Ask a Boss: Am I the Office Mean Girl?

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Photo: John Waterman/Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I’m a junior faculty member in a department of about ten faculty, all of whom are on the tenure track. In order to create support for the amount of research and writing that is required for this, I started a small accountability/support group of four other junior faculty (including me) who all started around the same time, so we could help each other through the tenure evaluation process. Consequently, I happen to be good friends outside of the office with two of them. We’ve been to each other’s weddings, hang out on the weekends, visit each other’s offices often, and occasionally go to lunch during the week, etc.

Since then, we’ve hired two new faculty members. I have been a part of their training, have invited them to social functions, and told them about the group (and invited them to a meeting) as incentive for them to start their own group, but discouraged them, at least for the time being, from being in our group because they were hired two years after us, and therefore weren’t being evaluated for promotion and tenure at the same time. In fact, my department head agreed with this, saying that they needed to focus more on learning the ins and outs of the job instead of worrying about a research agenda at that point. I should also note that there are other more senior faculty who are not in this group because they’ve already gone through the tenure evaluation process themselves.

So, they’ve been here for about six months, and I have tried not to be cliquish. I do my best to include them in certain work decisions, I treat them with the same kindness (I hope!) that I give my other colleagues, and we even see each other often at nonwork social functions (e.g., dinner at someone’s house), but I don’t consider them friends outside work because I just don’t get along with them on a personal level as easily as I do with other co-workers. Regardless, one of these new faculty members has made passive-aggressive comments in department meetings, questioning our ability to do our work well and implying that we’re exclusive, but closing up when we try to get her to explain what she means. I’m afraid this will be damaging to our open, collaborative, and team-based environment.

Is it possible to be colleagues with someone, and not offend them by not being personal friends with them? Is my personal bias toward my friends affecting my workplace behavior? I am worried (annoyed, maybe) that I’ve been perceived as a “mean girl,” but more so concerned that I’m somehow affecting the group dynamic that is so important to our department. Are there other things I can do to reassure these new colleagues that I respect them as professionals, while simultaneously not having them perceive me as exclusive?

Oof. It is indeed possible — normal, even — to have warm, amicable relationships with colleagues without being obligated to be personal friends outside of work. In fact, that’s the more typical setup for work relationships. It’s also completely normal to click more with some co-workers than with others and to form real, out-of-work friendships with some people while not wanting to make that shift with others. It’s not realistic to expect that everyone will form the same bonds with everyone else on a ten-person team, and it’s unfair to make people feel guilty for having better rapport with some colleagues than with others.

It also sounds like you have perfectly legitimate reasons for how you’ve structured your tenure support group — reasons that were about work and timing, not personalities or liking some people better than others.

So in one sense, assuming that your self-assessment that you’re inclusive and kind at work is indeed accurate, your co-worker isn’t being reasonable.

But on the other hand, I can imagine how it could burn to feel excluded from a work group that clearly has afforded its participants relationship-building opportunities that others haven’t had access to. That doesn’t make it wrong or unfair — just something to factor into your thinking about where your colleague might be coming from.

It’s also worth thinking about what the work environment is really like for other people. Is it possible that the out-of-work friendships mean that you treat people differently at work in ways that matter beyond what’s merely social? For example, if your work friends are always your first choice for collaborations even when someone else makes more professional sense, or if you promote their work when you don’t promote other people’s, or if you act as a resource for them in a way that you don’t for others, those are all things that will make people feel like they’re on the outside of a clique, no matter how generally kind you are to them.

That said, even if those things are happening, your co-worker isn’t behaving reasonably. Making passive-aggressive comments in meetings, questioning your ability to do your work, and refusing to talk about what her accusations mean are all terrible ways of responding to this. In fact, if anyone is behaving like a mean girl here, it might be her. And that sucks, because the fact that her behavior is so over the line means that it’s hard to know whether she’s raising legitimate issues or whether she’s just a difficult person. Because of that, it might be worth talking to other co-workers outside of your tenure group to get a better feel for what they think. Maybe no one else cares, which would be useful to know. But let’s say for the sake of argument that yeah, other people do feel a little excluded and, while they’re not making the huge deal of it that your other colleague is, it does impact the atmosphere they’re working in.

If that’s the case, then you might think about making a particular effort to change that dynamic. To start, it’s probably worth asking yourself why you don’t click on a personal level with the newer co-workers as much as you do with the people who were in your tenure group. It’s certainly possible that’s just coincidence, but it’s at least as likely that it’s more a function of exposure — that spending more time with the tenure group and getting to know them better through that work has led to a higher comfort level and closeness with each other. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s a normal thing that tends to happen when you work closely with people. But it might be useful to see the relationships through that framework rather than assuming it’s more random.

From there, depending on how much energy you’re willing to invest, you could take a more active role in helping set up a tenure group for your newer co-workers, including going to their first meeting or two and sharing your own experiences … invite some of them to lunch on occasion … include them when you’re making outside-of-work social plans with the co-workers you’re closer to … and/or make a point of getting to know them more in a professional context (what they’re working on, what commonalities it might have with your own professional interests, etc. — some of the stuff that you’ve probably explored naturally with the colleagues you’re closer to).

I want to be clear that you don’t have to do any of this; you’re allowed to make whatever choices you want to about social relationships, and you’re allowed to be closer to some people than others. Those things aren’t terrible outrages; they’re normal parts of working life, and you can be a perfectly good person and good co-worker without taking any of the actions I’ve suggested. But because you’re concerned about the group dynamic, this stuff would probably help melt down any divide people are feeling.