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Saturday, September 4, 2010

new employee feels awkward and left out

A reader writes:

My new job is about two months old. In that time, I have discovered that I love the job and the people, yet I feel left out because everyone in the office has a history (wonderful and friendly interpersonal connections). When they laugh and reminiscence with stories, I'm not quite sure what to do. If I am busy, I become more engrossed in the involved tasks. If I am currently not working on a project, I find something to do. Echoing the earlier email from the shy manager, I am also a shy individual. Therefore, I am concerned that I am providing an impression that I have an outlook about life and a personality which is contrary to theirs, when I do not.

This dynamic when you start a new job and are surrounded by people who have a history together is hard if you're someone who's not naturally outgoing. It's like being the new kid at school.

You don't feel comfortable jumping into an existing group, so try forming relationships one-on-one. Is there anyone there who you feel more of a connection with? Ask that person to get lunch or coffee with you. If you feel shy about making an overtly social overture, frame it as, "Now that I'm settling in, I'd love to get lunch with you and pick your brain about (fill in work topic)." Most people are flattered to be seen as a resource. (And if there isn't anyone there who you feel more of a connection with, ask whoever you work with most closely.)

Don't be afraid to jump into group conversations, either. You say they reminisce with stories -- people usually love telling these stories to someone who hasn't heard them yet. You just need to indicate that you'd be interested, by saying something like, "That sounds funny. John got locked in the bathroom?" 

And one more tip: If your office has someone who seems to have taken on the role of social director -- someone who seems to arrange happy hours and lunches and so forth -- and if that person seems nice, they're a really good choice to be candid with. Tell them something like this: "I'm kind of shy but I'd love to get to know people here better." This type will often take you under their wing if they know you'd welcome it.

What other suggestions do people have?


Satia said...

I have to say that it is not just introverted people who have this problem. I am very outgoing and finding a way into a group of people who have shared history and experiences is a challenge regardless.

My advice: don't let your self-definition limit your experience. Perhaps instead of waiting to be asked to join the group for lunch ask someone to join you for lunch. If they were already planning on going with someone else (or even a whole group) you may get lucky and be invited to join them. If they do not already have plans, you will get to know someone on a one-on-one basis, which is always best, even for an extrovert like me.

Also, give it time. You've been there two months. These people have habits that have developed over years.

But lesson to managers and team leaders--help the new hire feel more welcome and at home by making an effort to be inclusive. If you and a couple of others are going to have lunch or meet after work, make a point of inviting the new people to come along. It's a lot harder for the insider to feel welcome when nobody is making an effort to include them in the fun.

Cass said...

Trying to form a friendship with just one person (rather than a group of people all at once) is probably the best way to get into the mix of things. What I've learned from my side job of teaching pre-teens and teens is that you don't want to try too hard. The others may feel like you are intruding and no one likes a "woe is me, I have no friends" type. But if you become friends with one or two people, they may invite you to join their wider group of friends, who (since you have someone to "vouch" for you) will welcome you in.

We have a fairly new employee in our dept (been here maybe a few months) and because she sits in an office not in the suite that most of the rest of us sit, she's pretty much still an outsider. She is polite/courteous but hasn't seemed to try to become friends with anyone. At our office, everyone is split up into their own social groups (with some cross-over) although we do also have some individuals who stay by themselves.

I can only imagine how difficult it is to join a new department or start a new job (I've been at the same one for over 10 years) but I'm an introvert and I don't care about having lots of friends at work. Sure, it's nice to go out to lunch together at times, but most of the time, I'd rather get my work done rather than socialize (unfortunately, some of my coworkers feel differently).

If you sit near other workers, you can try forming friendships with them. That might be easier, since you spend so much time near each other anyway.

Kat said...

I've been in this situation and it's the worst feeling to feel like an outsider. what worked for me was noticing common interests, one colleague had a cat, so did I, and we intantly connected, another i commented on her great haircut and was looking for a new stylist, so she suggested her hairsalon. Doing lunch is all fine and everything, but finding common ground is establishes a connectionwithout being too intrusive.

Anonymous said...

I've always made an effort to befriend the receptionist and/or the admin assistant(s) first. They are going to be your allies--help you get office supplies, find things you are looking for, find other people. And oftentimes they are undervalued or treated as an outsider because they are support staff.

Next I try to get to know my immediate neighbors. I just get them to talk about themselves. And then I expand my circle to include more people.

I once worked for a company that had an annual desk "shakeup"--everyone moved desk assignments once a year. It helped us get to know our colleagues even if we didn't work with them directly, and we learned things about our work that we may not have if we'd spent years sitting next to the same people (as an added bonus, it helped quell the pack-rats, because they didn't want to move their junk year after year!). I highly recommend this approach.

Anonymous said...

You guys have provided some great suggestions. I felt like an outsider pretty much the entire time I worked in my last position. The people were very close knit but also somewhat catty so instead of playing politics I chose to keep to myself.

I'm starting a new job this month and I definitely want to make more friends on the job so I will be trying some of these tips.

Anonymous said...

The issue in this scenario is that the writer is using the job as a social outlet. That's not what work should be.

I say, once you try and be friends with everyone at work, you're open to a multitude of issues.

Best policy, don't become personal friends at work, especially with your boss - you're a professional - there has to be a clear separation of work and personal life. Not that I don't respect the people at work, some I don't, but I can work with them and exchange personal info - cat is sick, the lawn is great, kid loves school.

I don't want to "hang out" during and after work with colleagues. I have a satisfying life beyond work and I don't want to complicate it.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 8:18

I'm the OP, and I definitely do not view my place of employment as a social outlet. In fact, I agree with all that you said - 100%. On the other hand, as a new employee, as I am on probation, I wish to not be viewed as unfriendly or an outsider. People develop quick impressions, when one's personality is not known (they do not consider personality complexities). I know that, once I am there for many months (years), I can be my professional self, without worrying about false impressions.

My desk is located in a sizable office, shared by large cubicles; therefore, social interactions cannot be avoided. Furthermore, the atmosphere is easy-going and relaxed, full of practical jokes at times. For that reason, it can be awkward, and I don't know what to say at times, when everybody is laughing about a funny story, as an example.

Anonymous said...

Bring food. Donuts, banana bread, cupcakes, strawberries, and always always candy on your desk -- the good kind that will make them seek you out.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just me but the thought of doing lunch with someone I don't know well is pretty daunting. You are committing yourself for at least a half hour of talking to them where things can get pretty awkward. Especially if that coworker of yours is not the type that likes eating out and probably agreed to eat out with you because they didn't want to be rude. I'd stick with getting to know people individually and probe/get to know them. Naturally you'll be introduced to other folks. Ask folks if they need help on their work, or where you can find certain things, or just general work related questions. Ask them how was their weekend, and follow up questions on their answers. Don't get into office politics, change the topic if people make comments about others. That always works for me.

Anonymous said...

When I first started at my current job I felt left out because everyone is a minimum of about 10-15 years older than me. I used tactics I learned in my sorority to talk to people I didn't know. Complementing someone on something they wear can usually get them to start talking to you. Everyone likes to be flattered. Also you can show interest in their kids, pets, a sport or vacation. In my office everyone has photos of their pets, family, and vacations in their cube. They most likely also have something from a favorite sports team on their desk. Showing interest sparks conversation and eventually you will be able to make friends. Lunch is an especially good idea. But I think talking to someone a lot first and getting to know them a little is important. Its hard being shy. You just have to look at it the same as talking to a customer or a client. Anyway good luck. I'm sure you will make plenty of friends. People are people - no matter the title we are all the same. Don't let people you don't know intimidate you. And keep a smile on your face. :)

Anonymous said...

I could certainly relate to how you feel. At my first job out of college, I was the youngest one in the office and the second youngest was 5 years older than me! It was very hard for me to fit in. I remembered on my first day, I was introduced to a lot of people and at the office, people usually go out in groups for lunch and I was not invited at all. But I am also an introvert and so I perceive it that my work comes first anyway.

Fortunately, the second youngest one in the office was a very nice person and somewhat introverted too so I could relate well with him. After I befriended him, I started to get to know his group of friends, so sometimes all of us would go out to lunch together. Yet, in the beginning when I first got to know his friends, I did feel weird since they were oftentimes having conversations about things that occured before I was hired. I'm still not as "close" to them as they are with each other to this day, but it does help that I have a few co-workers to depend on. Friendships with co-workers, like any other relationships you have in life, really do take time for it to develop. From my experience, as long as you have a passion for your work, then your social group will eventually form itself.

Jamie said...

I personally would stay away from inviting anyone to lunch. There are fewer things in life I find more uncomfortable than going to lunch, one on one, with someone I don't know well. But if a new employee me asked I would do it if I couldn't get out of it, but the awkwardness would breed resentment for me.

Angling to get included in a lunch in which others are going is perfect, but asking a co-worker one on one? I wouldn't.

A little small talk about common points of interest work, and as was stated in a previous comment a lot of people will love to have a new audience for their stories; be a great listener.

Relationships develop organically as people get to know each other - in time you'll develop your own network there.

Above all don't try to hard. The surest way to make me not like you is to set out and try to become my friend - I just hate anything that smacks of neediness, but then maybe I'm just mean.

Revanche said...

This is an interesting array of answers. I'm almost 6 months into my new managerial position, and semi-regularly have lunch with one or two other managers, or eat alone most of the time. On occasion, as I prep lunch at the same time as others, they'll ask me to join them or vice versa, but the approach I took was that until I knew the lay of the land, I'd be very careful to only invite specific people to have lunch together when I knew it was vital to have good working relationships with them and their departments. I was stressed enough about getting to know the job and doing well, I didn't need to be stepping into social landmines.

When you don't have to worry so much about potential politics and you have a fairly solid peer group, though, I think the one on one approach is the safe bet.

Inviting another loner to share some space with you, if only briefly to test the waters, isn't a bad way to do it. I know one long time employee who always seems like she only wants to be alone but when I invited her to sit with me during a brief lunch break outdoors she was unexpectedly open and friendly.

No need to corner anyone, of course, and always give them an out, but I think it's a good start.