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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

trouble fitting in with coworkers

A reader writes:

I have been working at a software company for a little over a year now. I like the company, we produce a product which I like, the mission statement is very focused on making a difference in education, and the culture of the overall company is very relaxed and employee centered (jeans and free lunch!). In addition to this, we continue to profit and grow despite the awful economy. The pay is decent and I see opportunities for advancement.

That said, I don't feel like I fit in with my department. When I first started, I was very eager to fit in, work hard and succeed within the organization. Most of the people in the company seemed normal and nice as I met them, but I noticed that the people in my department seemed.....odd. Some of them didn't make eye contact or return greetings, others had loud, overly casual ways of speaking and acting (bodily function jokes, casual swearing). As I worked more within my department and ate lunch with these folks, I noticed more behaviors that I didn't know how to respond to. More sexual/sexist jokes and comments (mostly by women), gruff and/or condescending tones of voice, moody personalities, trash talking of other departments, political bickering, etc (one guy even sent racist jokes to me). I even heard a couple people talk about how us newer folks were getting paid too much. Much of the more crass behavior was by only certain individuals, but overall the culture seems weird and unprofessional to me. Some of the quieter ones are real quiet and nervous around me. The director of my department is very hands off, and seems depressed and is sometimes very moody. Some of the people are fine, but I just don't have much in common as far as interests or worldview.

The department is very close (they often each lunch and socialize together) and when I try to talk to them casually or at company events, I feel like an outsider. Most of them are close to my age (mid 20's to early 30's), but many of them talk about pretty boring stuff or are of the unprofessional type described previously.

As a result of all this, I stopped eating lunch with these folks and I don't really socialize with them outside of work. When I try to, I still really feel like an outsider. I want to move up to something more at my level professionally (it's pretty entry level, this is my first job out of grad school) and get out of my department as soon as I can, but am I hurting my career by not eating with these folks or socializing with them? Some of the most unprofessional are moving up the most in my department! The department director said during my interview that he likes people who see the job as "more than a job" and that the department is very close, so I have the impression that hanging out with my coworkers is expected. I can't stand eating with them and I would not want to spend time outside of work with most of them.

Well, wanting to spend time with them outside of work or sharing common interests isn't really the right litmus test for whether they're good coworkers. If you find yourself in a job where you do, you're really lucky -- most people don't find that. It's a bonus, not something you should expect.

Some of the behaviors you described are things that are truly unacceptable in the workplace (racist jokes), but a lot of them are things that you're likely to find almost anywhere you go: gruff tones of voice, moodiness, shy people who don't make eye contact, people you just can't relate to, and, in most places, casual swearing.

Please don't ignore the racist jokes. Tell the perpetrator you don't see humor in it, and if he persists, talk to your boss or HR department, because not only is he offensive, but he's almost certainly violating a company policy (as well as possibly harassment law, depending on the details).

But for the other stuff -- well, this is the work world. You'll probably be working with a lot of people you don't really click with your entire life.

On the question of whether you're hurting your career by not eating lunch with them -- it depends. Some workplaces -- but not most -- do have cultures where that's expected. I don't think you should feel pressured to eat with them all the time, but it wouldn't kill you to join them occasionally -- and if you go into it with an open mind, you might find that it helps you. Having good relationships with your coworkers can make it easier to get things done (because conversations are easier/more efficient when you have a comfort level with each other, people are more likely to go out of their way to help you out, etc.). You may also be part of work-related discussions over lunch that are useful to you.

I don't think you should feel obligated to socialize with them outside of the work day, but it's reasonable to attend the occasional office happy hour. I mean, you don't need to go camping with these people, but an hour for drinks after work? Do it from time to time, for the same reasons as the occasional lunch.

You don't need to be best friends with your coworkers, but I think you'll be happier if you let your guard down a bit.

Do your work well, maintain pleasant (not BFF) relationships with your colleagues, and you'll be fine.


Rebecca said...

I can sort of relate. I'm a tomboy and a nerd queen, and my first job out of college was working with women whose entire lives (as far as I could tell from nonwork conversation) revolved around television and purses. I wish I could tell you that I came up with a great way to deal with it and it got better, but... it only got better when some of them left and some new people (who happened to have broader interests) were hired.

Sometimes you can't win. If you can stomach faking it once a week or so, that'd probably be good for politics, but I can't blame you if you don't. I couldn't.

a. brown said...

I worked with people I had nothing in common with for a while, and I swear, TV, if you can find a show that doesn't disgust you, is the best way to build rapport where you think there isn't any. All you have to do is say, "Did you see Lost last night?" and suddenly the tension is gone. It also works with my student employees. The words "Lost" and "Taco Bell" are magic.

jmkenrick said...

I agree with a. brown: when you have to work with people you don't click with, for me the best route is to find something (anything) relatively safe that you can bond over.

Movies, books and TV shows are a great way to do this – or strange news events, like the story of balloon boy. The one that works best for me though, perhaps because I’m young, and this tactic transcends media generational gaps (unlike Seinfeld, which my bosses love, but I’ve never seen) is to share funny sibling/family stories.

Anonymous said...

It's one thing to have nothing in common with your peers. It's another altogether to be high minded in relation to them.

That describes exactly the tone I gleaned from the questioner's post.

In order to be successful in management it is imperative that you abandon this "well I'm up here, and they're down there" mentality that you likely picked up during your stint in academia, where it runs rampant.

As others said, in the corporate world you may be thrown together with others you couldn't possibly socialize with outside of work. But it's your job to get along with them, within legal bounds of course. In a few years, if you play your cards right, it will be your job to manage people "like them."

Anonymous said...

is there a possibility that your negative feelings about your co-workers are coming through when you interact with them? one thing that comes through your post is that you, rightly or not, seem to feel like you are better than your co-workers.

Anonymous said...

I could be wrong, but my hunch is that the OP is a woman in an office of mostly men. (At least, among the junior people.)

I was in this spot a few years back. I was somewhat weirded out by the frequency of politically incorrect jokes and swearing. It didn't seem professional to me, but it *was* the culture among the junior people, and it was clearly all in good fun. I just wasn't sure how to fit in. One day, instead of listening quietly I joined in, only I said something REALLY misogynist. Something way way more misogynist than any of the guys would have dared to say at work, even without the senior people around. There was a momentary stunned silence, but after that I was one of the gang. I'd figured out how to play the game.

So, OP, if you are reading, if your issue is about the junior culture, consider playing the game a few times. Once, actually, may be enough. It may break the ice.

Anonymous said...

What you are experiencing is classic codependency behavior. I could be way off base, but take a look at any ACA (adult child of alcoholic) website for information. I'm not suggesting per se that anyone in your department is codependent or has an alcoholic family background--I'm just saying the behaviors that have been culturally adopted (perhaps years and years ago)align.
Looking down your nose at the behaviors won't help you. Understanding codependency behaviors and healthy responses will. "Playing the game" as directly or indirectly suggested by so many of these posts IMHO just feeds the flames.

Zog said...

I can relate- most of my interests are so far removed from what "normal" people like, that I often feel like an outsider.

But, you know what I found? I was feeling like an outsider weirdo because I was assuming that people saw me as one. Usually, once I opened up and they found out about my interests, it was a jumping off point for new topics and gave me a chance to teach.

Work is work- its kinda idealistic to think you should be bonding with these people just because you share an employer.

And, sometimes for me, its nice to turn off my brain and have a totally meaningless conversation with people who I generally wouldn't associate with on my own.

Anonymous said...

OP here.

Nope, I'm a guy.

Although I have learned to relax and not care if I fit in in my department, it's still kinda weird around here sometimes.

I have stopped to think that maybe I am looking down at my coworkers, and I have been guilty of that in the past with people and I try not to do that anymore. I tried to relate and fit in early on (before I could form an opinion of anyone even if I did think I was better than them) and when I tried I just hit a wall with almost everyone. I didn't try too hard, I just sat with these folks at lunch, made small talk, listened to conversations, etc. People shyed away before I had the chance to offend anyone or make them think I was looking down on them. Most days I would walk in, greet anyone I saw with a smile and normal greeting, and get down to business.

It has gotten better, people who used to bristle/stumble/avoid at my attempts at basic "hey, how was your weekend" talk now at least try to be polite. And the more obnoxious ones have cooled down a bit.

I do think that this is more the insecurity/idiosyncrasies of these folks in my department than anything else. Some of them are also very critical or negative, which is just a conversation killer. When I talk to most others in the company, it goes just fine, so I don't think it's me.

I'm not really concerned with people liking me or making friends so much as I am concerned that this lack of fitting in might cost me some opportunities. I have taken to eating lunch with other people in the company and socializing with them at company parties.

As for playing along, I can crack wise with the best of em, but I don't know how to joke around with people on my team who use the term c*m dumpster loudly and in front of the team lead.

Oh well, it's a lot better now, and I can just keep on keepin' on until a new opportunity comes up.


Marsha Keeffer said...

This is tough because social is such a big part of work. I'd say @a.brown is on to something. TV, a movie or song - even dinner - try to find some common ground. If not, start looking.

Julie said...

There's nothing more obvious, or more off-putting, than a person who thinks he's better than you are... even if he's "trying" not to do that anymore.

And I would ask the OP what exactly is it that makes one person "better" than another? (He seems to imply it's education.)

I think the group's "idiosyncracies/ insecurities" are more likely the collective sense of being condescended to.

Anonymous said...

Julie -

I meant that when I was younger, I thought I was "cooler" than everyone else. This was in high school and college. I don't think like that anymore and I do my best to treat everyone with respect, just like any other adult would.

I've never lorded my education over anyone. When I started I had no idea what the education level was of anyone. If anything, I had a few of the more technical members of my team talk down to me when I first started. That was mentioned in my original post.

When I first started, I would just introduce myself the first time I met them and then say hi to them each time I walked past. Some people would either give me a weird look and say nothing, or they would look down to avoid eye contact altogether. If I asked questions of people, some folks would ignore me, or act very impatient and disturbed. This didn't happen with everyone in my dept, but it seemed to happen somewhat often, and it didn't happen at all with people from other departments.

That being said, it has gotten better. I just kept being nice and pleasant and helpful and nearly everyone treats me fine, but I am still not really friends with anyone. I am okay with that, but I hope it doesn't affect my career.

Lorraine in Dallas said...

How many people are in your department? Are you saying that you find none of them acceptable? Is there no one with whom you'd like to spend any time? I'd suggest that either you should look for a new job, look to youself to see if you are part of the problem, or find techniques for dealing with these energy vampires so that they can't drain you of your energy. Are you familiar with the Energy Vampire Slayer? I don't know his name, but he's a trainer who is EXCELLENT for helping you deal with the obnoxious people you're describing. (I went to a seminar of his about four years ago, and still use his scripts.) So, seek a new job, seek a psychologist for an eval, or seek out this man's website on Google. You can't just do nothing!

Anonymous said...

I have experienced way more types of unprofessional work relationships than my share. I've been in the force for 15 years and I wouldn't say it is necessarily being uppity or high minded to ponder at people who ( in my cases) outright refuse to do work, screamed at everybody, constantly argued with others, some who wouldn't give you any kind of straight answer, or purposely tried to obstruct you from doing your work by nefarious means, such as withholding crucial information, to ensure your failure and ( I guess in their minds) make them look better.

I suppose I became one of the "quiet" ones and started to avoid. However, I knew that wouldn't work well, so I decided that worrying too much about what other people did wasn't worth it. I could control what I did and so when I put in my face time with these types, I would interact with them professionally and respectfully as I would with anyone. I thought, as long as I did my work and did it well, no problem.

It seemed like a reasonable strategy, but it didn't work either. Co- workers like you even less when you play it straight and several times I was laid off just when I felt my work was showing positive results to the boss. So what does this mean? When it comes to keeping your job, is it more important that you join in and play the games (the nasty types, not the normal politics) than it is to do a good job? One boss told me I was doing great, then a month later laid me off and said "I told you you had to get along with them".

Am I getting completely jaded, or do bosses just not care if you do a good job, just that you play office politics?

Wits End

Eamon in Fargo said...

I know The Energy Vampire Slayer guy--Dan O'Connor-- If you can't use the strategies, tips, and techniques he gives you right on his website for dealing with difficult people in the workplace, you aren't trying. You don't have to be rude or dismissive--or obsequious. He says you simply have to be assertive, and he'll give you tactics and scripts that work in every situation you can imagine. I had him in Albuquerque about two years ago--onsite He is the greatest. No theory, just tactical scripts for effective communication, and dealing with energy vampires. And if YOU'RE the energy vampire, he'll help with that too. He's also the funniest guy I've ever seen. But that's beside the point.

Rebecca said...

It's hilarious that people are still calling the OP a snob! Whatsamatter, OP, you don't LOVE working with people who throw racist jokes, sexist jokes, public sniping about salaries, and the phrase "cum dumpster" around the office?

I know I'd be uncomfortable and at a loss for how to interact in that kind of work environment... so I guess I'm a snob too!

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
I work in a similar environment (software sales, I do Microsoft sales operations at our corporate HQ), and I’ve had the same types of issues. I was 25 when I started and didn’t have much “real world” work experience, and I felt like many of my new colleagues immediately judged me and basically wrote me off because I was much younger – most of my coworkers are in their mid 30’s or older. We do have a few of the loud, offensive, and often inappropriate types that you mentioned…. I think you’ll find them in every workplace. Others just weren’t friendly AT ALL, I mean they wouldn’t even make eye contact or say hello when we passed each other in the hallways (and many still don’t, even after 4 years of working together). At some point I just stopped caring and quit trying. It’s really odd though because at my previous jobs, I clicked really well with most of my coworkers and we formed friendships, went out for drinks occasionally, etc. I do have some friends here and people I would definitely chill with outside of work, but I would estimate that an equal number of people just don’t like me very much and more or less ignore and avoid me. I’m pretty quiet/shy myself, but I at least try to be friendly to most people and make small talk, etc. If they don’t seem interested, I don’t really put forth any additional effort. I’ve realized that I’m here to work and it’s not about making friends. I’m chummy with the people that matter (bosses, etc) and I’ll talk to the people I know are friendly and cool, and everyone else can kiss my butt ;)