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.