Mean Girls at Work and in the ‘Hood

If you’re working in a professional environment or as a volunteer, the last thing you need is to be confronted by that person who makes you feel about two inches tall.

Didn’t we graduate from high school already?

Working with or for “mean girls” shouldn’t be intimidating. Authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster offer tips to empower yourself in difficult situations:

Before you take that job or join that PTA committee …

Interview the employer or committee just as they are interviewing you. “When you are interviewing you have got to ask about turnover,” Elster says. “Sometimes it’s a hard question, but if there’s a high turnover rate, there’s a problem.”

Crowley also recommends taking the temperature of the office. “If you’ve heard they have intrapersonal problems, if there’s a tenseness in the office, if she (the interviewer) is hard to connect with, that’s an indication of a problem.”

And watch out for groups that don’t have clear leadership, Crowley says. You may find that you are walking into an established clique that could prove uncomfortable if you don’t connect. “Packs tend to form where there’s no clear leadership and the rules of interaction are not established,” she says.

When you return to the workforce and your colleagues are younger—as in, “I never saw ‘Risky Business’” young …

Stop the “compare and despair” exercise. Crowley says that while it may be easy to fall into that trap of resentment because your co-worker is more energetic and may be more technologically adept, you aren’t doing yourself any favors going there.

“You may have to acknowledge your confidence is not as strong as it once was,” Crowley says. “To get respect, you need to be respectful—and also secure in the value you are bringing (to the job).”

Elster recommends reverse mentoring. “There may be things you can help with, and she has plenty to teach you about the latest technology. The younger generation has a lot to teach us.”

When you’re confronted by a “mean girl” co-worker or boss …

Don’t counter-attack. Crowley says women should fight that intuitive response to counter back. If you do that, she says, “then you’re really in the power struggle. You have to do the opposite of what you want to do.” Instead, acknowledge her expertise, give her credit—the point being you want the mean girl to no longer view you as the threat. Sooner or later, she’ll move on to her next target.

And at what point do you walk away?

Both Crowley and Elster acknowledge that given the economy, it’s particularly difficult to walk away from a job, even if you are not very happy. Crowley suggests, “From a practical point, do a constant cost/benefit analysis—if you are building your expertise and portfolio, you may want to hang in there for a while. …(but) if you are experience physical ramifications, it’s time to move on.”

Want more tips? Check out their new book, “Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional when Things Get Personal” (McGraw Hill, 2012).