Does your office remind you of high school?

You know what I'm talking about.

The same group of co-workers eat lunch and take coffee breaks together. Or they gossip and hang out during and after work.

Office cliques are ingrained in our workplaces just as they were in high school. And while cliques often conjure up bad memories of our teenage life, some workplace experts say they can be positive and healthy at work -- as long as they're handled professionally.

After all, office friendships and being part of a social network makes work feel less like, well, work.

"It could be a motivating factor," says Aaron Nurick, professor of management and psychology at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. "People work well together, and they form good friendships."

The trick, though, is to avoid the pitfalls, such as exclusivity, pettiness and excessive gossiping.

Kate Zabriskie, a Port Tobacco-based workplace consultant, put it this way: "That kind of behavior, it gets rewarded in high school in a weird way, but it only works in high school. It doesn't work in real life."

Your clique-ish behavior at work also can get you labeled as unfriendly, unapproachable and a non-team player, Zabriskie says.

And depending on the climate of a company, the clique itself can become dysfunctional, impacting morale and productivity, Nurick says.

To avoid a flashback to awful high school memories, workplace experts advise not hanging out with only one group of colleagues. Instead, model yourself after that one person in high school who was able to float among various cliques.

If you're new, take some time to get to know the lay of the land so to speak, experts say.

Janie Harden Fritz, an associate professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, has researched how new hires are socialized in the workplace. She suggests workers observe the cultural and social workings of the office before establishing any type of relationship.

"The question is where you want to belong," she says. "Maybe there is a work group that works quite hard and doesn't complain. Maybe there is a group that's cynical and creates a community of complaint that's really tempting to be sucked into."

Harden Fritz says some workers like to keep work interactions strictly professional to avoid potential personal conflicts.

"Having a life outside of work is important," she says. "If you get on the outs with people at work -- at least I have a life outside of work."

From the mailbag: Patrick, of Joppa, has raised an issue that causes frequent confusion among workers: Overtime pay.

Patrick says one of his colleagues worked two, eight-hour shifts within a 24-hour period. The company paid him straight time for both shifts. But Patrick and others argue that the second, eight-hour shift in the same day qualifies for overtime pay.

Without knowing all the details, here are general guidelines under the Federal Labor Standards Act.

Regardless of how long you've worked in a day, overtime is calculated on a workweek basis. So that means employees must receive overtime pay for working more than 40 hours in a workweek, which is defined as a "regularly recurring period of 168 hours, or seven consecutive 24-hour periods," according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

There are exemptions, but too many to list here. So check out a section on wages and overtime on the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation's Web site at www.dllr.state.md.us/labor/wagehrfacts.htm.

What do you think about cliques at work? Are they helpful or unproductive? And what else is on your mind about life at work? Send your stories, tips and questions to working@baltsun.com. Please include your first name and your city.