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Out With the "In"

If you want happy, harmonious employees, it's time to kick those workplace cliques to the curb.
April 1, 2004
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/69956

Without a doubt, you value your longtime employees. You know them, and they know you. When it comes down to it, your longtime employees are like family.

But families can be dysfunctional. New employees coming in can find there's an impenetrable "in" crowd: a close-knit group of longtime employees who have a clique, as well as the ear of management. "You can see which team members are together, who turns to whom, and who is left out," says Arlene Vernon, owner of HR and management consulting firm HRx Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

The office "in" crowd is a subtle but deadly threat to morale, productivity and retention. The exact cost of this problem is hard to quantify because employees don't raise the issue during exit interviews. After all, who wants to say they're leaving because they don't think they fit in?

Don't think the "in" crowd will be a problem for your teamwork-driven company? Think again. "It happens frequently and for a variety of reasons," says ArLyne Diamond, founder of management consulting firm Diamond Associates in Santa Clara, California. "We create [relationships] and then close in around them. We've done it since we were kids."

In the Clique of Things

A strong relationship between longtime employees is good for teamwork and productivity, but it goes too far when recent hires feel excluded, both socially and professionally. Eventually, they will find the nearest exit.

Tom Womack knows the feeling. When he took a job with a 15-employee ad agency in Texas a few years ago, he discovered there was a group of longtime employees who ate lunch together and banded together on the job. The "in" crowd brushed off Womack's ideas and kept him at arm's length. "[The attitude] was 'We've been here longer than you, and we're in charge,'" he says. The company owner-a "really nice guy"-turned his head the other way. "He didn't want to deal with the conflict," says Womack, who believes the "in" crowd can have a harsher impact in small companies. "If there's a clique of six employees in an office of 12 people, there's nowhere else to go for relationships," he says. He left the company within one year and joined another company where he feels "a lot more harmony" with his co-workers.

A powerful "in" crowd is the result of companies failing to integrate new employees into the mix, Diamond says, and solving it requires a strategic approach. Think about creating a "work buddies" training system that pairs longtimers with new hires so they get to know each other. Give longtimers incentives-small gifts, recognition and so on-for making the effort. Also make integration an element of your performance review process. This way, raises, bonuses and promotions are linked to how well all employees have welcomed, trained and worked with new hires. "You have to model it, mandate it and reinforce it," Diamond says. "It's got to be top down." You'll be less likely to lose good ideas and good people this way.

Sepideh Asefnia is founder and president of Sepi Engineering Group Inc., a Raleigh, North Carolina, engineering firm that specializes in transportation design. The company has grown from two to 32 employees in three years. Like most entrepreneurs, Asefnia's early hires were former co-workers. "Everyone I started out with is still here," she says.

Asefnia, 41, has experienced "in" crowds at other places she's worked, and she's taking steps to prevent one from developing in her workplace. She follows her own golden rule: Never vent about personnel issues to longtime employees, because it would send the wrong message to them and the company's recent hires. She makes a point of asking new employees for input and stops by their desks regularly to chat. As an entrepreneur, whatever you do sets a cultural norm, and your actions can fuel the "in" crowd. "You have to make an effort to create that cohesive team you're going to grow with," says Asefnia, whose company generated sales of $2 million in 2003.

Are You In or Out?

Be aware that department managers can be members of the "in" crowd, befriending other longtime employees on (and off) the clock. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see why this is bad for morale. Let the manager know just how damaging it is, and that you expect better interaction with employees. Tie managerial performance to the ability to create inclusiveness across the employee base. Ask employees to rate their managers on these abilities once a year, too.

Outing the "in" crowd is one of the most important things you'll ever do as a leader, because it sets the tone for your company's culture and future growth. And it all starts with you. Says Asefnia: "It boils down to leadership."