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Part II: The clique makes me feel like I’m in high school

Dear Office-Politics,

I am an attorney — specifically, a prosecutor. My problem is that there is a dominant clique in my workplace, and I have been regularly excluded (implicitly and expressly) from social events. I feel as though I’m in high school again, and my co-workers have formed an exclusionary clique comprised of only the “cool” kids.

It all began when another co-worker attorney — a temporary employee who I’ll call “Tad” — began making comments behind my back. I was a new attorney (hired permanently) and his office was next to mine. On my first day I stopped by to introduce myself to Tad. He was not friendly, but cold, distant, and apparently annoyed. I got the sense that he was jealous, because I was a permanent hire and that he was not (and he was leaving soon, without another job lined up). Unfortunately, the following week, when my supervisor went out of town for a week, guess who was put “in charge” of our team? Tad. Which is bizarre, but not surprising: my supervisor, a former Marine, strictly adhered to seniority. Among the 12 or so attorneys on my team, all had been there less than a year — except for Tad, who, despite being fresh out of law school and a temporary employee, had senior status.

While Tad was “in charge,” I had taken 2 days off from work (pre-approved by my supervisor) for the purpose of completing my move from another city. So I asked some of my co-workers, including Tad, to cover my court appearances while I was gone. When the supervisor returned, I was called into his office. Tad had reported to him that I was not a “team player”! The supervisor didn’t know the specifics — but he urged me to “make amends” with my co-workers. So I tried to do that. When I privately met with Tad, he swallowed hard, stammered, and seemed shocked that the supervisor had passed along his complaint to me! He finally explained that the problem was that I had burdened my co-workers with extra work, and that I should have returned the favor by volunteering to take on some of their work. One of the co-workers said much the same; the remaining half dozen or so others that I met with denied having any problem with me. This tit-for-tat attitude struck me as immature — I mean, we all eventually ask people for favors at work. But I handled it as diplomatically as I could — Tad assurred me he was my “friend” — and I thought I had put it behind me.

I soon realized that, for reasons that still escape me, Tad was popular with my fellow attorneys and one of the organizers of the Friday night “happy hours.” I couldn’t understand why people liked Tad; he was arrogant, and he habitually talked about people behind their backs. Tad left a few weeks later, but I soon found that my co-workers, while otherwise polite, weren’t inviting me to their lunch gatherings. And I was being excluded not only from from happy hours, but also other social events. I tried to join a flag football team, only to be humiliated by the team captain, who circulated an email in which he questioned my physical shape and suggested that I practice by having my grandmother throw footballs at me. Now, I can take a joke, but it struck me as mean-spirited. I sensed that I was disliked, and I could only assume that Tad had been behind it, and that his efforts to discredit me had survived even after his departure.

At first, I swallowed my pride. I wasn’t included on emails that announced the locations for happy hour, but I went out of my way to find out where they were anyway. I tried to be friendly at the happy hours — but most (though not all) of my co-workers seemed standoffish. I’m a bit older (by about 10-15 years than most of the attorneys) and I’m sure that has something to do with it, though obviously it’s not the whole story. I’ve noticed that the older attorneys in the office (except for those who are supervisors) also appear to be excluded from these events, and they’ve confessed to me to feeling excluded, too. The exclusion seems so childish. I’m a sociable person. I’m not married; I don’t have a family life that would otherwise take me away from social events at work. I’d never had this problem before; I’d always been friendly, if not friends, with my co-workers. Some of my fondest memories are of shared times with co-workers. My isolation especially bothers me because I’m in a new city. Initially, I had not made any friends yet, and here I was being excluded from my only available social network.

The last straw came about four months later when a going away “pizza” party was held for a co-worker with whom I had developed a bond of sorts. Emails were sent and announcements were posted about the event. I showed up with the departing co-worker and announced, “Boy, am I hungry!” And someone replied, “Uh, I hope we have enough pizza.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And then a couple of people explained that only attorneys in the departing co-worker’s team were invited. (I recently had transferred to another team.) Of course, the announcements and the emails sent to everybody made no such distinction! So, I and a couple of others (who, like me, were no longer on the team) filed out of the party room. Somebody (feeling guilty) called out after us: “I don’t know how you guys could walk away from the aroma of a warm pizza,” but we didn’t feel welcome and kept walking. Later, the organizer left a note on my chair, apologizing. I told her I didn’t take it personally. After all, I wasn’t the only one treated that way. But it confirmed for me that, despite the fact that I had worked alongside these co-workers for four months, I had not made any friends or even allies among my immediate co-workers.

The isolation continues and I have resigned myself to the fact that work will never be a place for social contacts. Nevertheless, I feel very uncomfortable when I see co-workers trudging off to lunch or happy hour together in groups, filing past my door, with no one bothering to invite me. This is where I wanted to have my lifetime career as a prosecutor. It’s a wonderful city, a couple of hours from my parents and siblings. If I go to another prosecutor’s office in a big city, it would mean moving to another city far away, likely out of state.

One sympathetic friend suggested that I just throw a party and invite everyone at work, and see if that clears the air. But I’m afraid no one would show up! Pitiful, isn’t it? Any constructive ideas, or am I doomed to work in a place where I feel like an outsider?


A prosecutor who stands alone

Follow-up Letter from Prosecutor:

We received a follow-up letter from the Prosecutor which disclosed some key facts: his wife had died recently, he wondered if he was radiating unhappiness and therefore people were not attracted to him, and he felt he was lacking confidence. He also observed that he was more comfortable with the paralegals because they were not arrogant (like his fellow attorneys).

franke james

Dear Prosecutor,

I’m glad that you have written into Office-Politics and I hope that Julie’s Fleming-Brown’s reply and mine can offer you some helpful ideas that you can put into action.

First, let me express my condolences on your wife’s passing and also thank you for sharing that sad news with us. Her death is a critical fact in your life and presents challenges for you in adapting to your new job.

You don’t mention it in your letter but I am struck by this fact: Not only have you moved to a new city, but you’ve also gone from being married, to being single. You’ve lost your identity as one half of a ‘couple’. That demands a big readjustment. From reading your letter, and your follow up letter, I’m seeing you as a person who is looking for friendship at work, and is very disappointed that he is getting rebuffed.

Julie covered a lot of territory in her reply to you. In my response, I’m going to approach this from a different angle. The history of hurts and slights that you’ve disclosed is important, but it’s old news. From the sounds of it you’re a super bright guy. You can’t waste time nursing old wounds. I want to devise a way for you to turn this around and start attracting people to you.

Sounds impossible, right?

1. Stop seeking friends at work and go for respect

The clique that has rejected you is comprised of attorneys who are 10 to 15 years younger than you. You have not told me your age, but assuming that your colleagues studied at university, attended law school, and articled, they are between 25 and 30 years old. Which puts you somewhere in your 40’s. To them you may be the ‘old guy’. You’ve described them as cocky and arrogant. I would add the word immature. You have an extra 15 years of life experience. Maybe a decade ago you were cocky too? But life has dealt you some tough blows and you sound like a genuinely compassionate guy. Give your young colleagues a few years and they may be kicking themselves for their treatment of you.

But don’t hold your breath. You need to let go of the desire to have these young ‘sharks’ as friends. What you can and should strive for is respect. Don’t try to socialize with them. They will come to you when they sense your power.

2. Develop Personal Power

You’re probably shaking your head now saying, “That Franke James is crazy. Personal power? I’m writing to her because I’m being ostracized and she’s talking about power?”

Yep. Power. Don’t laugh… Being middle-aged and a professional lawyer has some advantages over those younger colleagues. You’ve got 15 years on them of rich life and legal experiences. You’ve been around the block lots of times and learned tons. That is your big advantage over them. Mistakes that you can see coming from a mile away and sidestep, can knock these guys to the floor. Of course they are cocky right now. But they’ll get walloped. It’s just a matter of time.

3. By Giving, You Get

So how can you develop this personal power? By giving, you get.

From your letter (specifically the comment regarding the paralegals) I can see that your natural demeanor is to be quiet, supportive and helpful. That generosity of spirit can be the source of your power.

You have something that your younger colleagues can benefit from. Experience. I want you to think of a way to share that wealth of experience, that knowledge.

Now if you try to give any of these young guys ‘pointers and tips’ they’ll likely bite your head off or laugh in your face. So you can’t do it directly.

You need to share knowledge quietly and in your own way and time. What is the precise method that you will be most comfortable with? I can’t tell you that but I can suggest some vehicles. You can share your knowledge by writing for legal journals, for community newspapers – even writing a blog. If you did this you would raise your own level of confidence – and you may attract opportunities at a national or international level. Raise your sights. You have much bigger fish to fry than these annoying ‘minnows’ who act like sharks.

4. Project Your Voice

KC Johnson is a brilliant example of a New York City history professor who raised his profile by sharing his knowledge on a legal case. KC was an unknown when he decided to follow the infamous Duke trial. Slate Magazine now writes about him — “Johnson alone has produced more insightful (if sometimes one-sided) analysis and commentary on the Duke case-about 60,000 words-than all the nation’s newspapers combined.” Visit his site for some inspiration in how important it is to use your voice! You can also visit Office-Politics adviser Arnie Herz’s site, www.legalsanity.com for another approach to lawyers sharing knowledge. And of course Julie Fleming-Brown’s Life at the Bar is another example. But there are tons of lawyers out there blogging every day. Start looking and you’ll be amazed at the diversity.

So, you’re not KC Johnson, Arnie Herz or Julie Fleming-Brown, but you are a lawyer and I’m going to guess have many opinions on cases in the news. If you were to start writing about your opinions – and many lawyers do that in order to promote themselves – you could raise your profile very quickly. People are attracted to power and success. If your young minnows notice you being written up or quoted, they might not be your friend, but you can bet they would give you more respect. Everybody in your circle would give you more respect.

Now maybe you’re thinking of reasons why this won’t work… Maybe you don’t want to write about legal cases in the news. Could you share any tips you’ve learned in your career? Ambitious lawyers across the country may want to read them. Think of the entire country as your audience – not just your immediate colleagues. (We know you’re a decent writer so you have the communication skills to do this.)

Perhaps you’re arguing back to me (prosecutors are excellent at verbal battles) that you don’t want to write about the law. Fine. Just write about anything that you are passionate about. Are you passionate about the environment, art, music, cooking?

Showing off your knowledge and interests in this way will widen your network of friends, raise your profile, and open doors you can’t even imagine now. You have the opportunity to become an influencer by sharing your knowledge. (And even if you don’t become a top blog destination, law journal contributor, community advocate, etc. you will have joined a conversation that will be intellectually stimulating.)

The core idea here is to bring your intellectual ideas out into the open so that more people can know about you and learn from you. The exact vehicle you use is up to you. Find a way to project your voice.

5. Your Physical Presence

I haven’t met you. I don’t know if you are short, tall, skinny or fat. But I do know – based on the jibe about playing catch with your grandmother, that your coworkers don’t see you as athletic. Does being out of shape hurt your chances to radiate power?

It could, but it’s a fairly easy thing to fix (it’s not like we have to raise your I.Q. which would be a lot more challenging…). I think paying attention to your physical presence could reap rich rewards for you. The image you project comes from your style of dress, your haircut, your posture and your body shape. First I would focus on your physical shape. Do you exercise regularly? Even a 30 minute walk a day can tone your body, strengthen your heart, give you a psychological lift and be a stress reducer. If you’re already doing this – good for you! Keep it up. And if you’re not getting daily exercise, I would urge you to adopt it. You will radiate more confidence and positive energy if you do. The Ancient Greeks wrote about the link between a strong mind and a strong body, and I think they were absolutely right.

Consider hiring an image consultant. If you balk at that and say you’re not going to change the way you dress just so you can make some friends… I’d say fine. But you’re missing out on an easy way to make your new self-confidence visible to the world at large.

If you do get an image coach have them assist you in your total image – from casual dress through to business dress. Even if you don’t have the budget right now to buy a whole new wardrobe, a few key purchases each season will freshen your look and draw compliments from others.

6. Socialize and Discover your New City

Make friends outside of work that are in sync with your interests – whether that is art, music, films, books…. Whatever. Join clubs to get to know new people and discover your new city. Those new friends can feed your soul with new ideas and hopefully give you the friendly warmth you need.

I hope that these six tips will help you to discover your inner power. There are many fine books which could help you to explore these ideas more fully. Two that could be helpful to you are Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits, and an old classic by Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Some people find Carnegie outdated, but please keep an open mind as he’s got some valuable advice that could really help you.

Please let us know how things work out. Thanks very much 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.

  1. 3 Answers to “Part II: The clique makes me feel like I’m in high school”

  2. Feedback from Prosecutor:

    Franke and Julie,

    Thank you both for your prompt and intelligent responses to my inquiry. And thanks for your sympathy about my wife’s death — it has been a critical factor in my life. Anyway, your ideas are creative and very helpful, but will, of course, depend on my follow through.

    When I found your website, it felt good to get what had been bothering me off my chest. But I don’t want you to think that I’m overwhelmed by this issue, and that it dominates my life. Nevertheless, you have asked a good question: Why do I want to be friends with these people? I have a complete life; why do I crave to be accepted by my younger colleagues?

    My dilemma is that, although I’m 46, I’m single — and that is one thing that I have in common with the younger “happy hour” crowd at my work. Maybe this is a bit of a mid-life crisis, but, really, I am single and in the need of company of other singles. And they’re not so easy to find when you’re in your 40s. Also, it’s a tribal thing. I love my job as a prosecutor, and I want, of course, to be accepted by others in my “tribe.” I guess I really miss the camaraderie that I enjoyed at my other workplaces; it’s helps make a difficult, time-consuming job more satisfying.

    Julie is correct that the maturity of my colleagues — and what she describes as a lack of “social grace” — is a major factor at play here. I don’t think my colleagues are malicious — but I do believe they are insensitive, and I’m astonished by their level of it. But they are young — some at least 20 years my junior — and when I think back to my own behavior when I was their age, I find it very easy to understand and forgive and to be more positive about the events. By the way, I didn’t mean to suggest that all of them are bad — some of the young attorneys are wonderful people! They’re kind and genuine. Unfortunately, the two or three persons who do the social organizing, who control the emails and send out the invitations, are cocky and, at least to me, not as wonderful.

    Which brings me to Julie’s idea of appreciative inquiry. Actually, I have striven to be positive about events at work. I’ve had my share of cognitive/rational therapy over the years, and I understand that how we perceive a situation subjectively often overwhelms the objective reality. When some people might have just given up, I tried to look at the bright side. For example, I swallowed my pride and went to happy hours even when I wasn’t invited to them, and I joined the office softball team this summer. I think some of my colleagues understood me better, because they had an opportunity to hang out with me after games. Unfortunately, the two or three who are the organizers of events have not completely welcomed me into their fold. I am certain that the age barrier is the chief issue here.

    I have made some efforts to build a social group with older persons in my office. I have lunch with them occasionally, and I do converse with them. But, with few exceptions, they have families, have settled down, and are not the type to socialize after work. I’ll be blunt: they don’t have fun like my younger colleagues do! I know Julie essentially suggested that I temper my desire to be with them, and find balance with friends outside work. I’ve done that, but it took a great deal of effort. My experience is that, when moving to a new city and starting a new job, the easiest way to make friends is to find them at work.

    Franke suggested that I consider what I could do to improve my “physical presence.” I honestly don’t need work in that respect. I’m tall (about 6-4), physically fit, I dress tastefully, and friends describe me as handsome. And I look pretty young for my age — at least that’s what people tell me. But — and this is the key — I’m still 20 years older than my younger colleagues, and they know it. (The incident involving the flag football, I think, was an attempt to put an “old man” in his place, and it’s telling that people who teased me were college-level athletes, mostly in football.) One sympathetic, older colleague suggested that my younger colleagues are probably intimidated not so much by my age, but by my experience. Perhaps so, but these are Harvard and Yale types. They’ve got abundant confidence, overly so.

    I think Franke’s advice that I should strive for respect is sensible, and something I will pursue as a solution to my problem. Personally, though, while I wouldn’t mind the respect that comes from getting published in a law journal, the process of writing an article isn’t very fun! I have creative pursuits — poetry and art — that I love, and they are far more gratifying than law. Frankly, I’d rather get published in a poetry journal than a law review. I wish my colleagues knew this side of me. (For example, I recently produced a charity poetry reading, but no one at work, except for my supervisor and one or two legal assistants, knew about it.) But I am a private person, and so maybe this is a choice I’ve made.

    Thank you for the advice you’ve both given me. I’ll contact you again and let you know how things have improved.

    By Letter writer on Nov 5, 2007

  3. When I read “A prosecutor who stands alone” ‘s letter, I felt that 95% of it matched my own experience at my current job. I am in the research dept. of an East Coast Investment Banking firm, and these are also Ivy League – 6 figure income types. I could have written this: “The isolation continues and I have resigned myself to the fact that work will never be a place for social contacts. Nevertheless, I feel very uncomfortable when I see co-workers trudging off to lunch or happy hour together in groups, filing past my door, with no one bothering to invite me. ” Believe me, I have never had this problem since I was in high school, which was 28 years ago. When I realized that Prosecutor was a man, it added a twist to the story — I am a woman, and in my workplace, you actually can get into the “clique” if you are in your 40s and 50s, but only if you are male. The clique is pretty much organized by a few debutante types, and includes every single male in the department but only 20-somethiing females. Three of us women over 40 are never included. Two of us are unmarried with no children, so it’s not like family commitments are preventing us from having the time to go out with the clique. I found the behavior rude for years, and I probably should have sought a job elsewhere, because now, after 6 years of being treated like this, I now suspect there is something really wrong with me that I can’t see but that all these other people can. The days when I never thought twice about being included in the group hae become a very distant memory.

    By bobby on Feb 15, 2008

  4. You’re not alone and it’s not just because you both have executive jobs and work with ivy league graduates. I work for a general contractor; most co-workers have a high school diploma with a few of us who have college degrees. The company has mostly men who are generally out in the field with only 3 women who work in the office who handle accounting, of which I am one. There is clearly a clique in my company too. I’m basically the same age as the Prosecutor. There’s only one female of the clique who is 10 years younger than me. A couple of times she made it clear when I began that I shouldn’t be invited when one of the guys from the clique suggested that I join them after work for drinks. My husband thinks it’s because she is threatened by me. His blunt words were, “she’s homely and you’re hot.” He said she doesn’t want to share the attention. The clique is made up of married men, accept one divorced his wife and is now with the homely ring leader. To make matters worse the owner of this company is socially friendly with the majority of this clique. Recently, a new married manager joined the company and he was allowed to join the clique. I seriously don’t understand why this goes on. I’d get it if it were just the guys wanting to hang out after work or to grab lunch. Just like the Prosecutor and Bobby, I always had work friends to go to lunch with or go to happy hour with. And like Bobby I feel just like her that after 5 years of being treated like this that there must be something wrong with me that I’m not seeing and these other people can. So early on I tried extending my friendship to the other woman in the office and she just didn’t bite. It seems that she has her set working relationship and rare occasional outing with ‘homely girl’ and I’m just on the out. And I might add that the owner holds ‘homely girl’ in very high regard and she gets compensated highly every year (way above average). The only other thing I can think to add is that a co-worker shared privately with me is, “don’t worry about her, she always makes sure she gets hers.” Maybe I’m too naive about something that is going on because I just don’t get it. I’m a nice person and I’m worth knowing. I don’t know about Bobby because she didn’t say, but given the mental picture of the Prosecutor he will probably agree that it is sometimes a disadvantage to be more attractive than the ‘average bear’, if you will. Then you add experience and the fact that you look younger than you are (or younger than someone else is because they’re unattractive)…perhaps it does just boil down to jealousy; and, if so I’m not sure how to combat that, other than to try to pretend that not being invited doesn’t bother me.

    By Aggie on Jul 25, 2013

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