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Part II: Law fellow excluded from inner circle

Text by Franke James, MFA.; Cupcake ©istockphoto.com/Catherine Jones

Dear Office-Politics,

I began working in a Center at my law school in a temporary position immediately after graduating, and began a formal two-year Fellow position last summer. I am hoping to build a career here long-term; however, the Directors have a clique, among the Center staff, that is quite close, and I am regularly excluded from this group. Last evening, for instance, I was excluded from a dinner party. “Paul”, the Professor for whom I work directly, was invited (so it’s not that this was unrelated to my program); as well as the brand new Program Assistant, who is technically my subordinate and only 24 years old (so it’s not that this was for older/senior staff only).

The clique is a mix of Professors and other Fellows, ranging in age from late 20s (like me) to late 40s. I am not the only staff member who is excluded from the dominant clique, and I even know why others are disliked from comments I have heard, but have no idea why I’m on the outs. To be honest, I would rather spend time with my own friends than with these people (!), but worry that there are professional costs to being disliked and outside of this loop.

I am wondering whether I should ask Paul about this. He can be a domineering terror and we are not friends by any measure, but he does seem to take a genuine interest in my professional future and success, in particular in keeping me here working with him. Another option would be to ask another Professor, “Carolyn”, who is closer to my age and the colleague with whom I am most friendly. Both are, however, in the dominant clique, so I cannot be sure that they would not be irritated and just report back to the others to disparage me further!

What would your experts advise in this situation?

Not Cliquing

franke james

Dear Not Cliquing,

You raise a very interesting dilemma and one that perplexes many. Why are you being excluded from the Director’s dinner party? It doesn’t sound fair does it?

Let me float a theory. You wrote, “To be honest, I would rather spend time with my own friends than with these people (!), but worry that there are professional costs to being disliked and outside of this loop.”

That’s very revealing. You’d rather hang out with your friends, but you’re willing to forgo the pleasure if it helps you climb the ladder?

It sounds to me like you’re seeking entry to their circle not based on genuine friendship, but solely based on what you can get out of it. You view the clique as a power lever to open doors for you in your career. You’re not alone in the attitude but it does sound selfish and self-serving doesn’t it? How can we flip this around and make you ‘likable’ enough that the clique will want to hang out with you?

“Birthday Party with my 75 closest and dearest friends”

Let me tell you about a milestone birthday party I went to the other night. It was for an old friend who is in the Top 100 Most Powerful Female Executive lists nationally. At one point the friend’s spouse came up to the microphone to thank everyone for attending. Robert said, “When I spoke to Catherine and told her we were going to organize this party, she made one thing very clear. She didn’t want any business associates invited. Just seventy-five friends. So since you’re friends you may not know all her business accomplishments… Let me give you some highlights…”

Robert’s comment got a big laugh from everyone. Was it true that there were no business associates in the crowd? No. The majority had met Catherine because of a corporate board that they’d been on together. Or some other joint business endeavor over the years. The room was chock-a-block full of V.I.P.’s. But it was a nice thing to say. It made people relax. They weren’t there because they were the head of a major bank, or any other ‘business’ reason. They were there because they were Catherine’s friend. And his comment about her friends not knowing her business accomplishments, was a nice excuse to trumpet her achievements without seeming too bold.

People naturally want to do business with people they trust. Over time many business relationships deepen into friendships. Business is largely personal.

Professional networking vs. Trusted Friends

Let’s look at why you might not have been included in the dinner party.

Have you ever organized a social event with friends and intentionally left some people off the list? Perhaps you were worried that one person would ‘hit’ on another for something that would make you or others uncomfortable. Instinctively you reacted to protect your friends. The thought process might have gone like this, “If we invite Tara and she finds out that John just got nominated for a music award, she’s going to be pushing herself at him all night. You know how desperately she wants to break into the music business… Let’s not invite Tara. We want John to relax and not feel hit upon…” The reasons go on and on. Tara is not being excluded because she is not a nice person but because she doesn’t observe social boundaries. She is perceived as too aggressive in this instance, for this crowd.

People are more agreeable to making connections for others when the agendas are out in the open. Business networking is done all the time in public venues. In those arenas we see people hand out business cards quite freely (of course the savvy political players know to be choosy whom they give their card to).

Check these perceptions:

1. Is it possible you have not earned entry to their group yet because they don’t trust you?

2. Is there a chance that they are not extending trust to you because they see you as a user or a social climber? (They intuitively know you’d rather hang out with your real friends than with them.)

3. Are you likable? Are you doing nice things for others in the group? You may have to earn your way in.

4. If the Directors’ clique, is as you say, ‘quite close’, then why is the new Program Assistant welcome? What is his/her power? Has the assistant done anything to earn their trust? Is there another agenda at work here?

Reflect on these questions, and then ask your associate Carolyn why she thinks you are excluded. She may be able to give you insight into what you need to do.

Earning Entry to the Clique

Office-Politics Adviser Rick Brandon, in his reply to you, suggested some great strategies to get entry to this clique. His idea to find ways to be genuinely helpful is exactly what I would recommend too. Maybe if you did things for others without thinking of what you’ll get in return, they would begin to trust you? Gradually they’d let down their guard, and you’d gain access to the inner circle.

Dr. David Schwartz wrote that we are lifted to success by those around us. I think there is a lot of truth to that. Friends naturally want to help each other. Make friends by being helpful, genuine and sincere and your career will blossom. Then one day maybe you will be able to say, “I don’t want any business associates at my birthday party. Just my 75 closest and dearest friends.”

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.



Franke James, MFA
Editor & Founder, Office-Politics.com
Inventor, The Office-Politics® Game


Franke James, MFA is the Editor & Founder of Office-Politics.com. She is also the Inventor of The Office-Politics® Game a dilemma-based social game that teaches you how to play, and laugh, at office politics. It’s used by HR departments, and corporate trainers worldwide. The Office-Politics Dilemmas have been inspired by the hundreds of letters submitted to Office-Politics.com.

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