Friends, Colleagues, Cliques and Workplace Oppression

Oppression at Work

Friend – a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.

Colleague – a fellow worker or member of a staff, department, profession, etc.

Clique – a small, exclusive group of people; coterie

Let me start by saying that it is perfectly acceptable to have friendships with people that you work with. However, I will say this, it is also ok to not be friends with individuals that you work with and still have great working relationships. Many times a colleague will see the absence of friendship as a negative factor associated with the co-worker they are not friends with.

When your personal relationships with colleagues cloud your judgment you lose objectivity. You begin to base your decisions around how you feel about your colleagues instead of what you know about your colleagues. This influences who is hired, who receives contracts, who serves on committees, who is invited to “special” meetings, and who is even invited to lunch.

When you segregate yourself at work and only associate with a small group of people, you have created a clique. These groups are often people who think, speak, and act alike. Many of the individuals in this group will not allow “others” in that do not share their same characteristics. This group often forces the “others” on the team to form their own group as a means of survival. The “others” often see only two choices assimilation or exile. If these groups or cliques are formed along racial or socio-economic lines, in which people of color and lower class people are the “others”, your organization has created an oppressive environment. In order to not seem oppressive or micro-aggressive, members of the oppressive group may invite in one person from the “other” group that least threatens the culture of the clique.

If what I have written so far angers you, you are either frustrated because you have experienced this or you are a part of a dominant group creating an oppressive culture. Oppression is real and ignoring it only reinforces it—it doesn’t make it go away.


Here are three features of oppression in the workplace.

Pervasive – Oppression fuses institutional and systematic discrimination, personal bias, bigotry and social prejudice in a complex web of relationships and structures that saturate most aspects of life in our society.

Restricting – Oppression limits what one can imagine becoming. It restricts personal growth, development, and determination.

Hierarchical – In oppression, there is a hierarchical relationship in which the dominant or privileged group benefits, often in unconscious ways (McIntosh, 1992).


The Action Continuum (The way forward: going from supporting to confronting oppression.)
Source: Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook, 1997 by Adams, Bell, and Griffin

(To clarify I used the word “others” and while the authors have chosen to use “target”.)

Actively Participating: Telling oppressive jokes, putting down people from target groups, intentionally avoiding target group members, discriminating against target group members, verbally or physically harassing target group members.

Denying: Enabling oppression by denying that target group members are oppressed. Does not actively oppress, but by denying that oppression exists, colludes with oppression.

Recognizing, No Action: Is aware of oppression, recognizes oppressive actions by self or others and their harmful effects, but takes no action to stop this behavior. This inaction is the result of fear, lack of information, and confusion about what to do. Experiences discomfort at the contradiction between awareness and action.

Recognizing Action: Is aware of oppression, recognizes oppressive actions of self and others and takes action to stop it.

Educating Self: Taking actions to learn more about oppression and the experiences and heritage of target group members by reading, attending workshops, seminars, cultural events, participating in discussions, joining organizations or groups that oppose oppression, attending social action and change events.

Educating Others: Moving beyond only educating self to question and dialogue with others too. Rather than only stopping oppressive comments or behaviors, also engaging people in discussion to share why you object to a comment or action.

Supporting, Encouraging: Supporting others who speak out against oppression or who are working to be more inclusive of target group members by backing up others who speak out, forming an allies group, joining a coalition group.

Initiating, Preventing: Working to change individual and institutional actions and policies that discriminate against target group members, planning educational programs or others events, working to pass legislation that protects target group members from discrimination, being explicit about making sure that target group members are full participants in organizations or groups.

Now that you are aware, stop making excuses get to work.

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