Combatting social exclusion

Feeling left out at work can have devastating effects on an employee
By Monika Jensen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/10/2015

Bullying in the workplace can take many forms. An individual can be subjected to tactics such as verbal and non-verbal abuse, psychological and physical abuse, and humiliation. 

And then there’s ostracism. Ostracism is a sinister form of workplace bullying that causes both immediate and long-term psychological injury to an employee when he finds himself avoided, shunned, ignored or not invited to participate in team activities or social functions.

In simplest terms, this form of bullying happens when an individual is persistently ignored by colleagues or supervisors. These individuals may be barred from conversations, deprived of information essential to their job performance, left off email distribution lists, spurned by colleagues during meetings or even not informed of meetings.

In some instances, an individual may be actually removed from her work site and relocated to an area that is antagonistic, indifferent or of low visibility.

Unlike spoken or written abuse or physical bullying, ostracism is mostly unseen. The injured party has little to no evidence to document the unfairness or harassment at work, so it is very difficult to make a case of ostracism because people may disregard or ignore the person’s concerns. Complaints of ostracism often result in the employee being labelled a “problem” or, worse, as paranoid or hysterical.

And if the ostracism involves management, the situation can worsen. Ostracism is often used as a controlling technique  — and often the person gets away with it.

Today, it is referred to as social exclusion. This is a powerful tactic used to isolate and control an individual. Groups might socially exclude someone as a way of showing authority or power.

Ostracism is often part of a relentless and progressive crusade to lessen the importance and presence of an individual in the workplace. This type of harassment is insidious, relentless and often done with the intent to either have the person removed from his position or driven out of the workplace.

This behaviour becomes brutally hurtful and can affect an individual’s very core of self-worth. The self-esteem of the excluded employee takes a nosedive. The whole situation takes on a domino effect, where the ostracized employee stops functioning as a part of the team and becomes unreceptive and suspicious towards his manager and colleagues.

If the behaviour continues, the isolated person is likely to become a low-functioning, low-valued employee who may, understandably, be dismissed.

Researchers have acknowledged other risk factors that can come into play, such as depression and personality disorders, a promptness to rage and use of force, addiction to violent behaviours, mistaking others’ actions as intimidating, concern with protecting one’s self-image, and engaging in compulsive or rigid actions.

Coping techniques

So what do you do when someone comes to you and says she is in this situation, or if you become aware of someone who is a victim of this behaviour?

Knowing why the person is being dismissed or treated indifferently can provide some insight into a counter-move. There maybe a misunderstanding about intentions or meaning in the workplace. Even belonging to a different age group, culture or gender may motivate co-workers to leave a person out of their group activities.

People cannot be forced to become friends with other staff but they should not go over the line, making threats, interfering with a co-worker’s job or spreading rumours about others. On the other hand, it’s also possible the employee is overly sensitive.

The person being ostracized should be advised that pushing her way into a group will not make them necessarily more inclusive. It might, on the other hand, make the group more indignant.

So if it’s not meant to be, the person should focus on her job and block out the cynicism coming from the “in” crowd — if she uses her energy the right way, it may have a positive effect on her career over the negators. 

Monika Jensen is a principal at the Aviary Group in Toronto, a consultancy that works with organizations to overcome challenges of change and conflict. For more information, visit

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