5 Ways to Protect Yourself From the Workplace Cliques

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Nurse bullies may not necessarily clearly present themselves on a platter like your Thanksgiving turkey. Sometimes bullying behaviors, incivility, and even borderline criminal behaviors are disguised and hidden within cliques and gangs.

Tarah was just finishing her undergraduate degree in nursing. The last thing she had to do was complete 135 hours of clinicals with a preceptor at the hospital.  On her first day, she noticed that some of the employees (a few nurses, one nursing assistant, and the unit secretary) wore headbands. When Tarah saw this, she got excited because she had long hair and wanted to wear a headband too. She didn’t think it was part of the dress code, but since she saw the other women wearing them, she planned to wear one on her next shift.

The next morning, Tarah was in the locker room putting away her things when one of the headband wearing nurses walked in. “Who gave you that headband?” She shouted. “Nobody. I just saw other people wearing one so I wore one.” Tarah replied.

“You don’t wear a headband unless WE give you permission!” and she took the headband right off of Tarah’s head.

Tarah was speechless.


I’ve engaged nurses and their leaders in conversations about specific disruptive behaviors they’ve experienced or witnessed.  I gather them into groups and ask that they make a list of those behaviors.  It’s funny (but not really) – there is never a delay in coming up with a list of bad behaviors! Some groups actually ask for more paper!

Cliques are ALWAYS on the list.


A clique is a group of people who share similar interests and spend time together, but make it clear to others that not just anyone can join. We tend to see cliques form during adolescence, however, as we’ve seen in the workplace, cliques can continue and even form among adults.

However, is having a clique in your department necessarily bad?

Many times when talking with leaders about cliques, they will say, “That’s it I’m going to break up my cliques! No more cliques!”

Here’s the deal. If you just break up your clique, often times, a new clique will form.

We are born as individuals but we survive and thrive in groups. You can blame oxytocin.  When we bond with another human, we release a small amount of oxytocin, a chemical often referred to as the cuddle hormone. This hormone compels us to seek out other humans for love, for companionship, and for protection.

However, the key to managing groups of people is to get crystal clear on whether you have just a group of friend, a true clique, or a gang!


Are you working with a clique or just a group of people who happen to like each other more than they like others? Or, are you working with a gang?

Group of Friends

It’s human nature to associate with people who share similar interests and who share similar characteristics.  Think about your current circle of friends right now. I’m sure there are similarities among you.

I have several groups of friends. One group is 6 women whom I’ve grown up with since grade school. Our history keeps us bonded together. Another, newer group are other nurse entrepreneurs, like Michelle Podlesni, President of the NNBA, Keith Carlson, Louise Jakubik, etc. My best friend Kimmy has other groups of friends…her volleyball group, the DC group, church group, etc. The point is, having numerous groups of friends is a good thing.

Group of friends’ characteristics:
  • Form naturally around common interests
  • Can be involved in several groups without disturbing any group
  • Free to be themselves


As mentioned earlier, cliques also share similar interests. However, the biggest difference is that cliques make it clear to outsiders that not just anyone can join. A clique can also be referred to as a PACK and exhibit pack like behavior. They hoard, don’t readily share with others outside of their clique and will actually harm outsiders to protect the PACK. Joining a clique can give you a sense of security.

According to a survey conducted by Career Builder, 43% of employees report that their workplace are populated by cliques.

Clique characteristics:
  • Make outsiders feel that they are less important
  • Often focus on maintaining some level of popularity
  • Use their perceived power to squash others
  • Do not socialize outside of their clique
  • Thrive when given power
  • Use exclusion as a weapon against people they don’t like.


Gangs take cliques to an entirely different level. Similar to cliques in their shared interests, the main difference with gangs are their unethical, bad behavior boarding on criminal conduct. Gangs are often identified by their common clothing (headbands!), colors and/or hand signs.

Gang characteristics:
  • Often require some form of initiation to join
  • Exclude other people who aren’t part of the gang
  • Conduct violates policy and can often be considered criminal
  • Perceive authority and non-gang members as a threat
  • Can be identified by what they wear

If you noticed, there is one common characteristic that can help you identify whether or not a group of people in your department are just a group of friends or have actually formed a clique or gang – EXCLUSION. One of the key characteristics of, what I would call “bad groups” is using exclusion as a weapon against people they don’t want to join their group.  Did you know that when people feel excluded, the pain center of their brain lights up?

It’s PAINFUL to feel left out of a social group. Cliques and gangs KNOW this and use it against others.


Act with confidence

Remember that cliques and gangs rely on instilling fear and insecurity in others. They enjoy watching someone cringe with fear as they walk by. Think about giving the clique leader report! Receiving report from an insecure non-clique member probably gives them joy. Take that joy away from them by standing tall, shoulders back, and communicating with confidence! It makes you less of a target when you act as though they can’t scare you.

Treat everyone with kindness

Yep. Even the clique members. This is not to say that you go out of your way to be super nice to the cliques! Treat them just as you would/should treat any professional colleague. The key here is to be the consummate professional. By doing so, you’re role-modeling behavior that THEY should be displaying. And, you send a message that no matter how they treat you and others, you’re not going to let them influence YOUR behavior.

Don’t gossip about the clique

Although you may be tempted to gossip about them in the break room with other non-clique members, resist! Sometimes nurses who are not confident in themselves or can’t deal with the pain of exclusion eventually join the clique. Think about how it would play out if last week you were gossiping about them to your colleague and the next week that same colleague joined them.

Take away their power

If you’re in a leadership role, please, please, please strip away their power! One reason why cliques grow is because the clique leader typically ends up in a power role – charge nurse, coordinator, manages the schedule, etc. And they use that power as a social weapon to strengthen the clique. If they’re in charge, take them out of the role. If they’re a preceptor, don’t let them precept. If you have a shared governance model and they are chair or co-chair of a unit-based council, take them out of that role. If they are responsible for the schedule, assign that task to someone else.

Report the gang

Remember, gang behavior may cross the line to criminal behavior. As nurses, we have an ethical responsibility to our public to make decisions based on what’s best for them. If you have a gang on your unit or department – your patients are at risk. Report them immediately to your administration.

Who would have thought I needed to write an article about cliques and gangs among nurses?

Well, just like I write and spend the majority of my time working with healthcare organizations to eliminate workplace bullying and incivility; we have to take an honest look at what’s happening and DO something about it.

As a profession, we can no longer afford to pretend that nurse bullying, incivility, and even violence in the workplace doesn’t happen (these are not the droids you are looking for…).  We are hemorrhaging really great nurses to this problem and can no longer use silence as a strategy.

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12 thoughts on “5 Ways to Protect Yourself From the Workplace Cliques”

  1. Stand up NUrse !!

    This type of behavior is going on with the nursing board. I have appealed , and found their witnesses to be working without licenses , stealing drugs , and expose the cases at the board meetings. These are open meetings . I am not licensed in this state this is happening so they have no jurisdiction over me . They did me evil wrong. and do not want to face me . The members of the board, the employees are acting like thugs. Ones I have never talked to , they are targeting me, getting others “security guard ” to join in. He has heard from others the employees have talked to about me, so he is acting on that !! Refusing to give his name . THe atty for the AZ board of nursing told the cops (yes i had to call the cops twice now ) so many lies , she had to retract her statement. The board has a pattern , I tell new targets , the pattern they hate that , want me gone will do ANYTHING , legal or not . Inveestigators for the board have sat at the front door , not at work but spying the DIR of the BON gives her ok obviously !! IT is vicious attacks , they even gave the cops my info !! unreal !!! they treat nurses like throw away objects UNPROFESSIONAL to say the least. !!! this is ARIZONA STATE BOARD OF NURSING !!!!

    1. Renee Thompson

      Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear this. The behavior you described is at the extreme end and certainly cause for concern. I’m assuming you are seeking legal counsel.

  2. I’ve found that cliques often survive because managers are complicit. A weak manager partners with an influential bully on the unit. It’s all informal, of course, but they both get what they need in a dysfunctional way.

    1. Renee Thompson

      You’re so right Beth. Sometimes the manager is a part of the clique – especially if he or she worked along side them before getting promoted!

  3. Lisa Marie Simmons

    I always learn something new when I read your newsletter. I had no idea that the feeling of exclusion produced such a reaction! Ouch. I know that when I am in pain it can also be difficult to think at optimum levels. For example, a minor pain in say, my leg. Ok, it hurts, however my brain is minimally comprised in terms of critical thinking, etc. Though a feeling of exclusion, minor in terms of pain amount, for comparisons sake to the aforementioned physical, because it is an emotion, has a greater chance of compromising our critical thinking, which then is a safety issue. Unlike the minor leg pain, depending on personality, or current emotional states when someone is subjected to this behavior this creates a greater safety risk as feelings of distraction/duress/anger..I think of it like medications with unknown side effects and the negative emotions are grape fruit juice, St. John’s wort, and “ oh I can’t think of this vitamin I take, its OTC no biggie “ It is unacceptable on a personal level and more importantly, on a professional level in healthcare where the most vital tool a nurse has to me, is the ability to critically think. Does this make sense? Am I interpreting your intended message accurately? Safety. A preventative risk as well! I think perhaps the perpetrators, or would be emotional assaliants, would be more apt to not engage in that if they were reminded and with stern consequence that protecting the patient is of the the highest responsibility.

    1. Renee Thompson

      Thanks so much Lisa! I think you’re right. Any time we are faced with a perceived threat, criticism, or even feelings of exclusion, we may not be able to think clearly – they are all distractions to the work we do. If persistent, these negative distractions can lead to adverse patient outcomes! The key is to recognize and increase awareness of how negative behaviors impact the work nurses do and then DO something about them. I’m so glad you’re continuing to learn and hope that you share with your colleagues!

  4. Damaris Alicano

    Unfortunately, that kind of behavior is very typical in the nursing field. While reading this blog about bullying in the nursing field, I remembered a bad experience that happened to me back in 2004. When I started working at that hospital (I prefer not to mention the name) in Texas, I was in the transition from being a respiratory therapist to becoming a registered nurse. When I finally got my degree, I started to see negative changes in attitudes from some emergency department nurses towards me. They started to making fun of my name and my Hispanic accent. They even told me that if I wanted to continue working in ED, I would have to learn how to talk using slangs. My priority was to put all my knowledge into practice to be an excellent nurse to serve the public, especially in the ED which is necessary to work as a team. Also, doctors joined the bulling, making me feel that ED was not my place. It happened then, that my supervisor at the time of doing my evaluation highlighted my strengths as a nurse, and much more. She mentioned to me based on my excellent performance and my RT background, that I could be an excellent ICU nurse. Already with the bad experience of being bullied, then I made the decision, and I transferred to ICU. It was the best decision I could have made. Then, I moved to the State of Florida, and something similar happened years later, but then I was able to handle it differently.
    In my opinion, I think that the most vulnerable nurses of being bullied are the newly graduates, and it is a subject that should be mentioned during the student stage. New nurses are the ones who should be supported , to prevent them from leaving their positions to other healthcare institutions, and to contribute to the prevention of the future nursing shortage.
    So, what is more important when it comes of having a good nursing team? Maintaining the same group of experienced nurses but in a mocking environment, or having new ones in the process of acquiring experience, in a healthy environment and respect between coworkers? I thank to Renee Thompson for such informative anti-bullying blog to help those who are, have been, and will be victims of this type of bullying.

    1. Renee Thompson

      Thank you so much for your comments. I’ve spent the last 8 years of my nursing career trying to protect nurses from other nurses!! You’re right. New nurses are still the most vulnerable. It’s so sad that instead of supporting each other, we’re tearing each other apart. But I’m hopeful we can change that. Don’t give up!! We need more nurses who get it – that the way we treat each other is just as important as the care we provide.
      With gratitude

  5. It’s not just nurses. I’m a pharmacist and there are horrible pharmacy bully cliques and I just don’t understand why. It takes so much energy to make others feel lower, less than, dumb etc… very hard to work with this and certain managers are part of it so nothing I can do.

    1. You are so right!! It’s not just nurses. However, there are some things you can do. Start a documentation trail, align behaviors to patients, and then file a formal complaint. Don’t give up!

  6. It is not just in nursing area. It happened in early education area which a lot of women has clique group. They are backbiting and gossip all the time. They use exclusion as weapon aganist people they dont like. They are like gang and joined together and watch you all the time. As soon as they find something wrong and they go to report you. Sometimes, it made me think clique groups should called ugly five.

    1. You’re so right Cythia! This type of behavior isn’t only seen among nurses. Yes! Exclusion is their primary weapon of choice. It’s so important to address their behavior – doesn’t belong in a professional, adult, workplace!

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