There is a small group of people in the office who have formed a clique of sorts. They go out to eat together, constantly talk to or IM each other, have inside jokes, all sorts of fun stuff. When I started working here around 5 months ago, it seemed like they wanted to initiate me into the group. I have no idea why but I have now been getting IMs from a couple of them during meetings. Perhaps my being polite was mistaken as intent to be non-professional friends?

These IMs range anywhere from idle chitchat to making fun of our coworkers for various things (and usually things that the coworker cannot help, like being nearly deaf and speaking loudly, or a coworker that has a stutter). I'm talking impressions, mocking, and downright trash talking our colleagues. I feel like it goes well beyond harmless joking.

I feel absolutely awful about the things they are saying, and I refuse to take any part in it. How can I distance myself from these people while maintaining professionalism?

Please note I have no desire to reprimand them for their behavior, if that is avoidable. I feel this would only stir up more drama, and make them refocus their ire on me. I am only here to do my job, not judge others for their decisions.

  • 10
    Are the "victims" aware of being bullied? I am not sure if you can call it like that when the person doesn't feel it. It doesn't change the fact, that it's not nice or approvable, but IMO it does change the perspective.
    – luk32
    Sep 5, 2015 at 0:45
  • Where is this? (I presume the US?)
    – user29768
    Sep 5, 2015 at 7:49
  • @luk32 - yep, this isn't bullying in the slightest. At worst, you could call it bad-mouthing/mocking. It's still not nice, but it's not bullying which could easily be criminal action as it implies violence to me. OP, I suggest you change the title.
    – Davor
    Sep 5, 2015 at 8:38
  • After just reading the title I thought that they are assaulting other coworkers on a dark corridor or taking their lunch money, and wondered how can they be still not fired or even arrested.
    – Val
    Sep 5, 2015 at 12:26
  • 1
    @davor If the co-workers know of these "jokes" I would definitely call this bullying. Mental violence has a similar impact as physical violence, and do not see why bullying is restricted to when you feel it physically. Sep 5, 2015 at 15:42

4 Answers 4


"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

If you're not happy directly confronting this kind of behaviour, which is understandable, then bring it to the attention of management, anonymously if you need to. Step up and support your coworkers; don't just sit back and say "I'm alright, it's not happening to me."

  • 10
    If you're going to report it, it needs to be clearly stated as what it is: workplace bullying. This has a very specific legal definition and in many countries has legislation that can back it up. If the term "workplace bullying" is mentioned by senior management to these people and the legal ramifications of it, it will stop.
    – Jane S
    Sep 4, 2015 at 22:13
  • 1
    Especially in this case where they are bullying people for their disabilities! For being hearing impaired or having a stutter are both definitely disabilities.
    – Kai
    Sep 4, 2015 at 23:18
  • 5
    Except this isn't even close to bullying. It's rude and unprofessional, but to claim that someone can be bullied without even knowing it is offensive to actual victims of bullying.
    – Davor
    Sep 5, 2015 at 8:41
  • I'm not justifying their behaviour at all, but OP chooses to stay in this circle, as opposed to this situation being forced on them by them simply staying at the company, and I see no sign that the "victim"'s are aware of this, so (IMO) it's not bullying (@JaneS) and it's not something one can really bring up with management (IANAL though). Sep 5, 2015 at 13:04
  • 2
    One definition here states that Workplace bullying means any behaviour that is repeated, systematic and directed towards an employee or group of employees that a reasonable person, having regard to the circumstances, would expect to victimise, humiliate, *undermine* or threaten and which creates a risk to health and safety. The key point here (emphasis mine) is to undermine. You cannot reasonably state that a group ridiculing a fellow employee has not undermined the perception of that person within the group. That is workplace bullying.
    – Jane S
    Sep 5, 2015 at 22:40

First, you should pull yourself out of the IM group as soon as possible. You do not want your name to be associated with the group if things are found out and start to be dealt with.

Second, when the "Come on, man, why'd you leave?" questions arise from your group, you simply tell them, without any drama tone in your voice, that the conversation wasn't something you want to be involved in. You could say something like, "Sorry, man, I didn't realize the group rolled that way. It's not for me. So-and-so is actually a cool person."

Will leaving the clique cause them to focus their ire toward you? Probably. So what? If their clique expands to creating a hostile environment where people are targeted directly, or career opportunities are limited by the clique, then there is more you can do to address it, like talking to HR about it, if you have an HR department.

If any of the members of the clique are in management, you owe it to the company to mention the problem to HR. Management should never be involved in such an activity.

Edit: @Frisbee makes a good point in the comment below. If the OP is not part of an IM group chat, then it becomes very important to respond to each IM with the "I'd rather not talk about so-and-so like that. They're actually pretty cool." If there is any sort of memory in the IM system (saved conversation history), OP will want to have a record of having objected to such messages.

  • 3
    I like this answer but based on "but I have now been getting IMs from a couple of them" indicates he is not in a group.
    – paparazzo
    Sep 4, 2015 at 19:44
  • I think this is a practical, non-confrontational way of dealing with the situation. And if they want to start picking on you, then you raise it as workplace bullying. It will stop very, very fast when it's called what it is.
    – Jane S
    Sep 4, 2015 at 22:11
  • 2
    IMO don't say "So-and-so is actually a cool person". That's taking sides. The first part was perfect though.
    – DaveDev
    Sep 5, 2015 at 11:27

When a coworker happens to make a joke in a similar vein I usually look at them, or elsewhere, until they stop chuckling and realize they're being stupid. My body language basically tells them "that wasn't funny". I think women are much better at it (the stare). It probably won't work on a group though.

If these messages are exchanged via IM, you could point out that this is easy to get misinterpreted if someone sensitive became aware of it. You know what I mean, all that PC stuff that everyone keeps going on about. Do you really want a record of yourself saying this stuff? Same thing with the jokes made verbally : Imagine if someone walks by and overhears you. People are sensitive these days. I know you're joking, but every time you do you're taking a risk.

What I'm doing here is pointing out the penalties to the co-workers without making myself involved, or presenting me (well, you) as the offended party.

  • 7
    I think women are much better at it (the stare). It probably won't work on a group though. Oh, it works all right ;) Just last week I was the only woman in a meeting with three guys. One made a joke that was not funny, and the three laughed until they saw my expression. It stopped very, very quickly.
    – Jane S
    Sep 4, 2015 at 22:06

It sounds like you're in proximity to a somewhat toxic situation, you're pretty low on the totem pole, and your boss(es) don't particularly care about this problem. You also say you don't want drama.

How can I distance myself from these people while maintaining professionalism?

You don't have to. Your other coworkers aren't going to automatically lump you in with the clique. They probably already know all about the obnoxious behavior. As long as you don't join in their conversations or go to lunch with them, they won't see you as part of that subculture.

Even if, you started associating with them throughout some portion of your first 5 months but have since stopped, your adult, professional coworkers won't hold it against you. They understand that you were still figuring things out.

You don't have to give anyone an obvious cold shoulder nor any other elaborate theatrics. If a clique member sends you a nasty IM or makes a rude comment, simply respond noncommittally and don't pursue the conversation further. The clique members will stop making overtures, meanwhile no one who's watching will care.

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