Leslie Meltzer Aronzon recalls her moment of embarrassment--and annoyance--well. It was right after she and four colleagues had been in an intense negotiating session with an important client. As they were walking along discussing their potential responses, the conversation came to a dead halt. Aronzon's co-workers had all veered off and disappeared into the men's room.
"I stood there and talked to the plant," said Aronzon, 31, an investment banker with Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin Inc. in West Los Angeles. "And when the guys came out of the restroom, they had decided what we should do."
For Aronzon, a woman in a mostly male profession, surviving on the periphery of the boys' club is a fact of life.
"A lot of guys in my office hang out together on weekends and share information. They even call each other with tips," she said. "They don't discriminate against me consciously, but they do discriminate."
Workplace cliques are perfectly natural and usually understandable, but inherently exclusive. And despite today's emphasis on diversity awareness, they are phenomena that corporate America cannot control.
It can be like high school all over again, except that at work, people break into cliques according to age, marital status, gender, race and position rather than looks, athletic ability and popularity with the opposite sex.
Still, cliques can affect you as deeply at the workplace as they did in high school, determining not only your lunch crowd and your access to gossip, but such critical matters as your assignments, promotions and salary. And unlike high school cliques, which mercifully disintegrate at graduation, office crowds don't meet such neat and convenient ends.
However, as an adult, you should have the advantage of a more mature perspective, says Eric Christensen, vice president of operations for Employee Support Systems Co. in Orange.
"You should develop a strong self-esteem based on your own achievements and qualifications rather than worrying about why you haven't been invited to join a certain clique," Christensen said. However, if you feel a clique is holding you back, you should present your concerns to its most senior member--and then, as a last resort, complain to the human resources department.
Karen Schneider, an assistant editor for the in-house magazine of a Los Angeles film company, never dreamed she'd "still be dealing with feeling left out of the 'in' clique at age 41."
"But I'm still looking over my shoulder, wondering why those people over there are always going out to lunch and not including me," she said.
Schneider is on the outskirts of the social scene at work because she doesn't have time for it after hours. "I'm married with children, and a lot of the younger people in my office don't have those responsibilities yet," she said. That realization helps Schneider take cliques less seriously than she might have 25 years ago.
"People," she said, "feel most comfortable with people like themselves."
However, problems occur when one person's comfort zone interferes with another person's right to equitable treatment.
For example, women and minorities may experience difficulty finding a mentor to foster their careers if upper management is composed largely of white men who prefer the company of other white men. On the flip side, because cliques often spring from common interests and backgrounds, ethnic groups can also be perceived as discriminating against outsiders.
"My best friends at work tend to be other people from Mexico," said Paul Muniz, 24, a claims processor for a Los Angeles insurance firm. "You see Latinos clustering together, Vietnamese people together, black people together."
Muniz and his friends often speak Spanish to one another because "we feel we can express ourselves better in Spanish," he said. "But I try to be careful not to overdo it, because sometimes people who don't speak Spanish think we're saying something important that they should be in on."
Elizabeth Winfree-Lydon, staff consultant for Los Angeles-based Employers Group, a consulting firm for human resources departments, said she is often contacted after employees complain that they feel left out by co-workers who hold private conversations in a foreign language. At one company she has consulted for, 15 languages are spoken by employees. The English-speaking "employees sometimes think others are talking about them behind their back," she said. "It's a sensitive issue."
Another common workplace situation that can create insecurity among employees occurs when a manager joins a clique of subordinates--leaving those on the outside to suspect favoritism.
Michael Burlant, now a broker for Cushman Realty Corp. in Century City, witnessed such bias while an attorney at a New York law firm. "It was very important to maintain a close relationship with the partners handing out the assignments because they dictated the quality of your professional life," said Burlant, 32. "It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's difficult to hone your skills if you're not given the type of work that will enable you to rise to the top."
Experts advise that, though it may mean loneliness at the top, supervisors avoid becoming too chummy with subordinates. "We encourage employers to create a level playing field at the workplace," said Christensen, the Orange consultant. "Socializing with subordinates might not be the best idea."