Ostracism an often-overlooked form of workplace bullying, finds study

Social exclusion can be equally or more damaging than harassment
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/14/2014

Maybe it was an important meeting that you weren’t invited to. Maybe it was an email you weren’t copied on. Maybe it was just that your department went out for coffee and neglected to tell you.

Workplace ostracism can take many forms — it can be overt but it can also be very subtle. Too often, ostracism and exclusion go unnoticed by everyone but the victim.

But ostracism is a form of bullying that can be even more damaging than outright harassment, according to a paper by Canadian researchers.

For employees, ostracism is associated with more health problems, lower commitment and job satisfaction, psychological withdrawal and higher intentions to quit, found Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention? The Comparative Effects of Ostracism and Harassment at Work, which based its conclusions on three separate studies.

“We found that ostracism can actually have a greater impact compared to harassment when it comes to their commitment, their psychological well-being and their turnover intentions,” said Jane O’Reilly, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.

“Ostracism has a really strong impact on our sense of belonging.”

Cold shoulder

Many organizations don’t understand the full impact ostracism can have on employees — or on the organization’s culture, said Sandra Robinson, study co-author and professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“Certainly, we know that ostracizing behaviours — giving the cold shoulder, the silent treatment and such — we know in psychology that it’s painful. We also know that it’s part of bullying,” she said.

“But we wanted to pull it out because we think this might actually be more common, and probably isn’t viewed as seriously as more overt forms of aggression and harassment that we typically have policies against.”

One of the three studies found employees perceive ostracism to be less psychologically harmful and more socially acceptable than harassment — and organizations are less concerned about prohibiting ostracizing behaviours.

Two field studies had employees report the extent to which they had experienced ostracism or bullying over the past few months, and also to report on their attitudes, psychological well-being, physical health, dissatisfaction and intentions to quit, said Robinson.

“What we found was that the ostracism was more predictive of these negative outcomes, and it predicted turnover, whereas the bullying behaviours did not.”

Pattern of behaviour

This doesn’t mean that if you forget someone on an email, he’ll immediately start planning to quit, said Robinson.

“It’s usually a pattern of behaviour over time, not just a one-off,” she said.

“Someone fails to CC me on an email that I should be on, I would assume that it’s just an accident. But when it happens for the fifth time or from multiple people at work, I start to draw a different conclusion.”

When someone is continually excluded, the psychological consequences — and the impact on the workplace — are quite serious, said Carey McBeth, a workplace etiquette expert in Vancouver.

“It’s really hard when you’re spending half of your life in the workplace and you don’t want to go there because you feel alone, you don’t feel part of a group. It really hurts the corporate culture as well,” she said.

“Typically, with harassment or bullying in the workplace that is very verbal, you can address it — you can deal with it. But a lot of the time, people don’t feel they can deal with ‘They just don’t like me.’”

Ostracism can encompass a wide range of different behaviours — some subtle, some less so, said O’Reilly.

“It can really range from anywhere from coming into work and feeling that your greetings have gone ignored, feeling that people shut down the conversation when you try to join the conversation, or it could be being forgotten about on an email chain or being forgotten about in terms of being invited to a particular meeting,” she said.

It may even involve hearing about after-hours social events that you weren’t invited to, said Robinson.

Repeated exclusion can also have significant implications for performance and career progression, she said.

“That’s going to impact your motivation and desire to work, but also you might be missing key information or a key connection to other people — not through a fault of your own but rather because you’re being excluded, left out or ignored.”

Culture shift

A key part of the solution is making organizations aware of just how far-reaching the impact of ostracism can be, said Robinson.

“Making managers aware of the phenomenon… goes a long way. So just as a company wouldn’t tolerate employees verbally abusing each other or sexual harassment, we should also be including these kinds of silent treatment, ostracizing behaviours. That could be built into corporate policy, as it might be with any workplace that’s got an anti-bullying policy.”

Often, ostracism is not even mentioned in an organization’s anti-bullying policy, said McBeth — and that needs to change.

“Most of the training that people get (is around) ‘You don’t harass somebody, you don’t yell at somebody,’ those types of things. But a lot of companies aren’t covering that part,” she said.

“Companies need to make that effort to educate their employees (on) these types of situations… The company really does have to dictate that ostracism is a form of workplace bullying, and that it can’t be tolerated.”

Sometimes, ostracism happens because employees just don’t know how to constructively deal with conflict, said Robinson.

“People will say, ‘The employee is underperforming’ or ‘That person is the bully and that’s why we’re leaving them out.’ There’s a variety of reasons why someone might be ostracized,” she said.

“What I want to go back and say is nobody, regardless of their behaviour, deserves to be abused or ostracized at all, and what you really need are more constructive, healthy ways with which to deal with conflict in the workplace. And I think that where employees are given training to resolve conflict, and where it’s a culture that enables and supports people to speak more directly… that goes a long way.”

Mental health

Psychological impact

In the face of workplace ostracism, individual employees will have varying reactions, said Marie-Hélène Pelletier, psychologist and director of workplace mental health at Sun Life Financial in Vancouver.

“Impacts on the individual will vary based on the actual situation — how is the person doing prior to this starting, how vulnerable they are, what other supports they have in their life… everyone will be impacted, but the amount of impact will depend on where we’re at,” she said.

Common reactions include shock, anger, strong feelings of frustration, helplessness, a sense of vulnerability or loss of confidence.

“Sometimes it will have physical impacts such as (an) inability to sleep, loss of appetite, stomachaches, headaches — it varies,” said Pelletier, adding it can also generate tensions in employees’ personal lives as well.

A decreased ability to concentrate, decreased engagement, low morale and low productivity are also likely consequences.

“In workplaces, it is not a systematic response to bullying, even the very obvious (forms) like harassment. We don’t see systematic, organized, healthy action early,” she said. “More work needs to be done there.”

Managers — and everyone else in the workplace — have two major blind spots around ostracism, said Pelletier.

“Blind spot number one is when we see it, we will have a tendency to think it’s not that bad,” she said.

The second blind spot is the failure to recognize the long-term consequences of ostracizing behaviour.

Organizations need to make a commitment to creating a psychologically safe workplace, and special attention should be paid to bullying. Policies are important, but they can’t just be a piece of paper — policies need to be “brought to life” and made a regular part of the conversation, said Pelletier.

“We have a tendency not to see ostracism as a problem and, therefore, we have a tendency to do nothing… but all of us need to find a way to say something when we see something that’s not OK.”

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