Compliments of Kenn Wilson via Flickr

Secret societies are known for their clandestine, covert operations, their lack of transparency, and the inscrutable nature of their dealings. Their inner works are a mystery to most people, but the power they wield (from their willingness to behave as a bloc) is more apparent.

We think of secret societies as fraternal (or in some cases religious orders), and not as office place gangs right under our nose. At work we know these types of groups as “cliques,” close knit groups bound together by a mission to drive out undesirables – those who threaten their dominance, challenge their agenda, or violate expected norms.

Although their deliberations may be secret, their influence is apparent. The cabal’s strength lies in its commitment to stick together (1) in promoting people who support their agenda; and (2) in punishing those who don’t. Because people avoid confrontation, co-worker opinions fall like dominos. Gangs rule the decision making process.

Their continuation rests on their semblance of cruelty. Coworkers know if they stick one big toe out of line, the cabal will declare war – that threat, combined with their aggressive behavior (and the reluctance of people to confront them)  act as effective deterrents to ethical behavior.

They’re enabled by cowardly onlookers who are looking out for themselves (e.g., those who simply sit there and watch the show), the marginalized who are in cahoots with their platform, belt loop holders, and all those who choose to parrot their opinions. Collaborators are spared the agony of undergoing a tongue lashing from members who act in tandem.

Secret societies grow in strength in the absence of an opposite force.

Here are some ways to spot secret societies at work:

  1. There is a small group of individuals who speak first, who state their claims in a declarative fashion, and who vehemently oppose anyone who contradicts their viewpoints.
  2. Junior workers go out of their way to court their favor, fall over themselves in seeking agreement, and side with them against anyone deemed non-acceptable (or at the very best, remain silent when those individuals are attacked).
  3. Cabal members demand abject subservience from other people (in particular the lower ranking), because they’ve made it clear there will be consequences. They have a history of bullying people out of the company.
  4. The secret society spends time spreading negative gossip, snitching on contrarians, and plotting coups against those considered deviants.
  5. In meetings everyone remains silent while the cabal (or its ring leader) runs the show.
  6. They are the most aggressive, the least sensitive, and the most unconscionable lot in your workforce. They are active backstabbers who operate in their most insidious manner under the cloak of anonymity. Ratings in agreement administered in private are a sure fire way to “send someone a message.”

How to combat secret societies at work?

  1. Get your stripes and then speak up in meetings. People in the ring unopposed grow in power, and learn that even more egregious behavior is acceptable. Enlist a coworker so that you can refute their dogma.
  2. Support those in a disadvantaged position – junior employees cannot as readily defend themselves. If you’re in a senior post, use your power for the good of other people. Don’t let the cabal run amuck.
  3. Work on developing policies to curb bad behavior, and make sure these are enforced.

Be aware that if you watch an act of bullying you are not an “innocent bystander;” you are vicariously guilty of coworker dismemberment, and an integral component of the secret society’s agenda.


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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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