Evil HR Lady: My coworkers act like junior high students

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(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,
I started a new job about two months ago after a very long period of work instability and unemployment. I spent many hours preparing and studying for how to be successful in a new job and walked into this new situation with a very positive attitude, determined to maintain a professional demeanor, including greeting and interacting with coworkers in a friendly and positive way.

After the first few weeks, I noticed that some of my coworkers were decidedly cold and definitely not interested in interacting with me. A coworker who sits next to my cubicle ignored my cheerful "good morning" greetings, which I've now stopped, refuses to make eye contact, sighs if I get in his space, like walking past him in the hall or standing next to the printer (he has even tailgated me out of the parking lot), and offered no help at all when I asked questions.

A few others have acted similarly. Lunch menus are routinely circulated without me being asked to join in, that kind of thing. It reminds me of middle school, not work. The behaviors among those in this clique make me wary of asking any of them for help, although my manager encourages me to ask for help. There are others in the office who are very friendly but who have a different manager, and I've tried to focus on the work while cultivating other friendly interactions outside this clique.

However, I find myself sometimes at my cube wondering what I ever did to these few people because they act like they hate me when I've had so little interaction with them and they don't know me, after all. I definitely don't want to say in a work environment that often feels excluding and non-collaborative. How can I adjust my attitude so that this clique doesn't impact my prospects in this job? I know there are always a few jerks in every job, but this little clique really takes the proverbial cake.

Your email has given me a fabulous idea for a new business venture for me. I'll offer seminars called, "Now that you're an adult: Secrets to being a grown up." One of the seminars would be, "You're no longer 13, so stop acting like it." Your assessment of this being junior high behavior is 100 percent correct, and I've never quite understood why it is so prevalent among adult. Unlike the 7th-8th grade crowd, adults aren't going through puberty and shouldn't be able to explain bad behavior on that.

Since your coworkers are unlikely to take my seminar, you'll have to solve this problem on your own. It is possible (honest!) but it won't be easy. And, you may, quite rationally, decide that it's not worth the effort and simply ignore your coworkers and make friends with the other group in the office, I won't blame you one bit, although your boss won't appreciate it.

The first step is figuring out why they hate you. There's always a reason. Some of your coworkers may be treating you this way simply to keep in the good graces of the queen bee, who has a rational (to her or him) reason for hating you. You're new to the job, which narrows the possible reasons down. Did someone else want the position you got? Was the person who held that job before both beloved and fired? Or pushed out? Was the position upgraded for you? Were you given a coveted project? Those are possible business reasons. Then you've got the insecurity reasons -- are you strikingly beautiful? Are you younger than everyone? Are you a different race? The possibilities are endless.

How do you figure out what the underlying problem is? Well, you ask. Now, whom do you ask? That's a bit trickier. Three possibilities: Your manger, a friendly person who reports to the other manager, one of the jerks. If you ask your manager or one of the friendly office people, you can use this method. (If your manager seems at all competent, start there because that's actually part of her job -- helping her team get along). Try something like this:

"Jane, I've noticed that the rest of the team seems to resent my presence. For instance, Bill won't even return a hello and everyone does lunch together, but I'm not only not invited, I'm specifically excluded. I was wondering if you could offer me some insight into what's driving their behavior and how I could best solve this problem. I'm hoping to really make a good contribution to the team, but I don't know how to reach them."

The responses you get could vary wildly. The friendly person in the neighboring department may spill 3 years' worth of juicy gossip in your lap, or your manager could clam up and tell you it's your imagination and to get back to work. But, most likely it will be somewhere in the middle and you'll at least have some insight. Hopefully, this insight will tell you the center of this bad behavior and then you can work on that.

And how? This may just sound so simple, you'll ignore it, but trust me, it can help: Be super nice. I know, I know, stuffing Bill's locker with toilet paper sounds so much better, but that's back to Jr. High. (And it's doubtful that Bill even has a locker.) Don't just say, "Good morning, Bill!" Say, "Hey Bill, loved your presentation yesterday. Can you explain how you created that graph?"

Why the follow up question? Because people (especially snobby people) love to feel superior and needed. Asking him to explain something because you're impressed with his performance may do the trick. Please note, this is not, "Great job on the presentation, Bill. Can you tell me how to order new office supplies?" Because that doesn't flatter him. That doesn't say, "Bill you're great at ordering office supplies!" It's just a generic task that anyone can do.

If repeated efforts at being nice doesn't result in some softening, then I'm all for the direct approach. "Bill, every morning I say hello and I know you hear me, but you don't respond. Can you explain to me what's going on?" There may be a bunch of denials, but you may get a huge load of angst filled reasons why he can't possibly be nice to you. This not only gets it out in the open, but as he hears himself say these things, he may realize how silly he sounds. On the other hand, he may become more angry at you, as if it's your fault that he's being silly.

If this happens, it's time to go back to your manager and say, "This needs to be fixed." Not the lunch thing, because, well, grown ups should be able to choose who they go to lunch with, but the not being nice thing. Your manager should be on top of this.

But, I suspect that finding out the underlying reason will be extremely helpful. Figuring out the why will help you to be able to address it.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

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