Girls may contain a few lessons to offer the business world, according to CEO and HR expert Alan Price.

“Everybody thinks when they leave high school, they'll leave behind the cliques which are part of school life. But unfortunately, this isn't always the case because tight social circles also exist in the working world too,” he says.

READ MORE: How to handle communications overload at work

“Employers and HR should look at the film's representation of 'clique culture' and think about what's going on in their workplaces and how they can manage their office cliques,” Price adds. “It can be relatively easy for cliques to form in a working environment. After all, employees who work closely with each other daily are all the more likely to become friends and enjoy each other's company.”

On paper, a clique is not necessarily a bad thing. Having a group of employees who work well together can be good news for a company, potentially encouraging higher levels of productivity. In addition, workers who feel comfortable or get on well with their peers may be more likely to feel happier too.

“However, there is a danger that if an office clique is left unmanaged, it may cause more issues down the line,” Price says. “The problem here is that employees within a clique are at risk of becoming too familiar, potentially reacting negatively if asked to work with others outside of it.”

Cliques may also lead other employees to feel excluded, isolated or lonely too - leading to an “us vs them” mentality that could be detrimental to workplace morale. According to a 2019 survey by CV Library, more than half (53.6%) of Brits admit to suffering from loneliness in the workplace. Two-thirds of professionals aged 35-44 said they felt lonely at work, making them the most isolated of all age groups.

READ MORE: How to be mindful in the workplace

Friendships at work are a good thing — but cliques can damage morale. Photo: Getty Images.

“Employees who are not part of the clique can quickly feel left out and unfairly treated, especially if the clique involves management,” Price says. “Eventually, staff in this position may become disillusioned in their role, something that can affect their performance and potentially lead to them seeking work elsewhere.”

Beware of workplace bullying

There is also the issue of workplace bullying to consider - and employees should remember that deliberately excluding other workers is a form of bullying.

“Other forms of misconduct can also arise as a direct result of a clique, such as workplace gossiping or rumour spreading, which again should be deemed unacceptable. It is important to remember that, if this type of bullying is proven to be down to an individual's protected characteristic, it could lead to more severe claims of harassment,” Price says.

“This could end up being very costly for a company if such a claim was allowed to proceed to an employment tribunal.”

READ MORE: How to cope with stress at work

If employers continually allow the same individuals to work closely together, it could cause issues with individual development too.

“Some people may get too comfortable hiding in the clique instead of thinking independently and coming up with their ideas. If not encouraged to be more self-reliant in their role, this could lead to employees missing out on future opportunities for progression,” he explains.

So while cliques seem innocent enough, it may be a good idea for employers to encourage employees to socialise and work with those outside of their friendship groups - to prevent a dysfunctional workplace.