Confronting Workplace Ostracism

October 11, 2022 Nicole Johnson

According to social scientists, workplace ostracism is a widespread phenomenon. However, from an academic perspective, more research is needed.

What do we mean by workplace ostracism? It is when a group of people or an individual excludes, rejects, ignores, or shuns another individual, group, or groups. Workplace ostracism is the opposite of inclusion.

Instead of feeling a sense of belonging, persons being ostracized may sense they are being intentionally excluded from participating in meetings, projects, training, career and advancement opportunities, work-related social events, etc. People who are ostracized generally are not subjected to openly hostile words or actions. Workplace ostracism is rarely overt; it is subtle and insidious. Over time, those who are ostracized may feel invisible and unable to have positive social interactions and may suffer negative impacts to their mental and physical health.  

The Pain of Workplace Ostracism

Workplace ostracism activates many of the same brain regions involved in the perception of physical pain. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, “the pain of being excluded is not so different from the pain of physical injury... [and] has serious implications for an individual’s psychological state and for society in general. In other words, “a broken heart is not so different from a broken arm.”

Just as troubling, the Harvard Business Review found that 40% of employees feel isolated at work, a number that has been consistent over the decades. This statistic—as well as personal experience—supports my belief that many of us have experienced workplace exclusion from time to time. Workplace ostracism, however, is a more intensive form of exclusion that occurs systematically. Those engaged in the act of ostracizing have an undeniable intent to harm those being ostracized. As research shows, ostracized employees are, without a doubt, harmed.

The Effects of Workplace Ostracism

People whose sense of social well-being at work is positive demonstrate a sense of purpose, competence, autonomy, and desire to grow. Conversely, individuals who consistently experience workplace ostracism develop a diminished sense of well-being. Ostracism can cause an individual to feel stress, anxiety, and anger. This person inevitably will develop a negative attitude toward their peers and sometimes their employer.

People who are ostracized at work tend to become disengaged and their workplace contributions can significantly decrease. This isn't surprising. We are social beings. We need to feel we belong. We want to contribute to our workplace. Workplace ostracism negates our sense of belonging and ability to maintain social connections, friendships, and inclusion with others. Simply stated, experiences of ostracism will cause an individual to withdraw from a cognitive and emotional standpoint, which translates into reduced work performance.

Addressing  Workplace Ostracism

Servant leadership matters. Servant leaders are vigilant in detecting and shining a light on workplace ostracism and exclusionary practices. They demonstrate zero tolerance for individuals who seek to marginalize or ostracize others. They are proactive in alerting senior leaders and HR departments to policies, practices, and cultural norms that appear to have exclusionary impact on individuals or groups.

Servant leaders make the most of one-on-one meetings. They recognize these meetings are more than just a check-in on the status of one’s work projects. They are opportunities to make sure each direct report understands they are valued, and to discover if peer relationships and interactions are going well and are productive. Servant leaders encourage people to be open about sharing any workplace difficulties. Because these leaders maintain a safe and trusting workplace, exclusion and ostracism can’t take root.

Create psychological safety. Psychological safety is when someone knows they can speak up with questions, concerns, mistakes, or new ideas without the fear of being humiliated, punished, or thought of as less than competent. Because positive social connections and interactions create a sense of belonging for individuals, it is essential that leaders maintain an environment of psychological safety. Exclusion and workplace ostracism cannot thrive in a psychologically safe, inclusive environment.

Be proactive and understand the cause. I encourage employers to pay particular attention to responses received from their employee surveys. These surveys should include questions that allow people to voice their perspective on their sense of belonging and feelings of inclusion or exclusion in the workplace. When survey responses indicate negative trends, it is a signal for employers to take action. If leaders are diligent in uncovering the causes of potential exclusion, the organization can get ahead of and stop any behaviors and actions that might fuel workplace ostracism.

About the Author

Nicole Johnson

Nicole Johnson, PhD, is a Consulting Partner for Blanchard®. Her consulting and delivery styles focus on meeting the needs of her clients through a very considered and thoughtful emphasis on adult learning and real-world application. Since joining Blanchard, Nicole’s focus has been on helping individual contributors and leaders at all levels use the SLII® framework to enhance their performance and establish high-quality relationships.

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